The reverend asked us to call him Bryan, but some people called him “Rev.”
He was a regular visiting minister at my lay led Unitarian Universalist church. Wildly popular, burly Santa-type, warm and calming. When Bryan spoke, I made a point of getting my lazy-butt to church.
Clergy always made me a little uncomfortable. Not from religious guilt or any bad experience. I just wasn’t around religious leaders enough chit chatting at our church’s Wednesday dinners to see ministers as regular types. Growing up I went to a Methodist church with my mother, but only sporadically.
In my early thirties, I re-started in the Methodist church, but when even the coolest laid-back pastor said hello I got nervous. Godly rock stars, I guess. My anxiety around the cloth wasn’t because I was God-fearing. If anything I was God questioning. I just wasn’t sure how to act. Bryan made it easy.
Thankfully he was our scheduled speaker the day after the Pulse Massacre 25 minutes from my house. He led us through our stages of pain. Enraged, shattered and speechless, spiritually bleeding from the shock and sorrow.
His messages were always easy to carry into your day. The sort of pastor who uses straight language without cryptic Biblical jargon.
And so his style resonated with our mutt UU congregation of believers and non-believers, the reformed and practicing Christians, Jews, Catholics, humanists, agnostics and atheists. He mentioned Jesus here and there as a symbol of how to do the right thing under the hardest circumstances. It didn’t matter if we thought Christ was the Son of God, a hippie or fairytale.
Bryan spoke the greatest hits across all religions: love, kindness, humility, compassion and forgiveness. And he was a walk-the-walk advocate for civil and women’s rights. It was his dedication to reproductive choice and gender equality that impressed me the most. An unabashed feminist who railed against patriarchy.
I trusted him as a female-ally because he was well-known for fighting for women’s rights. He once told our congregation, “How arrogant would I be to think I know what’s best for a woman who finds herself pregnant?” He took hard stands, but gently. He was witty, humble and much better at doing grace than me. Exactly what I want in my spiritual leader. Better, but admittedly fallible.
When I heard in October 2019 that Bryan was charged with having sex with a minor over 100 times between 2005 and 2010 (starting when she was 14, grooming her when she was 13) I almost threw up. His victim was a long-time member of the church where he served as senior minister.
If you live long enough you know that plenty of good people do bad things. And that sexual abuse in all places of power is sickeningly common. But people like Bryan, a religious leader outspoken about gender equality, they don’t sexually abuse.
For weeks I woke up in the middle of the night hoping it wasn’t true. My heart was broken. I felt betrayed, angry and bitter.
Bryan was a local celebrity known for his commitment to interfaith discussion, a topic that always appeals to me. He co-hosted the popular NPR show, “The Three Wise Guys” (A minister, rabbi and imam), bantering theology (with reverence) across the Christian perspective on issues. After his arrest the show shut down. It stuns me that people still write “Happy birthday Bryan, we miss you,” on his Facebook page. Even after what he did.
Sadly the Reverend killed himself ten days after he was released on bail. Before he had to face numerous felony charges. Investigators recorded a long conversation between he and his accuser (now an adult) where Bryan admitted that she had been a victim and that he was a predator “in the eyes of the law.” He admitted to having a sexual relationship with her for years when she was under 18.
“[T]here was never anything salacious or bad about it and you were always too damn mature for your own good and I have always loved you,” Fulwider told his accuser in the call, according to police. “It wasn’t like I was off hunting people. It was a connection.” ~ The Orlando Sentinel
I was heartbroken for his family, and relieved that someone I cared for, someone who regularly talked to God, no longer had to battle his demons. But I also wanted to scream in his face, “Listen you predatory scumbag, you did this to yourself!”
I’d like to say time softened my anger, but it only dulled the edges. I don’t forgive as fast as Jesus. Sometimes, although rare, I never do. On purpose. It keeps evil and good simple.
Bryan’s sons said they “witnessed his pattern of disrespecting women and know he was not the person he presented publicly.”
Some of my church friends who knew him better than I, or who are probably just more forgiving, haven’t erased all the good Bryan did.
Still, it’s one thing to cheat on your spouse, evade taxes or embezzle church funds. It’s another to commit statutory rape with a 14-year-old girl in your congregation.
A couple years ago another one of my favorite speakers was arrested. A priest charged with sexually abusing a boy. That’s all I know because I can’t find anything about his arrest record. I only know from friends at church that he’s serving time.
This priest whenever he saw me (or anyone), beamed a magnificent smile, like he was genuinely excited to see me. Then he’d give me a hug. Usually this sort of gushing friendliness from someone I don’t know well creeps me out. But my priest-friend radiated genuine love and benign affection. He made you feel special. So my trust radar, like with Bryan, beeped strong. That’s pretty Christ-like. I was drawn in.
His voice was deliciously melodic when he recited poetry and sang verses of his favorite black spirituals. He was brilliant about breaking down theology into modern practical terms. He was also mesmerizing and charismatic, commanding but not at all intimidating.
A few years ago he helped a few of us at church during a breakout session for an eight-week white privilege class. Somehow he moved us past being mildly self-righteous white liberals (who mean well), into activists who needed to keep our back-patting wokeness in check.
Years ago he begged his Diocese to let a few local impoverished non-Catholic kids reap the educational benefits of attending a Catholic school. He knew God wouldn’t care about rigid enrollment rules, only that he could help a handful of kids get a better shot in life.
Maybe someday I can forgive my priest friend. But not Bryan.
My priest friend as far as I know (or tell myself), “only” molested one boy. Bryan groomed and sexually molested one girl over a 100 times.
Evil amounts to numerical calculations against all the good someone has done. There’s a net total we learn to live with. But once we see evil in someone we trust, it’s hard to see anything else.
For me, despite what we’re promised, forgiveness isn’t always a salve for the sufferer (“forgiveness is for YOU, not for them”). Not forgiving can heal too. People think I’m nuts on this. Not forgiving goes against all the best Jesus lessons. It holds on to emotional sludge and makes you literally sick.
I’m not saying we stew in destructive rage. What I mean is, choosing not to forgive someone for heinous acts puts evil and good right where they belong, in separate corners, judged as they should be judged. There’s relief in that sort of clarity. “I don’t forgive you,” doesn’t have to make you stuck in pain and bitter. It means you gently accept that some things are unforgiveable.
Every point hit home for me. But oddly enough, number two stood out because at first glance, it sounded kind of selfish.
You have the right to feel how you feel even if other people have it worse. Your pain is valid regardless of what anyone else is going through.
Sometimes I feel a little petty when I vent about minor problems, or even big ones (like family estrangments, health issues) in contrast to true tragedy. Ukraine, COVID deaths, a friend who lost a loved one or is suffering from a serious illness, job loss, financial ruin, divorce.
How dare I bitch about the contractor who didn’t show up or ripped us off? How insignificant and trivial. Veering on the now grossly overused, “Karen.” (My laid-back husband and daughter have accused me of “going all Karen” on customer service or contractors simply for refusing to get screwed over).
We should all try to view our problems in contrast to bigger suffering. It puts our life into perspective. And yet, all stress and pain is valid, while not created equally.
I remember years ago I was venting to a friend about my husband being insensitive about something. I don’t remember what. Nothing major. All of a sudden my friend, usually a great listener, snapped. “Well at least he’s alive. Remember I told you Lisa just lost her husband from a heart attack? Dead before 50. Now THAT’S suffering.”
I was taken back and defensive. I told her I remember her telling me about her friend’s husband and how sorry I was. But I wasn’t comparing my minor complaints to the death of a spouse, obviously.
It became clear she lashed out from fear. She told me she was terrified how many people she knew who suddenly dropped dead at a young age (usually undetected heart issues). My friend, in her late 40’s at the time, was facing her own mortality and the possibility of suddenly losing her own husband. The unpredictability of life is something she’d spoken to me about every time she heard of someone dying too young.
So for her, my venting at that moment felt trite and meaningless.
But allfeelings are valid.
Now if I chronically complained about small stuff, yes, I deserve a knock upside the head reminder that suffering is relative. No one likes a chronic complainer.
One of the practices I use to get myself out of a funk is to focus on gratitude. What’s working in my life vs what’s not.
Part of my gratitude practice is to mentally rank how much harder my life could be if I say, I had an incurable disease like so and so, or if my partner left me like so and so or if I was living homeless or hand to mouth like countless people across the world.
My gratitude list is infinite. Likely yours is too.
I’m not sure that comparing and contrasting ourselves aka, “it could be worse” is pure gratitude at its best. But it is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most powerful, transformative tools humans possess.
But I often say, it’s normal to have two seemingly conflicted feelings at the SAME time. What I mean is you can feel grateful for x,y,z in your life and upset about a,b,c.
You don’t have to feel guilty for experiencing pain because someone else has worse pain. Your feelings are valid. It’s all about timing and self-awareness. When or even if to vent to someone who’s suffering.
Mom needs to be as happy as her kids. Change the definition of “selfish” to “filling” self, to caring for yourself. This is excellent role modeling for your kids, especially girls.
I’m not suggesting you ignore your kids’ needs and put yours ahead of theirs. Of course not. Parenting demands sacrifice. I’m suggesting a radical paradigm shift that says, “my needs count too,” and acting on it.
It’s important to acknowledge and accept that ambivalence—even hating motherhood sometimes, is normal.
My husband did everything he could within the confines and nerves of new fatherhood. What was he supposed to do as he watched his wife genuinely smile and coo and competently take care of our baby, then an hour later, turn around and sob and crumble into wishing “I’d just fall into a black hole of feeling nothing. Dead but not really dead.”
How do you respond to your wife’s sort of death wish?
My husband was a hands-on dad from the start. There for me in every way. But with my exhaustion and hormone-imbalanced brain, nothing helped my depression except getting back on hormone replacement therapy (I have a pituitary disorder that requires HRT), more sleep, and sheer time to get used to the demands of being a new mother.
I was a stay-at-home mother by grateful choice (and self-imposed guilt), but as the months went on sometimes I felt mind-numbingly bored. Flattened and anxious by the drudgery and repetition. Despite the numerous Mommy and Me playgroups I joined. Despite friends telling me “this too shall pass and they’re only young once.” Despite date nights with my husband and girls’ nights.
Without fail I followed the formula prescribed to make the transition to being at home easier. In fact I did more than most of my stay-at-home mom friends who weren’t yet comfortable leaving their little ones.
But it wasn’t enough.
Not until my daughter started Kindergarten and I had more time to myself and to write. First I wrote cathartic stream-of-consciousness ramblings to self-soothe, then gradually I wrote as a part-time profession.
Motherhood tore open beautiful facets of myself and my relationships. Richer in emotion, new layers of appreciation emerged as I watched my child giggle at dandelion fluff, blow a ladybug off her finger, run from the waves chasing her little ankles.
But motherhood also threw me into a full-on identity crisis.
I’d been an ambitious marketing professional for 20 years and then suddenly I wasn’t. A shift so abrupt as to almost reorganize my DNA overnight.
My daughter was of course front and center, her well-being always top of mind. But becoming a parent didn’t suddenly wipe clean my ambition or my need to spend time alone or with my husband and friends.
And yet I was told that it would, promised that “once I saw that little baby nothing else would matter in the world.” But other things did still matter, even while I fell in love with this perfect creature I wanted more than anything.
Emotions in contradiction. Or were they?
Mothers are all different as humans are all different…
Being at home full-time is just easier for some mothers. I don’t mean the work is easier.
It’s universally hard to be chronically sleep-deprived and change 800 diapers. To be hypervigilant that your child doesn’t choke, suffocate in her sleep, stick her fingers in sockets or the dog’s mouth, run in the street, smear her poop, sling-shot off the slide or bite her toddler friend – again.
It’s exhausting to worry about Texas-shaped rashes, fevers, teething, vaccine reactions, solid food introductions, weird cries, to nurse, rock, soothe, stroll, shop, play Candyland incessantly and watch The Wiggles for the 90th time.
But some women adapt better to this new normal. They don’t have a full-on identity crisis as I did.
It goes without saying that watching your child grow and thrive is spectacular. What’s not spectacular is the exhaustion and the ambivalent feelings we grapple with alongside judgment from other parents.
The “I love my child, but I hate……”
I dropped out of the workforce when my daughter was 9 months old (I’d returned part-time after maternity leave). Once the honeymoon of being home ended and the silence of no adult company crept in, once my daughter’s two-hour screaming fests shattered my nerves — the stress, repetition and boredom drove me mad.
So to process my feelings, when I had time I wrote.
I also read stacks of books about real motherhood. Gritty, raw stories (My favorite, Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood). These books unpacked and validated the anger, resentment and anxiety mixed with gratitude, awe and love.
To be human is to feel a spectrum of good and “bad” emotion….
The spectrum of emotions I have since become obsessed to accept rather than vilify.
From that space came a compulsion to write what I learned, loved and loathed about the experience of being human, about grappling with ambivalence.
It starts with the truth. Unpolished. Uncomfortable at first.
It starts with being radically honest with ourselves (and with people we trust).
Honesty takes a risk. Honesty is terrifying.
But gradually the chokehold of trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not comes off.
Freedom comes from (trying) not to judge yourself for feeling different from your friends, mother, sister, cousin, and neighbors.
When I enrolled my daughter in two pre-schools at the same time (half days Mon-Tues for one, Wed-Thu another), you can imagine the comments.
“That’s interesting, I’d never heard of anyone doing that before,” said one friend. “Well at least you’re not doing it just to get your nails done,” said another. “You’re doing it to have time to write.”
“Actually I’m doing it to have time for errands, writing and nails.”
One of my daughter’s pre-school teachers asked me, “Doesn’t your daughter get confused?”
“Not it all. She’s doing really well. Does she seem confused to you?”
“Well, no, actually.”
As humans we share traits born of the instinct to survive and to thrive.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food, shelter, safety, a need for love, validation and belonging.
But we’re also individuals, spectacular in our breadth and depth of interests, challenges and pathways to finding peace, joy, balance and God knows, less angst.
In the end, your authentic self is who should show up every day. Because the ones who love you will love you despite — or probably because of who you are. The others, well, they never mattered much anyway.
I just listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where he interviewed Nicole Byer (both are comedians, actors, podcasters). Marc asked Nicole when her parents passed away. Both were in their mid-50’s. Like anyone who loses parents too young, Nicole had a hard time.
And like most well-intended people who console the bereaved, the condolences came pouring in. Death is uncomfortable. What to say, what not say.
I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll miss her so much. I’m here for you. What can I do? Let me bring you dinner, help with arrangements, whatever you need.
These words are kind, comforting and thoughtful. A salve to ease the unimaginable.
But there are a few words that harm, “At least she’s in a better place.”
Nicole said she heard it a lot.
I know. I really believe they think they’re offering Christian comfort.
But to the survivors, even after long intense suffering, losing their loved one feels like hell on earth. Even if their loved one passing is a relief.
“Better place” translates to, “I know you’re hurting but maybe feel a tiny bit of comfort because where they are is better than where they were.”
Still, it’s a crushing platitude for what the survivor feels.
Profound breathless gut-punched loss, aching grief and suffocating loneliness. How to move through the next moment, the next hour, the next breakfast and bedtime’s oppressive emptiness.
The smell of his shirts, a stray sock near the bed, his favorite mug or leftovers. The photos, travels, shared spaces in every inch of the house. His children’s faces and tears. Thousands of lingering floating reminders that stab over and over and over.
Marc laughed when Nicole mentioned “in a better place.”
“Yeah what the hell is that,” he said. “Better place? No it’s not better. Better is here, with me. That’s better.”
That’s how I feel. Better is here.
This is probably why I never sense my father’s presence like lots of people do with deceased loved ones. I envy their connection. Their surprise ethereal embrace. Some people sense a spirit, or meaningful personal objects fall down for no reason, supernatural events that tell them their loved one is close. I’m here. I’m okay. You’ll be okay.
I loved my father with every cell. I told a friend years before he died in 2006 that when he went, I’d crumble and never recover. I felt it years before I lost him which is why I think I did recover. That and relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore.
My deceased father has never been a spiritual presence. He’s gone. Finite. Only pictures, videos and memories that I choose to look at bring him back. Perhaps I never sense him because spirit energy isn’t enough for me so I don’t even try. Also, the supernatural freaks me out a little. I believe but don’t want to experience.
I want all of my father or none of him. Not his essence. Not his energy. Energy can’t congratulate my daughter on graduating from high school, college and getting her first career job.
At least I had years to say goodbye even as his Lewy Body dementia and Parkinson’s advanced. I got a lot of my dad even as his mind changed. Even when he was confused about things, like constantly falling because he forgot he shouldn’t shuffle to the kitchen to clean out his teacup. He’d forget his body didn’t behave the way his mind wanted. But he never forgot people. Not one. He’d forget time frames, like that I’d recently visited.
Marc Maron’s longtime girlfriend Lynn died fast and unexpectedly two years ago. He didn’t get to say goodbye in the hospital after paramedics picked her up in his apartment. It was during COVID. Death was quarantined. It’s one of the saddest things I heard during the pandemic. Barred from holding a loved one’s hand.
I understand when someone is suffering with no chance of recovery that dying is the better place. Whether it’s heaven or the relief of nothingness. The pain stops. That’s better.
My stepmother has this expression she often says about end of life. “There’s worst things than death.” No one said “better place” when Dad died. They understood my father would shoot them a dirty look from the universe.
My father’s illnesses stole the brilliant, witty, loving person I knew all my life. For the most part he lived and communicated marginally well thanks to a litany of meds and my amazing stepmother.
Until the last year or so when he was wheelchair-bound he got around with a cane and walker. He ate okay. He continued to read voraciously. The day he died on Halloween, his mother’s birthday, two weeks before we’d gone to a famous Tampa steak house for my birthday. We pushed his wheelchair into the elegant table. Dad barely touched his spectacular food. His face rigid the way Parkinson’s involuntarily freezes expressions into faux angry.
That’s the night my father’s quality of life shrank to nothing.
One of his last passions, good food and wine gone. No taste. No appetite. All his pleasures now diseased.
Two days before he died my stepmother asked me to try get him to take a bite of ice cream. Sweet is apparently the final taste to go. My father reluctantly slurped a small spoonful of vanilla just to make me happy. His last bite was for me. His last words, “Thank you, but that’s all honey.”
So yes death is a better place than that.
My father, a gentle quiet agnostic who never mocked my beliefs or cared what others followed, would say that the better place is here on earth and healthy. That death is a black void with sad survivors in the wake.
The better place lives longer than 74. The better place is with his wife, girls and grandkids, sipping a beautiful Burgundy, seasoning his all-day spaghetti sauce, reading the New York Times, ribbing everyone with his perfect Boris Karloff and endless British accents, at peace with past mistakes, watching the sunset over Indian Rocks Beach every summer, screaming at his NY Giants.
When I was 22, a year after working my first after-college job as a market research analyst, I moved to live with my serious boyfriend.
For six months I scanned the paper looking for jobs in marketing or marketing research. Eventually I found a listing for a “marketing assistant” to sell seasonal plants out of an empty greenhouse in a farming town an hour north of my house.
The first red flag was that my soon-to-be boss interviewed me at a Mcdonald’s, and that he didn’t have a car or his own place.
Gray looked to be in his mid to late fifties, and I later learned when I had to drive him home a few times, that he lived with his mother.
He was tall and distinguished-looking with thick salt and pepper hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a resting smug-face. He told me that he’d been a former NYC Madison Ave advertising exec who in his heyday was in high demand.
My sense was that he’d wreaked havoc in his career and was run out of the industry. Gray insisted that after he quit drinking it was he who decided to quit the NYC scene. He also claimed he made and lost millions and was starting over as an entrepreneur.
His plan was to buy wholesale inventory of Florida seasonal plants to sell directly to customers via direct mail, newspaper, television and radio.
The dangling carrot was that while he couldn’t pay much, the money would inevitably come rolling in, and that I’d be mentored by marketing greatness.
My 20-minute interview consisted of “Do you want the job?” and a rundown of the position. We would market seasonal orchids and Neanthe bella palms out of an empty greenhouse where he’d rented space. Just the two of us until he hired a salesperson (he eventually did).
Gray spent a great deal of time telling me how brilliant he was, insisting that he knew more than most in the industry. He was loud, intimidating and incessantly braggadocio.
It was clear he sensed my naivety, ambition and desperation to work in marketing.
One day during lunch with a potential client, the client offered to pay for our meal. Gray said thank you but I said, “Oh that’s okay, you’re the customer, we should pay.”
When we got back to the office Gray lost it.
“DON’T YOU EVER SECOND GUESS ME IN FRONT OF A CUSTOMER AGAIN!” then he threw his coffee mug on the carpet. YOU EMBARRASSED ME! LET THE GODDAMN CLIENT PAY IF HE WANTS TO PAY!”
As awkward and insecure as I was at 22, I knew despite my mistake, his behavior was out of line. I apologized then told him, “I thought I was being professional!”
Then to match his anger I threw my coffee cup on the carpet. He didn’t fire me.
One afternoon out of nowhere Gray told me, “You know, I used to have a secretary who came to work without any underwear.”
“Uh Gray, you do know it’s inappropriate to tell me that?”
For the next couple minutes he proceeded to yell and gaslight.
“I’M TELLING YOU THIS FOR YOUR OWN GODDAMN GOOD!!! IF YOU PLAN TO MAKE IT IN CORPORATE AMERICA YOU’LL NEED TO KNOW HOW TO DEAL WITH MEN THAT WILL SAY SHIT LIKE THAT TO YOU!”
I was stunned and disgusted that my boss not only sexually harassed me but tried to convince me that this was a teaching moment.
A conversation with my father flashed from when I was around 19.
“Has any guy ever been inappropriate with you?”
Besides a drunk college guy screaming “c…..t!” out his dorm window because I wouldn’t go out with him, and a much older yoga instructor during college who offered to trade private lessons for “massage,” no.
“Well, don’t ever let a man mistreat you under any circumstances. Pay attention to how he makes you feel.”
I told Gray that an underwearless secretary story wasn’t a “lesson” to help me navigate men in corporate America. It was gross and inappropriate.
“You just don’t get it,” he said then walked out of the room.
Gray had a former girlfriend who sometimes used our copier and fax. During one visit she pulled me aside and whispered, “Be careful with Gray. When we dated my mom thought something was seriously wrong with him. At one point she told him, ‘Listen, if you’re going to keep dating my daughter I insist you take this psychological assessment.’ I agreed with her concerns so I made Gray take the test.”
Apparently he scored off the charts on “sociopath” traits.
The last straw was after an advertising shoot.
One morning we drove to a studio to film a 60-second ad. While he was working with the cameraman and setting up props he told me, “I need you to do the ad.” Clearly he didn’t want to spend the money to hire a professional actor and figured he could last-minute bully me into doing something that wasn’t in my job description.
“Gray I have zero experience. I’m too nervous.”
“Listen, it’s only 60 seconds. It’s not hard. I’ll coach you and anyway, we don’t have anyone else. I’ve already paid for the cameraman. You have to do it. You’re my marketing assistant.”
So I sat on the stool, awkwardly held the orchid, waited for the cameraman’s signal then started reading the cue cards. My hands and voice shook. I flubbed lines during every take.
Gray yelled repeatedly for me to slow down, relax and just “act natural.” At some point I was close to tears but blinked them back.
Eventually he got frustrated, gave up and told the cameraman he’d do the ad himself because I “couldn’t handle the job, but that it would be much better if a woman was selling the orchids.”
Fortunately no other boss I ever worked with came close to being the narcissistic bully Gray was.
In the beginning I saw him as a hard-knock, seasoned marketing professional. Smart. Creative. Resilient. Fearless.
But he was just a pig and a fraud.
Thank God despite my fragile confidence, my father, mother and stepmother instilled me with a strong sense of self-protection.
If it feels wrong, it is.
Fortunately I was in a financial position to quit. I didn’t have dependents and I knew my boyfriend (now husband) and parents were there for me if I needed help.
I can’t remember the details the day I quit, only that it took three months. I don’t remember what Gray said as I packed my stuff and walked out of the greenhouse.
I only remember I was shocked that he wasn’t mad and relieved he didn’t have a tantrum.
Maybe he ran out of money. Or maybe he realized we’d never work out because I wasn’t his naive little puppet or underwear-free secretary he secretly envisioned that day at McDonald’s.
Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable.
The last couple years I’ve been part
of a spiritual book club at my Unitarian Universalist church. Now with COVID we
meet through Zoom.
Our readings run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading Donna Cameron’s “A Year of Living Kindly.”
To sum up the latter:
Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is hard, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.
Perhaps you invite the cranky neighbor or incessant complainer friend to lunch because you know that deep down they’re lonely, sad, angry or scared. You put yourself in their shoes. You suck it up and do the right thing.
You call your bigoted friend with a big heart who you repeatedly have to correct when she offhandedly refers to “those Jews.” You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes how you stack the boxes or sweep the floor.
No matter how excruciating, you listen to incessant complaining about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.
The point is — kindness takes time, energy, courage and infinite patience.
I take great pains to avoid spending too much time with extremely difficult people: the racist relative, the self-centered high maintenance friend, the relentless complainer or critic, the snobs, blowhards and narcissists, all people you might like well enough in small doses, but who are generally a pain in the ass.
During book club we often find ourselves grappling with what we’re each willing to put up with around people we love but who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.
Like everyone in my book club I believe that “to love” is better than “to hate,” and that to forgive is better than to resent someone forever. But unlike many in my group, I find myself exploring these topics less from a spiritual point of view, and more from a psychological one.
During college I majored in psychology mostly as a reflex to growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family (to no one person’s fault I might add, and I was loved immensely). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I became obsessed with why I was the way I was (anxious, insecure, the quintessential people pleaser) and — with why humans sometimes treat each other in the most despicable ways.
My father and his first wife Peggy adopted me when I was a few months old. At some point when I was in Kindergarten Peggy met and fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while on a bird-watching cruise to the Seychelles.
From her brief affair, my mother immediately left my father and five kids and never came back. She forged an exotic life away from elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper-middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping across the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.
I’m told for a short time after Peggy left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for five minutes isn’t something I’m known (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).
My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved all his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was often too harsh with my out-of-control brothers. A single working dad commuting an hour into New York City every day, raising a brood of five bereft children, despite family therapy and a grandmotherly nanny, is in the end, up against too much not to lose it from time to time.
Two years after Peggy left my father remarried. His second wife Pat was a remarkable and resilient woman who brought with her, two wonderful boys from her first marriage. But by the time Pat came to the rescue there wasn’t much she could do to repair what Peggy destroyed.
I for instance, was a nervous little thing, briefly mute, refusing Pat once told me, to hug back, my arms peeled to my side, in unconscious defiance, I guess, of ever getting close to another mother. My oldest brother Mark, I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). At least once he called Pat a c….t which isn’t exactly the foundation for the Brady Bunch.
My middle brother John, a sweet anxious smart introvert, battled a stutter, and my youngest brother Chris was picked up by police for selling drugs near a sub shop and hiring a prostitute. Of all the kids my sister appeared the most unscathed although I realized later in life, that wasn’t the case.
I have vague memories of the boys (probably not John) rolling dog food cans at our kitten down our kitchen aisle, their version of delightful cat bowling. This was likely one step past “boys will be boys,” like when Chris lit firecrackers inside sunfish from our pond while my parent’s party guests looked on – and behavior that teetered on sociopath. Seven years after my father and Pat married, they got divorced, a marriage for many reasons, was destined to fail from the start.
As such, over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with high drama or difficult people is remarkably low. Not that sort of age-predicted “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low.
I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable. Sensing the faintest whiff of high maintenance (e.g. people often in fights, narcissists, drama queens, those constantly incensed or in need of inexhaustible attention) I will ever so politely back away until our interaction is seamlessly next to nothing.
My brilliant, funny, addict brother
My brother Mark’s opioid addiction got worse when he hurt his back after a fall while he worked on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. Even in the midst of peddling his worst addict lies, I laughed at his jokes and knew without question, that he loved his family. He once sent a letter to Pat, the same woman he battled and called the c-word, to thank her for taking care of me and my sister after Peggy left.
For years Mark worked as a public defender and later in private practice with a partner, who I can’t fathom how he managed to keep his practice afloat while dealing with Mark’s obvious addiction. Still, his partner kept him on until it got so bad that despite repeated warnings, he had no choice but to turn Mark into the Bar, who after a review, revoked Mark’s law license.
One afternoon in January 2012 my father’s third wife Mary, who I’d grown close from the moment we met, called and told me “You won’t believe this, but Mark’s dead.” An autopsy revealed that my brother died from opioids and advanced arteriosclerosis.
Shocked and gut-punched, I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in nine years. I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, I just grew numb to his lies and without consciously realizing it, numb to Mark.
At one point my brother was so far gone that during a flight home from Orlando after visiting (when during lunch with my toddler by my side and Mark’s client across from me in a booth, Mark slurred the whole time) the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Houston. Apparently Mark’s seatmate tried to wake him so he could navigate around his body to go to the bathroom but Mark was unconscious.
“Your son’s a big guy,” the ER doctor told my father and Mary, “anyone else with this level of alcohol and opioids in his system would be dead.”
Mark eventually landed in prison after three DUI’s (a felony in Arizona). Incarceration kept him alive for a while and when he got out he was sober. In time he started using drugs again, then entered multiple re-habs paid for by my father and Mary. Ultimately Mark settled into using opioids at a level just low enough to fake being sober.
A few years before prison, during one Christmas visit to my house, after a few beers and whatever drugs he took that day, as usual Mark’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, the whites flashed across the room, and his inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he cranked up his brash humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?”
Despite my horror when Mark reached that level of intoxication, I still managed to laugh at his blunt comments. Because humor was stable, humor was who Mark was. Sober or otherwise.
But as the night went on he’d stir the pot. He’d lean back with his beer, smirk, then casually bring up issues between family members long forgotten or resolved. “So Laura you still pissed after that beach trip you guys had with Mary last year?” Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off the fact that he was drowning in his addiction.
One night during a Christmas visit while everyone ran around cooking dinner in our crowded kitchen, setting tables, TV blaring, music on, without asking Mark took my toddler daughter for a night walk on the golf course behind our house. It was only five minutes, but neither my husband nor I knew he took her, or that perhaps in the flurry of dinnertime activity, distracted, someone told him he could take her.
I ran to the backyard, intercepted Mark and asked where the hell he’d been. When he walked inside he announced that he’d “hoisted Taylor on his shoulders to take a walk and with all that bouncing that she probably had her first orgasm.” Then he roared laughing, oblivious to how disgusted I was at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain my brother actually thought a pedophile joke was funny. I wanted to kill him.
I never sensed any inappropriate looks or behaviors towards our daughter, but from that moment my husband and I never allowed Mark alone in the room with her. When I told my father what Mark said that night he gently asked if I was sure “I heard right.” What else can a father say as he’s trying to process the most reprehensible comment imaginable made by his son, about his grandchild, as told by his daughter?
These were the years when Mark mysteriously needed to “get on my computer” to “check his emails” and then ask me to drive him to the nearest drugstore. A well-practiced cover-up by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico, courtesy of a rotation of more-than-willing doctors who back then, handed out pain killers like aspirin.
A small part of me felt sorry for Mark. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships he destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.
Once I became a mother, Mark-the-addict felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I no longer trusted. His filters were anesthetized, his sense of decency blurred by brain-thrashing opioids. I was vehemently protective of exposing my daughter to her uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.
After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using drugs although I often heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in December 2011 he called to ask if he could visit in January. “You sound like you’re on something,” I told him right away. “I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself into the hospital for exhaustion last week,” he claimed.
I told Mark that he could come but that he better not be on drugs because I’d know. Nor could he stay with me or create drama with our stepmom Mary who’d he’d recently been fighting.
Mark agreed and said he’d email me his flight information. A few weeks later he was found dead on the community pool deck at his condo after a night hike in the hills, a new habit I once told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).
Clearly my brother was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict, menacing and toxic. I had to set clear unwavering boundaries or cut him off.
Difficult people on the other hand, are merely a thorn in our side. An inconvenience, annoying, insulting or exhausting. To extend acts of kindness to difficult people rather than to simply be nice is a feat. It’s noble.
And yet we all come to this moment with a different history of emotional pain and family chaos. As a result our threshold for dealing with drama and difficult personalities, our boundaries, are wildly different.
For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. A challenge of character. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will become less difficult.
But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening to our peace of mind.
I recall a woman who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more to recount tales of her downtrodden life. Nothing good, nothing positive despite clear evidence to the contrary, only the world stomping on her at every turn, big or small, real or perceived, past or present — every tale of woe.
And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely and struggling, as well as a nice person, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time. All her stories were stuck in victimhood, and any advice I gently suggested she politely but repeatedly dismissed. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off she went to find a new sympathetic ear.
If we ran into each other when I walked my dog, I’d smile, say a brief hello then keep moving down the sidewalk like I was in a rush, enthusiastically waving goodbye as I said “Have a great day!” She wanted to talk, I wanted to escape.
Boundaries, I’ve come to realize, can be explicit or implicit. “If you do drugs when you come to my house, you’re out” is explicit. Inching down the sidewalk while you smile and wave goodbye to a chronic complainer is implicit. It says, hey I want to be polite, but I’m not investing too much of myself into you.
Boundaries are how we teach people to treat us, and how we decide to treat ourselves.
I know people willing to spend far more time with extremely difficult people than I am. I admire that. These people are saints. They reach into the lives of the most challenging over and over and over. They bear the pain of the snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries, like for instance, reminding The Difficult Person that cursing out the cashier or saying the n-word isn’t okay.
Personally I’ve forgiven myself for why, even if I extend a small kindness to a difficult person, a visit, a meal, that I need to bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for the long haul. And frankly, maybe she’s bored with me anyway. Likely I won’t expand our 15 or 20 minute conversation into making any future plans. I’ll be polite, brief and vague.
Because what sounds like selfishness on my part, is protecting myself from excess exposure to certain kinds of people. So I extend one foot in the door, while I gently pull the other foot out. It’s the best I can do. Correction, it’s the best I choose to do.
I have no doubt I helped destroy my daughter’s faith in God, although I myself, still believe in God, god, in some form or another.
As Tina grew up, my higher power shifted from a His Will Be Done Christian to a genderless “divine force in the universe” with good intentions and a wry sense of humor. It’s pretty hard for kids to grab on to God when God is radiant healing energy crossed with Mother Theresa and George Carlin.
Tina insists losing religion isn’t my fault, that she started questioning back in middle school. She tells me not to worry, that she finds hope and comfort knowing she can “question everything in the universe” and then sit back and “consider the infinite possibilities.”
Wonder is her worship now, and I’m thrilled she has the same unquenchable awe I had at her age. But when Tina told me she didn’t believe in God anymore I was heartbroken. I felt like I’d stolen something from her, like I gradually chipped away at her faith until she had nothing left but skepticism…