“No really,” I said, “I don’t think you fully appreciate just how much of an ass I used to be.”
Kellan laughed as he took another sip of his White Russian and said, “Yeah, see, I never saw that. I mean, don’t get me wrong: you’re totally the Ted Mosby of my friends: probably pronounce ‘encyclopedia’ as ‘encyclopaedia’, but it could be worse.”
“That’s because we never had cause to argue,” I said, “even on the things we disagree over, we typically roll our eyes, agree to disagree, and order another drink.”
“That’s because we’re smart,” he said.
I raised my glass.
~ ~ ~
But really, I used to be an ass.
(Well, more of one than I am now.)
When initially trying to write/work through my story, I had to confront again the many ways I’ve failed—most specifically as a husband and pastor—and that often I failed because I was just a prick. I brought to every relationship a potent cocktail of believing I was both smarter than everyone I knew and irreparably broken and unworthy. I could (can) pivot between the two on a dime: from pretentious know-it-all to tearful failure in seconds.
But years removed from the traumas that revealed these to me, I’m left with the question: how to know if progress was made? How do I know if I’m less of an ass than I used to be? How do any of us know we’ve grown? Growth is almost never quantifiable, yet what’s the point if we can’t discern whether we’ve moved forward?
I suppose a glimpse into the past could show whether I would make the same mistakes again, but the same situation never confronts you twice. Plus, there’s the issue I like to live in the past, to wallow in the indelibility of my mistakes.
And there’s plenty of fodder to choose from.
I still remember a racist comment I made against a girl in elementary school: not because I remember having any sort of animus against people of color, but simply because we were fighting on the playground and she insulted me, so I reached for the only difference I could see at the time. I’ve spent decades castigating myself, attempting to root out any latent racism and “checking my privilege”—but it doesn’t take away the shame and the sense of failure I’ve carried with me across the years.
Also in my elementary years, I remember—straight out of A Christmas Story—blaming a friend for something obscene I did and watching my mom call his mom. Or the time in high school when I didn’t stand up to my friends: I lied because I didn’t want them to not like me/beat me up over the time I got them in trouble for underage drinking.1
I remember the first time I got caught looking at porn and the disbelief and disappointment on my parents’ faces. Or when confronted with my infidelity by Mikala. Bastard, was all she could say before walking out the door—and she was right.
I remember telling not one but two girls I dated that their perfectly legitimate forms of Christian faith were bad, heretical even. And I was justified. I remember ripping apart my dear friend Bonnie, then watching her weep and run to her car, and feeling justified.
I remember the times I used my position of leadership to make students feel bad for me and all the pressure I was under, leaving some in tears simply because I didn’t have the wherewithal to handle my own life.2
I remember these things. Often. Some are well-known failures while others are things I’ve never confessed publicly till now, but all of them stay with me. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to pray, meditate, and write them away, but here they are. Most days they don’t weigh me down, but sometimes the past climbs silently on your back and you suddenly find you’ve carried it for hours or even days.
To be clear, this isn’t some attempt at justification through oversharing. I’m not relating these few instances because I think they’ll make me more or less likeable—I can’t control that. Maybe you read this and think I just need Jesus (or a strong drink), but I’ve tried both, and neither offers the total release their advertisers promise. Both can be great in the short-term, but neither lasts like you’d wish. For someone who has spent a life trying to take in God’s word in its many forms, believing it would change me, I still find myself locked in a prison of my own devising.
Meister Eckhart said that we are “all words of God” because “the Infinite camps in our souls.” He says that every creature is attempting to help God “expand His being” within us.
Perhaps the sacred, inspired word of God that has the power to create the cosmos—and even change my stubborn heart—is simply waiting for us to realize that we need to stop trying to do its job for it.
I hope the mistakes of my youth wouldn’t be made by 2019 me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve rid myself of the shame and the sinking feeling that I’ll never actually grow; that I’ll somehow stop being an ass.
I used to think that what I needed to grow was to know more. To somehow—impossibly—add to the Infinity already expanding within my soul. I knew logically that merely increasing knowledge wouldn’t actually transform me into the person I wanted to be, just like Infinity cannot be increased, but I couldn’t help being disappointed when it failed.
And maybe that’s the point.
After all, forgiveness—the act of “setting someone free and finding it’s you”—is not the work of a moment but a lifetime. It’s not an act but a posture. We don’t “forgive and forget,” we forgive . . . and forgive again . . . and again . . . The hope is, of course, that we will become just a little bit more free each time we extend it, that our imprisonments within the cages of our own making will become more and more infrequent and last for less and less time. If Satan is shorthand for “The Accuser,” then perhaps a bit of forgiveness (of ourselves and others) is about listening to the accusations just a bit less.
Look, I’m still quite often an ass.3 The correlation between the information I take in and the frustration at what comes out of my heart reveals that I still implicitly believe my life can transform into zen-like equanimity if I only inhale the right book or podcast.
I still blame others for my mistakes and still have the propensity for taking out my frustrations on those closest to me. I still regularly forget to cultivate the posture of gratitude I claim to live by and fall into cycles of bitterness.
I still make sweeping statements of self-flagellation, trying to gin up sympathy for the poor old Ego, then catch myself in private arguments with invisible opponents whose inferior intellects simply cannot stack up to my towering erudition.
But I do it less. I spend just a little less time in the cage of my own shame and assholery than I did last year.
And maybe that’s all any of us can do: try to do the things that make us worse people less.
Whether we play the victim or the dictator, whether we’re too easily settled or perennially unhappy, growth is often not trying to become more of anything, but simply becoming one tiny click less. Like The Christ story, it’s when we make ourselves nothing, taking the role of a servant, that we display Divinity.
Like any great artist looking at the raw material for their work, the aesthetics of a life well-lived may be more about removing what doesn’t belong than adding anything.
May we use today as another opportunity to step out of our cages and reveal a bit more of the Infinite camping within our souls.
1. Because not only was I a pretentious asshole, I was also a narc.↩
2. And refusing to get back on anti-depressants.↩
3. Just ask my wife!↩