Often, I find myself participating in actions that I know will result in misery. Later today I will doomscroll through a news feed knowing that this activity will make me miserable. This engagement with heartbreak is to keep me aware of realities that make me uncomfortable. It is also partially a desire to try to control the things that I cannot by knowing about them. So far it doesn’t seem to be working. There are so many ways we are either mired in exaggeration, half-truths or not willing to face any truth. Unfortunately, I participate in all of these things.
This process is connected to growing up with a version of Christianity that insisted upon an out-of-touch idealization of human experiences. A version which ended up putting me on the outside when my life didn’t match the coloring book I was told it would be. Sometimes things don’t get better when you make a strained happy face. It is cruel to tell people that their struggle with faith will make their lives easier or more efficient. To care about anything with any level of passion at all is to risk injury and failure. To love is to be wounded. The process is valuable, but it isn’t often comfortable.
I look for God in places where I have been told that there is no God because this is where I most often end up learning about my faith. A lot of the Bible contains horrifying stories about what people do at their worst. A sanitized, pretty version of a thing is a fabrication. The same is true of individuals, often we hide the uglier things about ourselves and end up feeling lonely because what is hidden is still a part of us. The people who have changed me are the ones who chose to treat me like a human when I was hiding. They focused on my humanity and healed me with that focus. This is what grace in practice looks like. It assumes the value of the person first, before the qualifications. This gave me the foundation that allows for both good and bad things to be true in myself, so I try to keep both in mind. But the news outside has become an endless stream of the worst that everyone has to offer these days. It is documentation of part of a truth, and lots of that truth is cruel and horrible.
There was a research experiment performed at the University of Virginia which found that 67% of men would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend time alone with their thoughts in silence. In other words, given the choice of physical injury or having to be introspective men will choose to hurt themselves. To doomscroll can be about trying to engage, but it can also be about preferring a painful distraction over the silence. It can be a shortcut around having to think.
In a culture where almost everyone was raised on conquering narratives, it becomes difficult to imagine yourself as one of those extras in the background. We tend to willfully fight against being ordinary because smallness implies that there is a certain lack of control that any person has over where they end up. In children’s cartoons, the main characters have to arrive at a permanent destination of having overcome difficulty. This is not how life plays out. Often we stay in the boring job because we need health insurance for our family or we let a relationship get toxic and remain inside it for years because it feels impossible to give up on a love that you invested so much time into. There are psychological names for these mental traps, but knowing the names won’t save you from making mistakes any more than knowing the news will prevent more bad news. We do very little overcoming on our own and all of the extras are just as relevant and vital as the one in the spotlight.
This recognition of helplessness can drive me to grasp at false control strategies or it can drive me toward reliance on something or somebody else. Often this last approach is cast as a practice reserved for those who have a weak mind, or a limited body, or are trapped in inescapable poverty. (They need help, but I am a winner.)These are groups of people who have been forced to contend with limitations. Those who can preserve the greatest illusions of self-sufficiency are often the same people who have faced fewer limitations. Those at the bottom have to take care of one another (or not), so they do not have the luxury of illusions about self-reliance or independence. The further that you get up the ladder the more isolated that you become from the people who set up the ladder you climbed. It becomes easy to imagine that you are alone because you are superior in some way, not because you lack humility. As soon as this idea gains traction, it becomes impossible to be a human, you have to be a powerful superhero, or a whining moral enforcement officer, or a god. These are all roles that we run to when we are scared about a lack of control. If I can’t control me, maybe I can make you behave? Maybe I hate who I am so I try to save you from the parts of myself that I am most ashamed of. In my life, it is often the people who were trying to “save” me who cared the least about me and did the most damage. I am not your score-card, I am a person.
I believe that this is why Jesus spoke of loving your enemy. The thing that is most hated in another person often happens to coexist with a fear that you have more in common than you would like.
I grew up hating bullies, so I out-read bullies. This makes me more intelligent than the bullies, so I employ my intelligence in the service of shaming those bullies, you know, like a bully.
It’s a cycle, and no matter how you reframe or justify your cruelty, that cruelty doesn’t become something else because it makes you uncomfortable to name it. To be forgiving is to let yourself off of the hook but it is also to acknowledge the limitations of willpower. To desire forgiveness, there has to be some contending with personal failure which might mean that you have to stop shocking yourself with bad news so that there is space to face inward. The worst truth in the world is that you can be completely in the right and still be a miserable ass about the way you pursue or apply that truth. Also, pointing out how other people are wrong does not make your approach less wrong. If you are going to brandish the truth there should always be some underlying sense that the truth is too broad for a single human mind and it needs to be tempered by those who you would place on the outside. Only petulant tyrants want to kill everyone who disagrees with them. Some of the ways I have tried to cope have been tyrannical. Thomas Merton framed an ideal like this,
I haven’t written for a long time because I feel disconnected from this hope. I don’t know how to find good in the most terrible criminals which makes it difficult to find good in myself. I struggle to find the good in myself some days. Maybe the hope is found in the point of tension there. Maybe this goes back to allowing space for being uncomfortable.
I don’t know how anyone can survive a merciless world without at least longing for something a little bit better for everyone. The reassurances of heaven are of little comfort to me because of the horrific abuses they often seek to gloss over with glowing fluffy clouds. If heaven is just an excuse to separate you from the suffering people around you, how can you claim to value mercy and grace at all? How can you claim to be of Christ when your heaven is just about exclusive personal victory and your sheer squealing delight in who gets excluded?
If your heart desires hell for another person now, what will you do if your Christ chooses to be as merciful to them as you claim He was with you?
Heaven forbid, what if someone who isn’t you gets off easy? What if they work less and get paid the same amount? This is a parable. (Matthew 20:1-16)
What the hell will you do if your God is as graceful as you often fail to advertise?
Who will you turn to if God redeems those that you have built your entire identity around condemning? Will you insist on telling God what is forgivable, standing alone in the cold night outside like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son?
I hope that I don’t get so bitter. I hope that I can let go a little bit before we all get COVID while screaming ourselves hoarse at one another, but this world has made it hard to receive or advocate for mercy. I don’t have much left, but I have someone that I can steal it from. To be clear, the caution comes first here, and as someone who can afford to eat it is for me.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. - Luke 6:24-27