I accidentally found the tagline for my town, “Still making history!” while searching for an online form. While that might seem like a reasonable tagline for most places, I reside in Salem, Massachusetts. There are stories in history that are not worth repeating and Salem is a place with some of those stories. While Salem might be in denial about the particular brand of history it is known for, the rest of the world knows Salem for its history of witch accusations and murders. It is not the type of history that you want to “still make!”
The tagline encapsulates the tendency where we edit our past, ignorant to all of the obvious-to-everyone-else negative stuff. In order to function on a day-to-day basis, we have to be forgiving with ourselves which can result in a generosity with our own mistakes that we do not extend to others. This same tendency applies when writing statements about our organizations. We type words about goals and then assume that by stating ideals, those ideals become lived realities. However, the lived reality of striving for an ideal is complicated and will involve almost exclusively frustration and disappointment. A good surface narrative when not questioned over and over again can come to excuse precisely the abuses that the narrative was intending to prevent.
Many of the messages that are aimed at boys in order to shape their character in this country are intended for good. We want them to grow up and be strong because life is difficult and requires fortitude. However, like all of the stories we tell, these stories can be twisted to excuse atrocities if we are not careful. Telling a boy to “Be a man.” Can come to mean, “Never appear weak.”, “Never ask for help.” and, “Never say that you are sorry.” All of these hidden (possibly unintended) implied messages can end up forming the opposite kind of person that we were intending to shape.
The one emotion that it is always acceptable to express as a man in America is anger. If you cry you are weak. As an adult I have been openly mocked in a group by a woman for laughing too much. The messages that we communicate directly and indirectly about masculinity often contradict each other, but typically end up rewarding pomposity and arrogance rather than humility and gentleness.
The fallout is embodied in a brief interaction I had with my partner when we were driving home one night and she asked, “Honey do you think that we could get a little extra table so that we can seat more people when we have them over to eat?” (This was pre-COVID) I should have said. “Let’s see what size it is and make sure that it fits.” What I said instead was a longer version of, “Our house is full of shit.”
I am like many other men, when we get stressed, anxious, or scared our reaction is similar. We stew in those emotions for as long as possible, then we get angry about something that isn’t related to the real reasons that we are suffering. This unconscious strategy allows us to keep all of our feelings to ourselves so that nobody discovers any weaknesses. Many of us feel alone because we have been trained by our culture to preserve an unsustainable illusion of control and strength. This means that when we discover that we are wrong we have to let go of the “always look like you know what you are doing” that our entire identity was crafted around. It’s hard to see around a lie that you have been fed from birth. While I frame this problem as being attached to toxic ideas about masculinity its effects are even more disastrous for everyone else.
As long as we can blame all of our problems on an outside target we can avoid managing interior problems. It is difficult to realistically face the person that you are and I don’t think that it is a survivable activity without an enormous amount of grace. It is barely survivable when you hear about grace and nothing else once every week. However, if you do not have a way to cope with and express shortcomings and fears with other people it will make you dangerously lonely. The worst behavior that humanity has to offer is born from people who have pridefully misread isolation caused by their own cruelty as superiority. The worst atrocities are often committed by people under the invincible notion that they are an unfailing force of perfect goodness.
The only way that I have ever learned to punch holes in American cultural armor is to share instances where I failed. It is always scary to do this because people can and do use this against you. It is also scary because people do not always know how to react. When you share your heart the severity of the pain of rejection increases to the extent that you open up. In a culture that prides itself on superficial narratives about being invincible, vulnerability is almost always perceived as threatening or uncomfortable. However, a good life is not about avoiding discomfort at any cost.
In relating to weakness we often find the most lasting forms of solidarity. If you are trying to build a bridge the best place to start is probably not explaining to another person how you win all of the time at everything. It is sane to put down the desire to be perceived as superior.
This problem of hiding oneself exists in communities where sharing is vital for the health of that community. Instead of being a place of freedom, a group can become a place for performing a nice version of yourself. This performance is not limited to churches, but it is one of the primary reasons that people will list for avoiding church spaces manifested in words like, “I’m not good enough to go there.” The theoretical point of going to church is to learn that nobody is just good. A church is supposed to be a community of people who need one another because we are never who we wish that we were and we are always being crushed by the terrible weight of our own impossible expectations for both ourselves and others. It is in relationship where we can come to see ourselves with more accuracy and can become more kind and gentle.
My tantrum about our house being full of shit was not met with a reflective response. “Ahhh yes Levi, I had not considered our house being so full of shit…good point.” However, since we trust one another my partner can tell me that I am being unkind and I listen. I deeply care about trying not to hurt her because I love her. To love someone is to desire wholeness for them even when their fear makes them foolish, but this also requires trust. You build trust by listening to someone and acting based on what they tell you. Ideally, we are learning from our loving relationships how to treat people outside of those relationships.
One of the more relatable aspects of the Gospels is that all of the writers speak about how they misread Jesus. They repeatedly recount experiences when Jesus said something and none of them understood the intention. They mention the overtly ignorant and hateful things they said. Many of these misconceptions revolved around a desire for Jesus to just hurry up and murder all of the “bad” people while giving the “good” people (them) all of the good stuff. The Gospels are written by humans who are trying to lend legitimacy to their accounts by refusing to edit events that are personally embarrassing.
I currently live with a great deal of anxiety and fear that has made me a worse person. All of the inconveniences of everyday life feel unbearable and receive more anger than they deserve. A great deal of that anger is directed at men like myself. Many men have become proud of their own capacity for cruelty and take pride in having hearts that are made out of stone. It’s like bragging about how you made your own prison smaller by building extra walls. It deeply disgusts me, but it disgusts me because I know that the same tiresome sneering and smirking American Psycho bullshit is buried in me because of the culture I am in. It breaks my heart and I want to heal.
I am a guy who has a history of getting irrationally upset about minor things because I don’t know how to talk about what I am afraid of. I am also a guy who can mourn with friends or laugh about how complicated life can be. It is important that both the good and the bad are always recognized as parts of myself.
The only thing that I have in common with most people inside of a church is that we think Jesus showed up, was murdered and resurrected, and that the part of our humanity that insists upon an isolated individual hero narrative died with Him. Our prayers over and over again are for a “we” not an “I”. The “we” inlcudes people that are different or disagree with us. The “we” is supposed to be a prayer for every person made in God’s image outside of the building. All of our collective petty failings are both symbolically and literally murdered in another body which is then remade whole. The dead things were murdered and now we are allowed to be humans who can relate to others, not perfect superheroes (this is a dangerous recycled invincible individual myth), but people who love because we were shown love, sometimes fumblingly or accidentally. I would like to be making that small human kind of history instead. Even if that means that I lose or I am regarded as weak. My faith is in direct opposition to our poisoned cultural notions of what strength looks like and who actually has it.