Deconstructing My Identity
Sublime I’ve been shedding snakeskin…
so blind I’ve been destroying the noise
my worst enemy
Deconstructing my identity
soaking shoulder deep
in oceans of humility
feasting upon fruits of tranquility – J S Lambert, “Sublime”
Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. – Luke 12:3
One of my favorite movies of all time is 48 Hours. It’s a movie of its time, and certainly couldn’t be made today. Still, there are scenes and moments in there that make me laugh, no matter how often I see them. Perhaps my favorite is when Luther, flushed out of his apartment, tries running right past the car in which Eddie Murphy sits. Murphy opens the door with his feet, kicking it out, and Luther hits it hard, landing on the pavement. Eddie Murphy looks down and says, “Luther, man, sorry about the door. That looks like it hurt.” And, of course, the humor from that is we all know Murphy isn’t sorry in the least; he did what he had to do to stop Luther from getting away, and enjoyed causing a bit of pain to someone who got away while Murphy’s character is stuck in prison.
Who doesn’t enjoy laughing at other’s pain? Let’s be honest. Warner Brother’s cartoons, Tom & Jerry – they’re predicated on enjoying others’s pain. When these cartoons moments are transferred to real life, such as in America’s Funniest Home Videos, we laugh uproariously, even as we cringe at whatever pain might be evident. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I get a splinter. Humor is when you fall in an open manhole and die.” Sad as it is to say, this is true. There’s just something in our makeup as human beings that finds enjoyment in the pain of others.
When my foot landed on solid ground, I opened my eyes. Far from the darkness beyond description, I am surrounded by light. It is warm, the road in front of me stretching on, just as it had. I look behind me, and there is no endless wall of darkness. I want to take a step back, but I must always move forward on this road. Even a single step backward, and I know I will never continue forward.
I look around and what I see astonishes me at first. Then, after it sinks in, I’m terrified. It isn’t images I see. Around me are scenes from my past, both banal and horrible. Me as a child bullying a child even smaller than I was, for no reason other than to express whatever anger I might have been feeling at that moment for whatever teasing I might have received, teasing, I might add, that means nothing at all. I want to turn away, but when I do, I see myself, telephone in hand. I hear an all-too-familiar voice ask, “What about us?” None of that conversation had gone the way I wanted it to go. None of what had gone on the previous several months had gone as I might have preferred. Pushed in to a corner, however, for the first time in years, I spoke a truth I knew would break hearts. “There is no ‘us’.” The line went dead, and I stood there, hating myself. As I look at myself, I hear laughing voices off to the side. I’m walking with a group of friends down a street in Washington, DC. I know it’s April, 1993. We’re on our way to an enormous Gay Rights March. As we walk, there’s a man lying on the sidewalk, asleep on his coat above a heating grate. It may be spring, but the nights can get chilly, and those vents bring both warmth and dampness that can chill. Immediately, I wonder – who is going to march for him, this warm, sunny day?
Other Washington, DC scenes are around me, all of them involving me refusing to meet the eye of a man or woman, sitting or standing, sometimes with a sign, sometimes with that pleading in their voice, but always with a cup or hat or something else to hold whatever meager money might come their way. In those moments, where I watch my face set, my eyes making sure they look straight ahead instead of in to the eyes of my sisters and brothers, asking only that I spare a bit for some food or shelter. What would it have cost me to meet their eyes, to acknowledge they are my sisters and brothers, those in need from someone who, no matter how poor I might have felt, had so much more than they did.
I hear yelling. It’s my voice. I cringe, knowing full well what I’ll find. I never change, just standing there yelling. In front of me, though, flash my wife, my children. I want to run over and grab myself by the shoulders, ask him to stop. I also know I cannot. These are not things over which I have any power. They are images of what has been. Nothing I do or say can stop what’s happening. I also know that I cannot turn away. I can no more deny any of these images than I can deny the color of my eyes.
There is so much more I see, times I have lied, I have hurt others through thoughtlessness, times I have taken advantage of others to satisfy whatever evil thought flitted through my head at the moment.
Worst of all, I see money I have paid in taxes, paid faithfully, willingly, and with a sense of honor, slipping in to the pocket of a man sitting in front of a large bank of computer screens. On one of them, a camera attached to a missile approaches its target. It is with horror I scream, “NO!” because rather than a terrorist fleeing down a road, the missile approaches a child riding a bicycle. It cannot be stopped. The screen goes dark, telling both the pilot of the UAV and me the missile reached its target. The scene shifts back to the UAV camera. Below is nothing but fire and destruction. Pieces far too small to be anything but those of a child lie spread out on the road. I may not have flown the UAV, fired the missile, or guided it toward its target. That child’s blood, however, is no less on my hands than on those who made the mistake of thinking a group of children gathering to play was actually an al Qaeda cell in need of destruction.
The darkness through which I stepped was indeed mine. Far worse, it was a darkness that refused to remain in the dark. Those of us who call ourselves Christian, no matter how marvelous we believe ourselves to be, we know there lies hidden in our lives moments we would rather not have happened at all. That they happened, well, we would rather they not be brought to mind. When they are brought to mind, we would rather have the opportunity to go back and undo all the hurt we have caused.
A man far wiser than I shall ever be, once told me about the ripples that spread out from our actions, ripples that touch the lives of others, whose actions cause their own ripples. Sooner or later, without us knowing it, something we have done comes back around, impacting our lives. The hope, of course, is that these are good things. The reality, all too often, is that the pain we have caused someone will, over the course of years, revisit us with pain, increased exponentially by time and tide. Like an old game of telephone, in which the story changes from one end of the line to the other, so, too, do our actions become more hurtful, most especially regardless of our intention.
All at once, these images from my past stop. I disappear, while around me gather a host of those who I’ve hurt. While the pain the eyes of my wife and children makes me want to turn away, when I do, I see the faces of others, some strangers, some whose names are long forgotten. I am now given any choice but to look in the eyes of those whose eyes I once avoided. Worst of all, the broken, bloody body of a child stands there. All of them, in unison, repeat the same, single word over and over: Why?
What can I possibly plead in the face of this chorus demanding an explanation for the pain I’ve caused, either through my action, my inaction, through supporting wars indirectly, or by redirecting anger at innocent targets? “The Devil made me do it,” certainly won’t cut it. Not with this bunch. “For I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” sounds so pious and hollow and empty. “I’m sorry”? Really?
I do the one thing I can do. I fall on my knees before all of them and each of them. I confess, in detail that I am, indeed, responsible for these actions. I have neither excuse nor respite. There is no shadow in which I can hide, no other upon whom to pin blame. From strangers whose eyes I only now see in their fullness both of grief and humanity through the sadness in my wife and children’s eyes to the blank, non-seeing eyes of a dead child, all I can do is confess that I am, indeed the one who has done what I did. I dare not ask forgiveness. That is as self-serving as the actions that brought me to this place to begin with.
Around me, the images begin to fade. Starting with the oldest moments, and those furthest from me, there is no sound, just each disappears. Until, at last, I’m left with four: My wife, my daughters, and that dead unseeing child whose eyes nevertheless see me all too clearly. For the first three, I know I can do better. I know I am doing better. I try each day. I know they know. I say nothing, but they seem to sense what I’m thinking, and they smile and nod. To the boy, I can only weep. I want to learn his name. I want his death to be more than a simple military screw-up, to which far too many will say, “Whoops.” More than any of this, however, I want his death to stand as making sure none shall die as he did. I want others like him to grow up not having to fear sudden, ineradicable yet mistaken death from a distance. I also know there is so little I can do to change something that drastically; yet I also know that to do otherwise is to leave him just another anonymous corpse among far too many.
With that, I am alone again. The road in front of me stretches on. On either side, light continues to shine, yet I no longer fear what the light will reveal, any more than I fear the darkness I encountered before. I have no idea if any of this will make any difference at my final destination. All I know for sure is I believe I have faced at least some of my fears – some of me – and not only survived, but see the road continues to stretch out in before me. I know it will continue to carry unpleasant surprises for me. I also know I feel emptier now than I have in a very long time. Traveling will be more than a little lighter from here on in.