Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trigger Warnings: Two Stories

Story one:

When I was in junior high school, sixth through eighth grades, I got beaten up or teased or mocked every day, or almost every day, or enough days so that every day when I woke up to get ready for school, my stomach was a lump of fear.  I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily under pressure, and facial hair.

This last earned me special torment from other kids.  Some just asked questions, probably genuinely curious, like "Why do you have a mustache?  Is it because you have more boy juices than girl juices?"  Some yelled "Mustachio!" after me down the hallway.  This was in addition to garden-variety stealing of my books, my lunch, my purse.

The adults who witnessed all this did nothing.  I don't recall my tormenters ever being punished, although I was trapped in such a solipsistic hell that if they had been, I might not have noticed.  In any case, no one in any kind of authority ever asked me my side of any story, and when I complained to my parents about what was happening -- which I didn't do very often, because for complicated dysfunctional-family reasons I needed to protect them from worrying about me -- they told me that I just had to learn to defend myself.

Eventually, the bullying got so bad that other kids stuck up for me, which means you know it was bad.  But it took a few years for that to happen.  In the meantime, school was the terrifying misery I descended into every day to mine the good grades everyone expected of me, and that I expected of myself.

The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha.  We had French class together.  She was as skinny as I was and as bold as I was awkward.  She was sly, fast, scornful.  Every day she came up to me, pulled on my upper lip, and launched into a jeering commentary on my mustache.  The French teacher, to her credit, yelled at Tasha to stop it.  It never worked.  

I hated Tasha more than I've ever hated anyone.  I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if . . . if what?  I didn't have the physical skills or coordination to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me.  My powerlessness filled me with rage.  

Later on, after the other kids had stuck up for me, I gained compassion for a lot of the other bullies, and they for me; while I was never friends with any of them, exactly, we established tentative mutual respect.  And now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean.  But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as another child, as another little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.

Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?  


Story Two:

When I was nineteen, my father's second wife physically assaulted me.  She and my father were both alcoholic.  They were both smart, kind, funny people when they weren't drunk, but drinking brought out their dark sides, as it so often does, and even when they were sober, they brought out the worst in each other.

I won't bore you with the endless layers of craziness that led up to this particular evening.  The short version is that some months before, my father had confessed to having affairs, although he and my stepmother were trying to work things out.  This particular evening, he was sleeping off too much liquor in bed.  She had stayed up to drink some more and to ramble endlessly to me about her marital problems, none of which was unusual; at some point, she slid into blackout territory and no longer knew who I was.  

That had happened before too, but I'd always been able to remind her:  "I'm Susan.  It's okay; I'm Susan."  On this particular evening, it didn't work.  She became convinced that I was one of my father's mistresses, and started throwing stuff:  a brass lamp (I can still see its square base floating through the air towards my head, until time sped up again and I told myself to move and managed to get out of the way), a chair she knocked over.  She was very drunk and very clumsy.  I was very awake and much more coordinated than she was; I danced out of the way of her sallies and screamed for help.

Why didn't I just leave?  She was between me and the door.  Also between us and the door was the tiny kitchen.  We'd had porkchops for dinner that night.  We'd used steak knives.  I couldn't remember if all of them had been put away.  I was pretty sure that she wasn't rational enough to open a drawer to grab a knife, but I didn't know what she might do if she saw one sitting on the counter.  Also, the door had the requisite three locks -- this was New York City -- and I was shaking really hard, and I knew that if we were together in a small space and I was fumbling with locks while she came at me with a knife, I'd lose the advantage I had in the open.

So I screamed.  The neighbors did nothing.  My father slept on.  Finally she went into the bedroom and woke him up ("Get this woman out of our house!"), and he, disbelieving and bewildered ("That's Susan.  What are you doing?"), restrained her long enough for me to get safely out of the apartment.

Do I need to tell you that if she'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?


As stories of violence go, these are chump change.  Millions of people endure worse every day.  I'm not telling these stories to make anyone feel sorry for me; on some very real level, these stories aren't about me at all.  They're about unpleasant situations that would have been incalculably worse if firearms had been involved.

I'm endlessly grateful that I didn't have a gun in seventh grade.  If I had, I hope I'd have had the sense just to try to scare Tasha, rather than to hurt her, but I don't know.  In any case, any such incident would have radically altered the course of my life -- and hers -- and I doubt that saying, "But the grown-ups told me I had to defend myself!" would have done either of us any good.

I'm endlessly grateful that my stepmother didn't have a gun when I was nineteen.  When she came out of her blackout the next morning -- by which time I was safe in my mother's house in New Jersey -- she was horrified at what she'd done.  How much more horrified would she have been if she'd shot me?   How much worse would everything have been for everyone in my family?

The lack of guns in these scenarios didn't prevent bad things from happening.  The violence -- and the violence was real in both cases, even without bullets -- still happened.  But guns would have made that violence, and its aftermath, infinitely worse.

Guns will not solve the problem of violence.  We need fewer guns, not more.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Choosing Love

Here's my homily for 3 Advent.  For obvious reasons, this is a challenging preaching occasion: one on which I find myself, as I've so often been before, infinitely grateful for poetry.

The readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18.


Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin.  This is the day when we’re called to put aside the somber, penitential business of Advent to revel in the Lord’s impending arrival.   “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.  The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”

I don’t know about you, but after the terrible news from Connecticut on Friday -- right after that other terrible news from Portland only a few days earlier -- I don’t feel like rejoicing and exulting.  I don’t feel like the Lord has turned away my enemies, and I doubt that any of the survivors of those mass shootings, or their families, feel that way either.  I fear disaster as much as I ever did, if not more.

Usually I don’t like John the Baptist, this grumpy prophet with his locusts and wild honey, howling at the assembled crowd to repent, telling them they’re a brood of vipers.  He’s such a downer,  right before Christmas.  Where’s the good news here, exactly?

But in the middle of so much bad news, I need this morning’s Gospel.  John doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he still offers hope.  The good news he brings is that we are capable of kindness, of good deeds, of the love of neighbor that is Jesus’ greatest commandment.  When the crowd asks John, “What should we do?” he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”   In this wide, wild world where there is so much we cannot control, we still have free will.  We can choose love.  

In the past few days, many people have been sharing something Mister Rogers once said.  I’ve talked about Fred Rogers from this pulpit before, and I ask your indulgence as I do so again.  This quotation has gone viral because it so perfectly fits the situation.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Fred Rogers’ tone is very different from John the Baptist’s, but they’re saying the same thing.  Choose love over despair.  Choose love over violence.  Choose love over vengeance.  Even in the darkness, choose love.

And, on Gaudete Sunday, we are also called to choose joy.  That may seem impossible right now.  It may even seem disrespectful, a sign that we don’t care about all those dead children and their families.  How can we find joy in the middle of so much sadness?

Here is a poem about that process.  It is by Jack Gilbert, and it is called,“A Brief for the Defense.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered caf├ęs and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Choose love.  Choose joy.  And listen.  There will be music despite everything, even in the midst of tears.  And in a few weeks, if we listen very carefully, we will hear another kind of crying: the thin wailing of a hungry, newborn child lying in a manger, bringing light and love and peace even in the darkness.