Thursday, December 4, 2008
This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, Part 5
What I wear like church clothes, You wear just like jewelry All the simple things you revel in, They just suffocate me And I don't know anymore, Wish someone would tell me who to be Because I'm ready, I'm ready to try anything -- Matt Nathanson, “Church Clothes” It’s fairly easy to tell the people who are willing to entertain doubt. If you say something that they disagree with, that gets close to their own questions, they’ll pause. It’s sometimes not a long pause, sometimes just a hitch, a facial tick. Doubt will be written across the other’s face or interwoven in their words. The ones who won’t entertain doubt are more obvious. They’re prepared to argue. They’ll get mad, even if there’s nothing to get mad about. Sometimes they’ll pretend to agree with the doubt, though. They’ll agree a little too quickly, a little too smoothly, selling you their worldview through your doubt like a used car salesman pouncing on an approving comment about a car’s upholstery. Questions flew at me fast and furious that night. We’d wandered in to foreign territory for her, dangerous territory. Evolution, science, that great empirical challenge to faith. She battered me with her words, asking questions faster than I could answer, challenging every little word I said before I finally had to tap out. She tried to blame me for it, too. “I told you that when I start asking questions I can be relentless,” she said. “You told me you could handle it. I guess you were wrong.” She questioned my manhood. But the truth is that we had discussions and disagreements before and after, some spirited, some pointless, some serious, but none like that. There was something in those questions that night, something that let me know that we could not be friends any more if I went through with my journey away from faith. Well, I didn’t know that part quite then. I would give myself far too much credit, as it would be tantamount to claiming I could predict the reaction someone would have to an action I did not know I would take. I remembered that conversation later, though. When I counted the costs I knew that friendship would be one, even if I didn’t want to admit it. Even if I didn’t want to think about it. Paul Simon was right as he drove across the cradle of the Civil War, assured that when he reached that which he sought, Graceland would accept him in. Losing love is like a window in the heart. You’re exposed, vulnerable to the world, blown by the wind. The funny thing is, I now believe Paul Simon. I, too, have reason to believe I will be received in Graceland. I, too, travel there with ghosts and empty sockets, unsure of whether I will have to defend myself, my decisions, my loves lost, my love never offered, my love withdrawn. Or maybe it won’t matter. Maybe we’ll all understand in Graceland. Maybe it’s the place we all go when we realize that we no longer have answers. Maybe it’s the place we long for because we can find nothing else. During the times between the conversation and the end she used to tell me that she wished I could see god as she saw god. My god was vindictive and petty, hers loving and accepting. At times I wish I could track her down, tell her I understand. But that seems a cruel trick, since I would have to tell her I gave up belief for understanding and then understanding did not lead back to belief. Truth is, I don’t think I could handle seeing her shake her head sadly and say she wished I wasn’t so lost again. I don’t think she would listen to me say that I’m not lost, that I can’t be lost. That if there is neither origin nor terminus there can be no path and, therefore, no way to get lost. Point C doesn’t matter if there is no Point A or Point B. All there is to find is the desire of the heart. This is where I get in trouble, because my desire isn’t for love, my desire isn’t for answers, my desire isn’t for wealth or power. My desire, the true desire of my heart is knowledge. Those who desire love can find it. Those who desire answers can accept any that seem reasonable. Those that desire wealth and power can accumulate both. We who desire knowledge can only accumulate questions and riddles. Answers are only temporary, little abstract collections of words to be challenged, approached in different ways, tested, viewed with skepticism. They are the golden-haired woman dazzling our eyes with luminescence across a darkened, crowded room. I can see her, the golden-haired woman across the room. She is there, all bright hair, blue eyes, smiles. And beauty. Aching, unreachable beauty. While she is there on the other side of the room I wonder what it would be like to approach her, ask her name, tell her mine, suggest we get out of there, find someplace quiet. Somehow, amazingly, improbably, impossibly, she leaves with me. Minutes, hours, days, centuries pass while we talk, share, laugh, fall in love. Somehow morning comes, wrapped in my chocolate sheets, encircled by the tan walls of my bedroom. We get up and spend the morning on my brown couch pretending the blue walls of my living room are the sky and we are floating in it while Paul Simon sings of the roots of rhythm under African skies and Mike Doughty tells us about a luminous girl, tells us about her, tells us about Jesus. For that’s what Jesus is. The Christ, the Messiah, is the luminous girl across the room. Salvation is that thing we always seek but never find, always pursue but never catch. And the plain and simple truth is that we should never catch up to salvation. We should cross the room and find that Jesus isn’t there, that the luminous girl has slipped away. The alternative is worse. As sad as it is to get to the destination and find out it’s moved, the true disappointment comes when the destination turns out to be nothing, mundane, somehow less or worse than expected. What do you do when Graceland turns out to be a bloated tourist trap, the luminous girl uninteresting, the Christ nothing but a Sunday School story? Worse, what do you do if Graceland doesn’t receive you, the luminous girl has a boyfriend, the Christ is not full of grace and love? I used to hate it when I read the works of a great thinker or philosopher and they never gave me any answers. They would work up to point, then never quite make it and instead offer up riddles, stories, examples, analogies. “Give me the damn answers!” I always wanted to yell at the pages. “If you’re so smart why can’t you give a simple answer?” Now here I am, writing riddles, analogies, stories, and examples. I can’t talk about knowledge except to compare it to women who aren’t what I’d hoped, a Christ who offers no salvation, or a Paul Simon song. It seems so unsatisfying to say that the truth is there is no truth. It seems inappropriate to worry about the loss of a friendship that I fully admit was going nowhere, anyway. What else is there to say save that I am a charlatan? I expect the answers to be there even as I expect them to be unsatisfying. I expect the luminous girl to live up to my otherworldly expectations. I expected Jesus to answer my doubts with certainties, my visions of an angry, petty god with love. I expected to be received in Graceland, but wanted Graceland to come to me. I don’t know when I gave up on Christianity, but I think it was earlier than I ever calculated and easier than I ever wanted to admit. The problem is that I kept the vestiges, cloaked myself in the fears, wanted the framework because it was easier than building one on my own. I played at religion for the answers, maintained the illusion for the respect it garnered me. I was more interested in appearing religious than I was in actually being religious. In the end my charlatanism got me nowhere. It probably did me more harm than good and it probably allowed me to hurt others more than I will ever know. We were very alike, my former friend and I. Maybe a little too much alike. She told me once that she was more interested in appearing good than in actually being good. I think that’s why the defenses came up in that long ago conversation, why as I drifted farther and farther away from our shared religion she liked me less and less. I think she worried that if she kept me close then she, too, would find herself on the same path, than she might have to admit that appearing good wasn’t the same thing as being good. In truth, she had far more to lose than I ever did, and possibly nothing to gain. She did not desire the same thing I did. While I desired knowledge, she desired acceptance. Knowledge is impeded by charlatanism while acceptance revels in it. Truth had to win out for me but not for her and in that were set the seeds of destruction. They say that time heals all wounds. They also say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. These seem, to me, incompatible. I can tell you almost exactly how long it’s been since I walked away from my friend in a fit of righteous indignation. I could give a long list of reasons why what I did was the right thing. I could even tell you why it was best for her and why, in the long run, it didn’t matter because there was no future in that relationship. Yet I can also tell you that I’ve thought about her every day since. I’ve wondered where she went to. I’ve wondered what went wrong. I’ve wondered if there was something, somewhere, that I could have, should have done different. I’ve wondered what I would say if she were sitting on my brown couch in my blue living room listening to Mike Doughty sing about luminous girls and Jesus Christ and Graceland and all the answers that just turn out to be more questions. I wonder if she would shake her head sadly and say she wishes I weren’t so lost. I wonder if I would disagree.