Revering the Milestones
Take a moment and make a mental list of the milestones in your life. You’ll find that many of these are almost insignificant, growing in significance as you think back.
For instance, think of the first time you fell on your tailbone while trying to skate and learned the value of not taking risks that compromise careful balance. Think of the first time you got the wind knocked out of you from falling backward in a chair, the first time you got Swimmer’s Ear from spending too much time in the water, the first time you got pink eye, the first time you experienced the sensation of drowning. Think of your first auto accident, your first broken or fractured wrist, the first time you dropped a bar of soap or bottle of shampoo on your foot while showering. You knew from that time onward to lift up the closest foot whenever you dropped something.
Now think of those milestones that marked a turning point in your social development. Think back on how you felt the first time you got hit in the face. Think about you felt when you parted ways with your first best friend. Think back on the first time you backed down after getting shoved by a bully in front of friends you wanted to impress. Think of the first time you got snapped at by an adult you thought wasn’t capable of going off at you.
Now think of the bigger milestones, the ones you more readily remember. Think about how you felt when you failed the test the first time you went to get your driver’s license. Then think about how it felt when you went back and passed the test. Your first communion, your baptism, your first kiss, your first sneak out of the house without permission, your first make-out, your first lay…these were events that served as more than memories. They were rites of passage.
Rites of Passage
Every society has a set of them. You pass a certain point in undergoing experiences that the fellow members of your society value, and you are promoted to what amounts to the next “rank” in the order. Life will be different now. Your outlook and experiences will demonstrate a change in thinking, which will affect the way others treat you.
The years pass and you look back at the older stages of you and wonder how you ever made the decisions you made or came to the conclusions you came to. The memories seem so clear, and yet you forget just how much escaped you until what you missed comes back at you in bits and pieces as you reflect years later.
The Green Ribbon
It was summer of 1985. The Windcrest Swim Competition was right around the corner. Dad had just succeeded in teaching me the backstroke and a few other swim maneuvers when he turned his attention to Eric. My brother always had more athletic talent than I, especially swimming. He spent less time with him than with me in training. You could never tell if dad felt we were ready or not. I only knew I felt ready, and so did little brother.
Before we knew it, we were on our way. Dad wouldn’t turn the air conditioner on, though I asked for it. “Save your sweat for the pool,” he said. Finally, we were in our separate lanes and competing with 47 other local kids at the sound of a whistle.
What did we get for our participation in this event? The same thing I got for competing in the Crestview school bicycle tournament the year before—a dark-green ribbon with gold lettering that said: “Thank you for Participating.” That’s it. Unlike those who placed 1st through 5th in the competition, we got nothing—nothing but this insulting green ribbon. We got two things if you count an almost insulting lecture from mom and dad on what we could have done better and how we didn’t train hard enough for the event, which happened to be true.
But we learned what it was like to lose that year. That’s why it was such a milestone worth mentioning. I learned one of the oldest and most important rules in life: There will always be competition. Nature abhors a vacuum. Odds are, even if you win the race, you’ll do so by narrowly squeezing out a lead against the guy running next to you. Find me an exception to that rule. There aren’t many.
Now You’re In!
Being the loser does one thing, and that is, it teaches you valuable wisdom. You get smarter and a lot wiser in losing, and hopefully, more determined and better. That isn’t always true, however. Brother and I swore and swore we’d train all year for the following year’s competition, but we just gave up and played Atari instead. Lessons on the dangers of quitting take much longer to learn.
Being the winner…now that changes things. Winning walks you through the door of that next rite of passage. You “level up” and that puts you on the inside. It moves you up the totem pole. It changes your perspective and those around you. But here comes the shock; the knowledge of that “leveling up” is secret until you arrive to be in on it.
If you’re the winner, it’s so glamorous to the losers who are struggling to amass the necessary determination and wisdom to forge ahead and be able to claim what you already have. Not for you. As the winner, you stand at the forefront. More options are open to you. You’ve had that glory. It’s time for something new. That’s where the illusion comes in.
The illusion is that winning betters you in some way. The illusion is that achievement and victory are somehow glamorous. Wrong. It’s like being in the military. So many proud, young, strong men – just out of high school and wet behind the ears – enlist in the military out of a false idealistic conception of patriotism that will never survive the refiner’s fire. Once you’re in the military, you become less patriotic than you were before—enough to notice the difference with time. The orders, the indifference of the system, the corruption, the fact that the system is only good for you if you are for it…those eat at you and you start letting your old, euphoric notions of serving God and country and killing the bad guys slide. Once you’re in, the perspective changes.
It’s so easy for a child to imagine growing up and being a prosecutor and putting the scum of society in jail. They have no idea of the plea bargains, office politics, or what it means to work in the chain of command as a representative of the city. Every psychiatrist goes home to their spouse and unloads on their own “couch” the frustrations of those who will never be able to see their way out of their delusions. They would never refer to their patients as “hopeless” or “batshit crazy,” but you better believe they think it.
Every cop learns to fight off bitterness. Newbie officers quickly learn in dealing with the dregs of the earth that being consumed by bitterness is a real threat. I know because I’ve been close enough to the action. I had the pleasure of meeting a former sheriff’s deputy from East Texas. He had to resign from his job, he told me. Over dinner, I asked why. His reply: “Because I knew that if I kept working just one more day, I was going to get brought up on brutality charges for turning someone into a vegetable.”
The reality of law enforcement is less noble on the inside than it is on the outside. On the outside, it’s about stopping burglars and giving speeches about staying off drugs to elementary schoolers. On the inside, it’s about playing the game of knowing how and when to look, look away, and to cover your ass while doing both.
And so it is in the quest for God. Being on the inside of the pious is not as pretty of a picture than without, and those noble feelings of helping the weak and “lifting up the hands that hang down” (Hebrews 12:12), well, they pass.
“Avoid the Huddle!”
“Avoid the huddle” is a saying widely known in the car business. It means stay away from the grumpy, burnt-out crew whose members huddle around and talk about why the car sales business sucks so much and why they never sell. They talk themselves out of sales and tend to drag others down with them.
It sounds so good to hear, (and to hear yourself say), but not everything that sounds good is true. The reality is that eventually, you’ll be right in the middle of the huddle with the mumblers, and just as grumpy, if not more.
It is so easy to give admonishing against falling prey to burnout and giving up prematurely and so difficult to be wise enough to abandon what doesn’t work in search of another, more profitable path. Some call that burnout, but it’s not. It’s about being of sound mind enough to cut your losses and realize that what you’ve dedicated yourself to is not the only way, and may even have been a mistake. Better and more rewarding ways may exist.
As a minister, I spent years receiving money from hardworking men and women who, like most, were good people. They went to church every Sunday – and some every Wednesday night – to hear fairytales in the form of pep talks. They were mildly delusional. Most of them wouldn’t and didn’t care about hearing what I have to say now, but they were willing to pay me to hear what God their Creator wanted them to hear. I got paid to sell snake oil.
Time showed me that not only do these people – many of them elderly and blindsided by their own hatred and prejudices soaked into them from their time alive – were in terrible health and suffered from the same (or worse) senile fits of rage. I always had to be on top of my game for everyone else, some sort of good example. But I came to see that no one would change. No one would learn from their mistakes or do much to make themselves better people.
But what is better? The term means disappointingly little when it comes to human beings in the self-improvement context. I was no better than the people I “led.” You could almost argue I was worse.
I remember getting a phone call at around 10:30 one night. My wife and I rushed over to a house where a wayward member of our church suffered a breakdown. His wife met me at the door and warned me that it wasn’t pretty. Her husband was in the fetal position on the floor of their living room, crying like a baby. All he could do was repeat while sobbing: “My uncle almost butt-fucked me when I was ten. He tried to pull down my pants and fuck me in the butt.” I counseled the man for over two hours. I can remember feeling for the man at the time, but I don’t anymore for this moping son of a bitch.
Do I sound harsh? There is that tendency to feel sorry and look upon people like myself as cold and unsympathetic, but therein is what we’re talking about—no one on the outside sees how many blubbering messes like this man eat up your time over old issues that are issues no longer. The man quit crying and began opening up to me once he saw the attention he was getting. He was happy as a clam until the next breakdown.
I was once conducting a counseling session gone awry as I watched a husband stand up, pull up his shirt, and say to his wife: “Hit me in the gut! Go on! See if it hurts!” Why? Because she got mad that he asked why a dead horse was in the front yard. That’s what started this whole incident and a series of sessions that nearly did me in and an angry husband who tried to sue me for slander.
Jesus is an Idiot
There’s the church built upon pious lies and scandalous ploys for money, but also those who take advantage of church just for the money.
I’m in the middle of teaching a bible class when a family of five walks in and sits down as though interested in the lesson. Once the lesson is over, they ask us for bus tickets. Sounded so legitimate. They didn’t ask for money, just tickets to get back to Houston where they said they lived. The men of the church met and bought the tickets for them. Not any later than I drove off to leave the building did they cash them in on chips, sodas, and candy. I pull up and ask him why he deceived us and didn’t get on the bus. He just looked at me and insincerely said: “Sorry,” still drinking the soda. The kids didn’t even glance back at me. Their faces were stuck in bags of pork rinds and Hershey's.
I’ve seen a woman stand up on a Sunday morning and state her hatred of a male member she had a disagreement with. An elder had to stand up and threaten to disfellowship her to shut her up. Jesus actually died for us fuckers? He’s a fucking idiot!
A Little More Than a Ribbon
So don’t give me bullshit about wisdom or compassion, or the wrap about how my desire to help people wasn’t enough. Don’t give me the bullshit of having soil of “not enough root” or not having enough love for souls. You don’t go as far as I did with a lack of love. And again, it’s about being on the inside. It’s about having been there and done that.
Is this just a bitter rant? What about the good people I admonished? They were good anyway. I wasn’t needed. Those 9 years gave me a story to tell, which is only a little better than a green ribbon.
It’s the story of my life and so many others: You participated. You tried. At least you know what it’s like and that it’s not for you. I guess that glory will have to be enough.