Still Making History (On Weakness)

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.

9 thoughts on “Still Making History (On Weakness)”

  1. The hardest place to take a special needs child is church. Weakness seems to terrify everyone and the fear often gets expressed as indifference, annoyance, hostility. Thanks for the reminder that the source of this is culture and not Christ. I’m not interested in being a part of a cultural club so it’s no loss on our end not going but it is a loss to the church. Keep going on your journey of being okay with weakness even if it leaves you outside.

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    1. Hi Melanie. “Weakness seems to terrify everyone and the fear often gets expressed as indifference, annoyance, hostility.” Is a much better sentence than most of what I wrote. I wrote most of this in the effort to get some guys to attend a vulnerability class in the church I attend. After I spoke, a man at the back asked me about the class, but ended up joining a group that I was a part of instead. He is from a different generation and his limitations have made him much more gentle and patient than I am. We would give him rides to the grocery store before he had a car and I was always impatient because everything has to be fast and everything has to be convenient all of the time because I am often a jerk. I do not want to be part of a culture club and I also don’t think that I would have had this accidental relationship without the institution that I want to scream at most of the time. I agree, it is a loss to any church not having more of what we deem as “weakness” present. It is so hard to learn to care for people Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

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      1. 🙂 when the institution won’t let you in because your children need one on one support that they won’t learn how to provide you just have to trust that God can connect you with people on the outside. He’s been doing that online for me. Being in church was turning me into a screaming jerk, lol. I just kept screaming at everyone because they were breaking my heart by rejecting the least of these. Talking to people calmly was also not working which was why I was tempted to scream. I had the added stigma of divorce as I was once a pastors wife. If you can serve Him there Brother please continue doing so. I just had to realize it wasn’t His plan for me and that was so freeing. I had to see the difference between forcing my way into a building and forcefully taking hold of the kingdom. Who knows maybe I’ll be back in those circles again one day. Thanks for being honest about the “jerkiness” that exists.

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      2. I just want to repeat though that the spirit of the posts that you have written and that I have read give me hope. Your name is Levi which was also the name of Matthew the disciple that left the seat of custom to follow Christ. It’s great to hear you speak of what is culture and custom that needs to be left behind. I love the verse: in Hebrews 5:2 that says that God raises up priests for himself from amongst the people who are themselves “subject to weakness that they might lead gently those who were going astray.” These priests who acknowledge their weakness do not need to be feared by the sheep.

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      3. Many of my closest friends have no interest in ever going back to a church due to the experiences that they had there. It makes perfect sense to me. I grew up smoking with the disenchanted post-Christian crew. Its a moody bunch. Haha There are a handful of friends who never had any interest to begin with whose kindness is still really influential in my life. I sometimes wonder if being in church makes me into more of a jerk than I would be otherwise. I care too much about everything and I speak to people in a way that I don’t think is particularly helpful. It is so difficult to be kind and not scream, but I think that people can just read the intentions behind spoken words anyway. It sounds like you were more patient than I would’ve been with your experiences. I am also familiar with the divorce stigma which is why I make such a point of yammering on about it here. It’s funny to me that the divorce rate in church is exactly the same as everywhere else, but due to the whole issue around having problems with weakness the stuff almost never gets talked about (then causes a stir when it is – ohhhh myyy). The same goes for depression. As though talking openly about any kind of difficulty is a contagion and you can get it on you, like spilled ketchup. To be allowed to acknowledge that you do not get to define the suffering of another person or that you can be a jerk is something that should be way more obvious than it is in a building with a book that states those exact things. I think that in their laser-like focus on always optimizing personal output (“transforming” is the hip word – like the kids robot TV show) the differences between a fitness center and a gym drop down to nearly zero, when they should be really different things. Not all of us are getting up, thrilled to run 20 miles tomorrow. Thank you for your story and kind words. The verse you shared is really beautiful. I will have to think about that. Maybe it will pop up again here. It is the best thing in the world to hear that you have given someone hope, especially when you don’t always feel so hopeful yourself.

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      4. I look forward to tagging along for the journey :). I avoid facebook like the plague and don’t do Twitter or Instagram. I had pretty much decided to avoid social media like church, lol. But a few months ago I started a blog to try and calmly and coherently say to my Christian family and Christian friends what I had only been able to scream out in the moment of conflict. The blog was a flop. It just proved what I feared. It was not my failure to communicate but their failure to care. However being in the blogging world that briefly I was running into total strangers that got what I was saying and even made me feel like I didn’t even have to say it. I shut my blog down and started a new one. In this one I talk about autism, foreign films, fairytales, truth and God. The fairytale I’m sharing in little instalments touches on all the themes that I see running through your posts. Somehow people receive it and love it even though it’s questioning everything they thought they believe. I have 2 atheists, 2 Hindus, 1 Buddhist, 1 Muslim, 1 Orthodox Jew, and 2 Christians tracking with me. Strangely it’s giving us a shared language to talk about what the truth really is. We also have the shared experience of being weak or having kids with autism. They feel toward the medical system and the school system what I feel toward the church. Basically we’re all asking “What happened to Grace?” If I had known that I could have real authentic conversations with people while focusing on my narrow nerdy interests I would have done this a long time ago. Most of the people aren’t open yet to discuss Jesus but we are constantly talking about a God that looks just like Him.

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