Hunting for Mister Hyde

30 04 2012

Occasionally, an event from my past comes back to haunt me.  I find myself wondering what the heck I was thinking when I chose to do what I did.  Perhaps, I’m too hard on myself.  Hindsight is twenty-twenty, in Technicolor, high-definition with surround-sound.  If the same event comes to mind every day for more than a couple of weeks, then I suppose it merits a little mention.

It was a night in a small parking lot next to the church’s annex building, following a scouting event.  The games we played under the floodlight on the lawn and that adjacent lot made for some of the nicest memories.  I was just a kid.  On the far side of that lot was a church bus, parked as close to a chain-link fence as it could be, and on the other side of that fence was a very tall hedge.  Between the bus and the fence was a popular hiding place for games of hide-and-seek or tag, or whatever else we invented.  Justin and I had arrived there to find some other kid already hiding there, but not for the purposes of any game.  He was weeping like his best friend had just died.

We asked him why he was crying and his reply was, “I hate my father!  I hate my !@#$ father!”  What followed was mostly expletives in regard to his dad, which, though emotive, did not really explain anything.

Now, I knew his father.  He was a very kind, gentle soul who worked with us boys in the scouting meetings, which had just finished.  There’s one man who never raised his voice for any reason, and I never saw him get angry, even when I really (brat that I sometimes was) gave him reason to be angry.  My first reaction was to tell the boy that he shouldn’t talk like that about his own dad.  Seriously, the man seemed a whole heck of a lot nicer than my own father.  I figured, the kid had just been punished for doing something wrong and was getting a little hot under the collar about it.

“You don’t know my father!” the kid raved.  “You don’t know what he’s like!  He’s evil!  I hate him!”

Rather than give ear to the rants of a child against his dad, I decided to walk away and let the kid have some time to cool off by himself.  The last thing I saw was my other friend, Justin, still talking to the kid.  The ultimate outcome to this situation, I strongly suspect, was the result of his taking the time to listen.  It certainly wasn’t because of anything I did.  Knowing now why that kid was crying, I wish I had been the one to listen.  At least someone did.

We will return to that in a moment.  Years later, but only a few days ago, I found myself among friends and the children of those friends.  Among them was a fellow that I consider entirely unique and gifted beyond measure in the way of being able to work with large groups of kids and, not only be able to keep them from wandering away, burning down the house or maiming each other, he actually keeps them entertained.  On top of all of that, he finds a way to teach them a thing or two in the process.  Scott is a highly affable, sanguine and altogether likable man.  Now, being a friend, I could pick up a few hints, here and there, about how this unflappable character, in public, could lose his temper and resort to yelling and meanness in the privacy of his own home.  I’ve never seen it.  The man has perfect self-control when he’s among friends.  I could probably insult him to his face, and he likely would not break from his good nature.

Then, when we were sitting around a table, and I said to his youngest daughter, “Your dad is such a nice guy.  Is he always this much fun at home?  Is he always this happy and easy-going?”

The daughter looked down at the table and to the right.  They say that when a person glances away and to the right that they’re looking for a way to lie or tell a story, and when they look away and to the left that they’re trying to remember something.  I’m not sure I believe this, but, so far, I have only found it to be true.  There was a tense moment and a delayed response, and everyone at the table seemed to be waiting for the answer.  Then, she gave this drawn-out and guilty response, “Yes.”  It was, of course, the only response a kid would give, with the dad sitting right there at the table.  She might have well said , “No,” as unconvincing as she was.

I figured this was probably a good time to do some damage control.  I had my answer, and, at the moment, I still seemed to have my friendship with Scott.  It was time to save the poor kid, so I told about life with my own father when I was growing up.

My own father had a fuse so short that he often flew into a fit of rage for no apparent reason at all.  I still find myself reliving those moments, replaying the events in my head, as I try vainly to discover what, if anything, my dad was so angry about.  I’ve seen him throw things and get into a snit over a single spoken word of no ill meaning.  What was his problem?  I still don’t know.  I thought it might be a byproduct of his diabetes.  I figured, whatever it was, his emotional constitution was such that he had no real control over his violent reactions.  So, as his son, I found myself making excuses for his behavior, that he was permitted to act this way because he was an adult, or because he just couldn’t help himself.  He, likewise, made excuses for himself, like, “I didn’t mean to throw the glass at your mother.  The air caught it and made it curve toward her,” as they’re picking small shards from her face.  Then, there was the time when he slammed his fist through the wall.  They patched that one up quick, thinking no one would notice.  My mom got embarrassed and red in the face when I asked her why a spot in the wall was smoother than the rest.  Actually, it was a good cover-up.  I only found it because I knew what I was looking for (other than trouble).  Over-all, though, my father was a great guy, if history could be rewritten to remove his outbursts.

There was one evening, though, when I began to think that his emotions were not really his master.  He was at the business of a client, working on a renovation project, when that client was clearly driving my father well past the breaking point.  The client seemed to think he knew more about my father’s work than my father did.  I could feel the anger building up inside of my dad, and I thought for sure he’d let loose on the guy, any second.  At home, he went into a rage over far less.  The man bossed my dad around and even fired him, and my dad took it all quite graciously and left fully in control of his wits.  Apparently, complete strangers are afforded more grace and mercy than loved ones and family, especially when money is involved.

In another incident, with a number of friends and our family seated at a table in a Mexican  restaurant, a woman told my father, “Vic, you are the gentlest, mildest man I know.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose your temper.”  I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, because I would have sprayed it all over everyone.  My father didn’t correct her error.  I couldn’t believe anyone would say that about the man.  He was, positively, the most temperamental person I knew.  It was then that I fully realized the extent to which he managed to hide the darker part of his nature from the rest of the world.  No one outside of our household saw him the way that we did.

Two weeks was the magic number.  Actually, to be precise, it was thirteen days.  That was the length of time a person had to live under his roof to see him lose his temper.  My brother went to college and came back for the summer.  On his return, he was treated gently, like any other outsider.  Thirteen days later, the firework stand opened up, so to speak.  He returned home after his wife left him, and my father treated him sympathetically for about thirteen days.  Then, I wondered if my brother was better off taking abuse from his estranged wife.  Now that I’m my own man, I never see him lose his temper.  I’m tempted to think that he finally reformed himself, but, then, I haven’t stayed under his roof for that long in a very long time.  After thirteen days, I might see Doctor Jekyll turn to Mister Hyde.

A person’s family gets a strange and unwanted insight into his true nature.  It’s the paradox that the ones who love us most get treated with the least patience and forbearance, the least gentleness and the least politeness.  For me, it was a little of the reverse.  I’m a little sociopathic that way.  I had to learn to treat friends and acquaintances with some of the kindness that I always showed my own family.  I strive to be Doctor Jekyll and Mister Jekyll, and, with friends and others, I always find myself hunting for Mister Hyde.  It’s not that I’m trying to bring out the bad in them or to condemn them, it’s just that, as a friend, especially as a close friend, I feel the responsibility to hold people accountable.  In American culture, especially more now, with the rise of technology, people expect a greater deal of distance between them.  No one ever digs too deeply into the personal affairs of others, even friends, even close friends.  What hides in the darkness never comes to light.  Evil remains safe within the walls of a home.  A father is the dungeon keeper of his home, and his wife and kids are the inmates.  People don’t dig.  Mister Hyde is never found.

In our time, “privacy” is our banner, but what we really champion is secrecy.  Privacy does nothing to hide the facts of the matter.  For example, no one doubts (I hope) what happens between my wife and I in the privacy of our bedroom.  It goes without saying.  It’s not a secret.  However, that doesn’t mean people can enter our home at will.  No one is invited to watch (good grief, now that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?).  Secrecy is the sort of intercourse that happens between people when it really ought not to.  It’s what we don’t want people to know about, and usually for good reason.

That kid hiding behind the bus was a victim of secrecy.  His father was in the regular habit of raping him and his brother.  Mister Hyde was hunted down and thrown into prison, where one can only wonder with horror what befell him.  I did not discover the crime, because I did not look.  Someone else found him out.  Since then, I’ve learned to hunt for Hyde.  Therefore, it is without shame that I look for clues to the inner workings of families that I care about.  I’m not going to leave that kid crying behind the bus again.

It is better to uncover those dark secrets while there is still time to act.  People can take their secrets to the grave, but they cannot keep them there.  In the end, all secrets will be made known, and every dark deed, every thing done in private, will be made known to all the world on the Last Day.  God promises (or threatens) it.  It will happen.





Peace of Mind

15 02 2010

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8 (New International Version)

Politics makes excellent fodder for a heated discussion.  Living in a representative government gives us the feeling of empowerment, that our leaders are our servants.  We take personal responsibility for the fate of our nation.  When our elected officials make a mess of things we get angry, because we feel responsible for having given them that authority.  Much of what we see in the news is about politics.  Friendships are forged and broken over political affiliation.  Yet, we give ourselves too much credit.  A person gets one vote.  That one vote among many gets two choices.  Will it be Republican or Democrat?  Anything else, and the vote is wasted.  People judge us by whom we would vote for, but we really have so little choice in the matter of our governance.  Both parties are corrupt.  One wants to take over our lives quickly, and the other wants to take over our lives slowly.  Both are faithless, immoral aristocracies, bent on gaining power.  They gain power by getting elected, and then they gain more power by ascribing more authority to themselves.

One can easily become frustrated over politics.  I can clean my house.  I can order my own little world.  I only think I can order my country.  In truth, I have almost as much say in the workings of my representative government as I would under a monarchy.  It’s like playing the lottery: an expired lottery ticket is only less likely to win by one in ninety-four million.  The difference between an old ticket and a new one is almost inconsequential.  My one vote among millions is not significantly better than the opinion of a man living under an unelected king.  Granted, the mass effect of an entire nation of votes is significant, and I should continue to vote, but I would not benefit from taking myself too seriously.  I, personally, have little say in the matter.

People pull their hair out over politics.  Yet, they are almost entirely helpless to do anything about it.  A key to happiness is to avoid dwelling too heavily on that which a person cannot change.  You were handed a life with certain conditions that you had no hand in making.  You can make yourself miserable by worrying over the evils that were handed to you, or you can find those things which are in your power to affect, and then affect them for the better.  You get one vote.  You only get that one vote.  Don’t treat it as something more than it is.  The governance of your country is likely not in your hands.

You can put your faith in God.  No one can take that from you.  You can put your mind at ease by ordering the little piece of the universe that God has placed in your hand.  Take charge of what is really yours.  Let go of what is not.  If you can’t kill the rats of angst that gnaw at your mind, then remove yourself to a peaceful place.  While it lasts, there are still places of beauty in this world.  There are still decent people among us.  There is still a way to live at peace.  Thank God for what you do have.

In the end, life is not what you make it, in an absolute sense.  It is what you do with what you’re given.  Some people are given more and some less, and different people are sure to have different outcomes and accomplishments.  Sure, under better circumstances you could have made more of yourself, but that isn’t really the point, is it?  Anyone could do better under better circumstances.  The issue is what you did with whatever circumstances life threw your way.  If unfairness comes your way, then the matter is not whether things should be fair, but what matters is what you did with what you had.

In a sense, life is unfair.  People start out with all kinds of advantages and disadvantages.  Down the road, more are added to the mix.  In a sense, life is perfectly fair, because initially everyone had an equal chance of being born in anyone else’s shoes.  Whether chance or divine providence chose your origins, the only question you have left to ask is, “Where do I go from here?”

Somewhere out there is a beautiful place, and you can find it.  Somewhere out there are nice people, and you can be one.  Somehow, there can always be meaning in your life.  You can always live to serve the God who made you.





Of Mice and Momes

13 02 2010

[fiction]

Warren Wormwood lived in the quaint little town known as Lasciate Ogne Speranza Voi Ch’intrate, more familiarly known as Lasciate Ogne, or L.O. for short.  He was a single white man trapped in a neighborhood of people very much unlike himself.  It’s the age-old phenomenon: a man finds a nice little community of individuals of similar character, moves in, and finds his neighborhood slowly slipping out from under him.  One by one, familiar faces move out of the area in their quest for upward mobility, and one by one, immigrants who don’t speak a word of the native tongue move in around him.  Pretty soon, he’s trapped in a setting that he did not bargain for.

“Momes,” he calls them, the archaic word for moron.  He finds that it relieves some of the angst to insult people openly with words they would never understand.  Open profanities are far too obvious.  A person doesn’t even need to understand what was said to know that he was slighted, if the accusation comes laced with an obscenity.  Almost no one knows what a mome is, and so Warren finds himself free to express his ill will.

Perhaps the first day was when he saw the neighbor lady take one lazy step outside to deposit a large untidy bag of diapers and rotting food on her own doorstep.  Convenience, the universal currency for which there is no equal, demanded that she do no more than absolutely necessary to rid her home of the unwanted garbage.  Out of sight was out of mind.  She didn’t care that her neighbors and everyone driving down the street were now faced with the blight of her front stoop.  She had maximized her benefit to cost ratio, and that was good enough for her.

“Lazy wench,” Warren grumbled, “Too blasted lazy to put her trash where it belongs.  There goes the neighborhood!”

He had wrongly anticipated that his fellow neighbors would share his sentiment.  To some degree, they did note the unsightliness of a large gaping poke of refuse blowing in the wind, but they were of a similar heritage as the woman, and they, too, discovered the joy in the convenience of not having to take the trash any further than the front door.

One day, Warren plucked up the courage to go next door and speak his mind.  This, of course, was not received in any better manner than it was given.  Wild words in that foreign language flew around, intermixed with something that his mind could latch onto, generally expressing the belief that Warren was a jerk for imposing upon the business of strangers next door.  Besides, the woman could easily survey her area and point out others who were living just as basely as she was.  Therefore, she was right, and he was wrong.

But he tried to explain to her that she was bringing down the neighborhood.  She replied by telling him to find a new neighborhood.

Having failed at that, Warren sulked about for the next several weeks, unable to think about anything else, until a new neighbor moved in, who was not only of a different race, but of a different species altogether.  The first mouse of bitterness showed itself, of all places, in his kitchen trash.  There it sat, staring up at him with his beady little eyes, looking like a kid caught with its hand in the cookie jar.  He quickly tied up the bag and darted about, not really sure what to do with the thing.  In the end, the bag and the mouse found their way into the trash can outside.

But, for a moment Warren felt a pang of empathy for the little critter, trapped in a bag, slowly suffocating.  So he rescued it and dumped the pest into an old terrarium that he had stashed in a closet.  For the next two days, he fed it and admired its little pink nose that wiggled at him, and the little white whiskers that stuck out from his face.  He named his pet, “Peevy,” and he kept it in the attic, where he spent most of his leisure time.

Well, one mouse under glass is fine and cute, but two mice in the room are an annoyance.  When he found the next mouse in his kitchen trash, he promptly took it outside and flung it at his neighbor’s yard.  “You’ll get plenty to eat from them, I’ll bet!” he yelled after it.

Two mice in the room are an annoyance, but three mice in the walls are an infestation.  He heard the telltale scratching and scrambling behind the gypsum board, and he knew he had a problem.  Upon closer inspection, he found that the drain pipe under his sink lead through an oversized hole into the wall, providing a highway leading straight out over his trash can.  He marched straight to the store and bought a tub of spackle and the biggest box of rat poison he could find.  He poured the poison into the wall and sealed off the hole.

Night after night, he lay awake pondering the constant gnawing on the framework above him, beside him and below him.  They seemed to be gnawing at his mind, munching away at his heart and slowly eating away at his sanity.  That wasn’t the only thing eating at him, though.  Bitterness, like the mice, was gnawing at him.  At first, he had nurtured his little pet peeve, but it had reproduced and filled his thoughts like an infestation.  It was that stupid lady next door with her ill-managed garbage that was drawing the vermin into the area.  It was all of these people, imitating the easiest possible lifestyle that brought the pestilence.

And it was Warren, who just couldn’t poison and kill them fast enough to keep them from boring holes through the walls, bringing down the house.  He likened the vermin to the people, invaders with bad hygiene.  In a sense, it was the fault of his neighbors.  In a sense, Warren could not be faulted with blaming them for his own problems.  However, it was not his neighbors that ate at his soul.  They were not the ones biting and chewing their way through his mind.  They were minding (or not minding) their own business, and they were oblivious to his suffering.  But while he fought the infestation of mice, he fed the infestation of evil thoughts.

Then, one day, he realized that it was easier to kill a few people than to kill hundreds of mice.  That’s how he ended up in a concrete studio apartment with bars on the windows.  At least it had room service, with the warden delivering his mush on a platter three times a day.

And, as he sat there contemplating a mouse that inched its way into his cell in search of his gruel, he remembered the words of his neighbor, telling him that if he didn’t like the neighborhood, then he should move out.  That would have been great advice, but it was advice for an earlier life.  This was a neighborhood that he could never move out of, and the mice were there to stay.

[/fiction]





Symbolic Interactionism; A Battle of Little gods

11 06 2009

I hear people say that they’re not too big on symbols.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The irony is that the word, “symbol,”  is, itself, a symbol.  A person cannot claim to reject all use of symbols without using a symbol to say it.  All words are symbols, whether spoken or written.  All text is a series of symbols, whether multiple symbols are used for a single word, or a single symbol is used for a hugely elaborate concept.  All communication is through various forms of symbolism.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  All human thinking also involves symbolism.  The idea in your head of an object that is not immediately available is a symbol of that object.  The idea of the object stands in the place of the actual object, and you manipulate the image or the sound or the shape of it, not really thinking about the fact that you are utilizing a conceptual substitute.  You think that you are thinking about the object, but you’re not.  Instead, you’re really thinking about the mental symbol of that object.

Symbolism goes beyond mere words and mental objects, though.  It’s fundamental to all human interaction.  In truth, we don’t get angry at people for what they do to us.  We get angry at them for what they say to us.  Let’s say you’re driving down the road and a rather large tree branch falls in your path, right at the limit line of an intersection.  You try to change lanes to get around it, but the traffic is a little heavy, and you miss the light before you can make the maneuver.  You’re a little annoyed, but you’re not mad at the tree branch.  It’s just a dumb piece of debris.  It’s a little inconvenient, to be sure, but it’s no reason to honk your horn and wave an obscene gesture.  Well, I’m hoping you wouldn’t do it to the tree branch, because it certainly doesn’t care.

Let’s change a few details in that story.  You’re waiting at a light and the woman in the car in front of you suddenly realizes that she was supposed to turn left, but she’s in the lane to go straight.  As she sharply angles the car into the other lane, you see the cause of her absent-mindedness.  She’s holding a cell phone to her ear, despite the fact that state law forbids it.  The light turns green, and she’s now blocking two lanes with her askew car, content with making you miss your light so that she won’t have to miss hers.  You try to change lanes to get around her, but the traffic is a little heavy, and the light is again red before you can make the maneuver.  You honk in frustration.  Maybe you yell and make rude gestures.  Let’s say you make some comment about getting her rotten hunk of junk out of the way.  There’s something different about this lump of debris than there was about the previous one.  The difference was not in what she did to you.  Both the tree branch and the driver accomplished exactly the same thing, except that the driver succeeded in arousing quite a bit more anger.

You see, it isn’t what she did to you that made you mad.  It’s what she said to you that really peaked your ire.  By using her cell phone when she wasn’t supposed to, she said, “Laws are for everybody else.  I’m above the law (and, therefore, above everyone else).”  The implication is that she valued herself as better than you.  She could have taken responsibility for her mistake and gone straight, thusly missing her intended turn, but she chose not to suffer the consequences of her own bad decisions.  Rather, she let you suffer the consequences instead.  It was her mistake, but you got stuck with the inconvenience.  Effectively, she was saying, “My mistake is your problem, because I’m too important to be inconvenienced (and you’re not).  What’s important is not justice, but that my interests be served, even at your expense.”

A fallen tree branch says nothing.  Did it make poor growth decisions?  Maybe so.  Did it leave someone else to suffer the consequences of those decisions?  You bet.  What did its act of falling communicate?  Nothing.  A piece of tree sits in your way and you drive around it.  A human sits in your way, and you get angry, because for the human the act was a symbol that sent a message that you really didn’t like.  What was that message, in a nutshell?  She said that she was more important than you…way more important.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though.  Every single person has a somewhat elevated view of themselves.  Even the man who gripes and complains about how worthless he thinks he is…only complains because he hasn’t achieved enough  to convince himself that he’s at least as good as you are.  He’s just upset that he’s having trouble worshipping himself.

Yeah, well, it’s easy to get a little irate at people who worship themselves.  It’s even easier to get fuming mad when you, yourself, have an ego the size of Jupiter.  The first person to complain about another person’s arrogance is an arrogant person.  Pride is, essentially, self-worship.  It’s like getting mad at someone for not only worshipping the wrong god (themselves), but also disparaging the right one in the process (you).  How dare you worship yourself!  You’re supposed to worship me!

Yeah, well…I hope you don’t get angry at that tree branch, because God may have sent it your way.  He may have sent the other driver, too.  Now, what did he mean by that?

redsig





Forgiving the Dead

16 04 2009

Life is short.  In fact, in the ultimate long run it’s so short as to be almost nonexistent.  Yet, we are tempted regularly to be angry at strangers and acquaintances that, for all practical purpose have no existence in the long run.  It’s like yelling at a reflection, or stomping on a shadow.  The world has been around for a long time, and God has been around forever.  We, who abide in Christ, will live a life everlasting.  The nut who cut me off on the freeway might live a mere seventy-five years, and I might have known him for mere seconds.  The anger I might feel toward this stranger might be like the enmity between God and Satan, as though it had been a war raging for eons.

Petty concerns, really.  A coworker refuses to do the worst of the work, so that the rest of us, who get paid the same, must pick up the extra work for her.  She feels she is above that sort of labor.  Irritating, isn’t it?  But, in the long run, one of two things will happen.  Either she will go to Heaven, and I must forgive her; either she will go to Heaven and repent of her evil, as will I repent of my own, or she will go to Hell, and I’ll never have to see her face again.  If she does go to the latter, rather than the former, then no rage of mine need be inflicted upon her.  By harboring vengence, not only is my unexpressed wrath but a pathetic drop of rage to the sea of wrath to come, but I defile myself in the process.  A million years into the vastness of the afterlife, such people will be as good as those who never existed in the first place.  They will not be remembered by those who go to Heaven.  They will have zero impact on the redeemed.  But, on the other hand, they are to be pitied.  How can I be vengeful against someone destined for such an everlasting torment?  Any revenge I exact does more harm to me than it does to the other person.

On the other hand, if these people who do offend us are believers, then we must forgive them, and if they are destined one day to repent and believe, then we must forgive them still, for we are destined to spend eternity in their company, and they are destined to repent of their evil.  How are we to remain unforgiving of one who has repented?  A repentant soul is so rare, as it is, that such a person is to be admired and prized.

Certainly, if we repent, then we fully expect God to forgive us.  If we do not forgive the repentant, then we don’t really deserve to be forgiven.  On the other hand, if we do not forgive those who are dead in their sins, then we are merely stomping on the graves of the dead: all of our anger is directed at a person of no eternal relevance, who has already perished, whose lot is with the forsaken.  Either way, we must forgive.

Take a long look at the arrogant sinner who has offended you.  This person will be gone forever.  Once dead, he will not have a chance at forgiveness.  You will not see him again for the rest of eternity.  Whatever he did to you could not possibly matter that much.  Let it go.

And pray to God that He forgives you for your own misdeeds, for we all have offended someone.

heavymetalsig