Monday, 22 May 2017

A "Tough Time"

Someone died again.  Someone younger than me, who was raised in the stifling arms of my church culture, whose family fell afoul of infighting there, and who never really got his life together even to the standards that most of us call "together."  (As low a standard as that is.)

And now that he has died, people from my church culture are saying that thing they so often say when someone dies.  (Besides "the Lord is speaking!"  The other thing they say.)  They're saying "He had a real tough time." In our church culture, they mean.  A tough time socially.  A tough time fitting in.  A tough time in terms of falling afoul of vindictive exclusion, in fact.  He was given a tough time.  On purpose.  By people who either thought it was a good idea, or just believe that "that's how it works."

This guy's father was like mine.  "Difficult."  Quarrelsome.  Apt to object to every inconsistency he saw in the church culture.  There to fix things, not just feel ooey gooey togetherness.  To try to better the problems, to make things more fair.  Not just to celebrate how awesome they allegedly are right now already, said awesomeness handed down unchanged for over a century.

I know about this first-hand.  My dad was the same, and so am I.

Because, in a world that wants diplomats, spin doctors, sales reps, and above all, marketing people, some of us are born to be repairmen and warriors.  We are people who insist the dryer's not supposed to make that noise.  People who keep tools in the trunk of our car.  We are people who will fight until we are dead.  People who aren't scared to tear things all apart, looking for the leak.  We are people who do not fear conflict, but wake up inside and get energy when there's fighting that needs to be done, social awkwardness be damned.  People who find our hope only in the possibility of things changing from the way they currently are.  Because we think we see stuff that's wrong.  Stuff one ought to fix.

And this is not a time for that.  Or is it?

Virtue Signalling
It's very fashionable to "raise awareness" of troubling things that are far away.  To be virtuous by caring about something that doesn't necessarily hurt us personally.  Like sending missionaries to Darfur when the Wilson kids are right next door, cutting themselves and sneaking pills from mom's medicine cabinet.  Because, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, you'll soon find you can't "fix" people.  And the Wilsons themselves are mainly just angry with their kids for hurting the family church reputation by having problems that happen to have stigmas attached to them, instead of just being poor, blind lepers or something else we can pity.

The hardest lesson of all for fixers and fighters is that you can't "fix" people and you can't "fight" their problems either.  And awareness campaigns?  Turns out people already know that cutting yourself, substance abuse and emotional issues are just as problematic as cancer, hunger and crime, and that they happen on a daily basis in our culture more than most.  Everyone is aware.  And just thinking about it doesn't seem to help.

So you send money, one of your children, or maybe even spend some time off yourself and go, to a different continent to "fight hunger" or something.  Because, as we said, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, it will soon become obvious that you can't.  But Darfur?  Random bits of India or Africa?  You don't have to achieve any measurable success of any kind.  Just trying makes you a hero.  And a role model.  And an inspiration.  On Facebook. On Twitter.  You can use every social media app you've got to share your "inspiration" with as many people you can, in a sea roiling with virtue-signallers.

Working Vs. "Helping"
I know someone who goes to Africa and isn't just a charity tourist, virtue-signalling and merit badge earning by going there.  She is a nurse, and she goes to places that need nurses and she simply... works.  Does her job. Does the thing she trained for.  The thing people want her to do badly enough, that normally they have to pay her.  That's different.  She's not "fixing" Africa. She's not "raising awareness."  She's not even "fighting" anything.  She's just working.  Getting up and showing up.  I have a great belief in the potential for working to make a difference in a way that "raising awareness," "inspiring others" and giving lectures with multimedia clearly doesn't. I have a belief in personal sacrifice.  And I don't see the personal sacrifice in paid lectures, or likes on social media.

But, my nurse acquaintance aside, it's a bit tougher to see where the value is when someone with no particular credentials decides to toss money or unskilled carpentry at Africa or India.  Can't hurt, right?  Might help?  Won't fix it, of course.  Mostly gives you stuff to put on social media, and nets you a slideshow and "talk" to give at your church, if we're being honest.

But the young guy I wrote about didn't live in Africa, or even a "bad area" in North America.  And as they say, he had "a tough time."  At church.  Like a lot of us.  And he didn't just happen to end up having tough times.  He was purposely given a tough time because people with more status than he did wanted him to have one.  People with more influence than he or his immediate family. 

This guy was always trying to work in our church culture.  To serve.  To help out.  And it's not as easy as that in a church culture.  Some people will pretty much stab you in the back so they get to be the only person who sweeps the floor after church, brings the coffee, stacks the chairs or whatever.  And many of us heard about this guy's life, growing up.  When his name was mentioned, people said "Well, I heard he's a little..." or "I hear they gave him a really tough time..."  Or "I heard there was stuff there..."

We all heard that talk.  Because the less fun stuff you allow yourself in your day, the more culture gossip you have made time for.  And the most hardcore of us church folk had entirely funfree Sundays and evenings in which to culture gossip.  And we did.

Making A Go of It In Our Church Culture
I can connect to this guy and his family in a pretty direct way. I know a lot of it personally.  You're young and you note that status makes a huge difference in your church culture.  And your church culture? It's your only culture.  And the culture itself absolutely requires that you put all of your eggs in that one cultural basket.  So you're not an involved church guy, but also running for mayor, or running a club or anything.  That's not allowed.  It's an "or" thing, not an "and" thing.  And so you were a big deal in your culture, or you weren't.  So you tried to be "valuable" there.  If they let you.

Another thing, in a circle like ours, you don't choose the one church culture because it suits you, and then everyone sees the culture as the one you ended up choosing.  No.  No one sees it as a choice.  It's not even seen as merely a church culture. It's just What God Asked For. It's Where He's Working.

Everywhere else? That's just Everywhere Else.   We're us, and they're them.  This is the only game in town.  It's not seen as a cultural choice because no other choices are being acknowledged. And you only get the one birth culture.  You spend your formative years in the one place.  And you are formed by it.

Old Godly Vs. New Godly
Another thing to know: what you are trying to be specifically, in order to gain and keep power and status in a church culture like mine?  There's a name for it: "godly."  You are trying to be a godly young person living a godly life.  Then maybe you can marry a godly girl and raise a godly family in a Godless world.  "Godly" is a more euphemistic word than "pious," "abstinent," "pure" or "holy," but it means the same thing.  Good.  And not Good by doing stuff, mainly.  Good by not doing stuff. (the fun stuff.) By being the one thing.  By having that one cultural connection only.

What's everyone talking about at work?  You don't know about that thing. Is there a show that everyone's bingewatching?  You don't have a TV.  Is there an app that everyone's kids have on their phones?  Your kids don't have phones.  Is there a huge event happening in your city on a holiday weekend?  Your family is going to a bible conference/retreat in Idaho.

Godly is what you need to be in cultures like mine.  But there's something that really complicates trying to live "godly."  I'm going to have to dip into F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for a moment to properly make this point.  In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby isn't born rich.  His parents are just ordinary.  But he meets a charming girl named Daisy who was born rich.  "Old money."  A wealth insider.  Now, Jay Gatsby wants to marry her, but "ordinary" doesn't get you in there to marry old money.  So Jay Gatsby gets rich. To get in.

Gatsby is first a WWI hero, and comes home, ready to get down to it.  He changes absolutely everything about himself, using every method he can, legal and illegal, to become the kind of public person, driving the kind of car, living in the kind of house, throwing the kinds of parties, that Daisy will marry.  

Jay Gatsby makes absolutely everything about getting and looking rich.  Buys a mansion and fills it with the trappings of wealth, which things he doesn't even want or enjoy.  Keeps a giant library filled with books he's never opened.  It's one big signal of his wealth.  Has a grand piano he can't play, so he hires a guy to hang around in case anyone needs some piano music.  Jay Gatsby does nothing else but get, stay and be seen to be rich.  And there's no more to him than that.

Thing is, Daisy is the opposite.  She's not working to get or stay rich.  She's just wealthy to begin with.  She never did anything at all to get rich.  Never gave it a second thought.  In fact, she's never made absolutely everything about anything at all, let alone the acquisition of wealth.  She's old money. The money came before she did.

So Daisy marries another "old money" person.  Tom Buchanan isn't as good a person as Jay Gatsby, but the union is supported by their culture, because it is a union of two like people, from the same social bracket.  Tom is a racist, abusive, a bully, a braggart and an adulterer.  But he's old money.  There can be no looking into how Tom earned his money.  Because Tom didn't earn his money.

No matter what Gatsby does, at best he is only "new money."  And old money doesn't mix with new money.  If old money Daisy had tried to court new money Jay Gatsby, her social circle and family connection would have shown just how much trouble they can cause when people are trying to put something so potentially fragile as a marriage together.

Gatsby knows how to put on show-off, new money parties, filled with people impressed by his wealth. What he doesn't know how to do properly is be obviously bored of wealth, not always working to try to keep and display it, and instead spend his days doing nothing much. He's always working, earning, maintaining and displaying.  Old money doesn't do that.

The Game is Rigged
In many eastern cultures, the whole society works together to get you a viable spouse.  You need a marriage, so you culture arranges one for you, usually giving you some choices.  Western cultures generally don't do that so much as work together to keep you from managing to connect with anyone they deem to be unsuitable.  You have Tinder, right?  Pick someone we like.

I grew up with people who were raised "old godly" but who married someone aspiring to "new godly." For many, this brought about the end of any real membership in the culture.  Pressure had been exerted, warnings given, but they didn't listen, so they end up on the outs.  Because yes, people interfered heavily to try to forbid the union, seeing this obligatory calamity about to happen/be caused.  Made the union, the membership impossible.  This happened to fictional Gatsby, and it happened for the all too real young guy who died recently.

A harsh lesson for me, and for this young guy who died, is that the game is rigged.  If you have the right last name, if your family is a dynasty, you have the power and status to do what you need to.  If you are "old godly," you have arrived and just have to ensure no one hurts your family status.  Especially you.  There's a lot of pressure there, I hear.

But if you're aspiring to "new godly," you find that no matter how uprightly you live, no matter how many potentially joyful things you delete from your week, you never quite get let into that game.  The rules are different for everyone else.

If you're "old godly," your family can, and usually does, have emotional problems.  That gets rather glossed over. Gossiped about perhaps, but you keep your status.  It's not the same for the rest of us.  There is a stigma that can't be overcome.  What is "quaint" or "just how he is" in old godly circles reads as "sick, a serious problem" in yours. 

People get permanently excommunicated in our culture, not just for social misbehaviour, but for having personality problems or emotional issues.  We all knew old people who had to sit at the back of the church and not take communion or participate in any social activities.  When you asked what they'd done, you were simply told "They were trouble when they lived back East."  Or maybe "They had a hard time in the 70s."  Didn't fit.  Rocked the boat so were cast into the sea.  Very, very often it is a case of new godly refusing to bow down to the excesses of old godly. Not knowing their place and being shown it, with relish, by the entire culture, until they died.

In my case, this included being told I could attend a bible conference, but I was not welcome, and could not eat or be given accommodations for the night there.  In the case of the young guy who died, this included being allowed to attend a bible conference, but having to sit outside the building to eat, and literally having the tray with his food passed out a window to him.  These bible conferences are traditionally used to meet possible future spouses.  But try to romance someone while you're not allowed to eat in the same room with them...

If this kind of situation happens to your dad (and it did to mine), your whole family is screwed from that point on.  You can't really fit.  You can't really date.  So you find yourself in this "middle" position.  You feel like your affiliation or membership in your birth culture is hanging by a thread.  If the impression is given (facts don't matter) that you have been entertaining yourself or partying, or even worse, going to other churches or reading their doctrine or whatever, you may well find yourself elbowed right out of the culture you were born into.  So you fight as hard as you can to be allowed to lurk on the threshold for the rest of your life, never allowed in, but clearly not having walked off either.

Trying Too Hard
So you try to work. Ceaselessly.  Too hard.  Jay Gatsby hard.  You try to work with children in the Sunday school and get told you can't. You incessantly read the bible and books of "ministry" (we didn't use the word "theology," because that sounded like the brain was involved).  You swept the church floor.  You stacked chairs.  You spent time with old church folks.  You did all of this and tried to keep your reputation free from any hint that you might have been partying or associating with other churches or their doctrine.  You made sure you kept no role models that were outside of your culture.

What drove my dad to throw out our TV, outlaw my comic books and ban an increasing number of things with each passing year was not some parental fear that we children would be hurt spiritually, or led astray by stuff, or even fear of God's disapproval.  It was fear of our family losing status. It was tightening down the screws to try to build a family legacy as a godly one.

My dad made the church sign for the front of the building, he built and maintained the box that people submitted Scripture Searcher papers to and which recorded their progress, he recorded visiting guest speakers and kept a tape library and tape mailing service, he taught in all of the bible studies and things we had five or six times a week, he preached the gospel and invited guest speakers to speak, he counted the collection money and discussed how to spend it, he bought endless stuff for and repaired the Meeting Hall... and on and on and on and on.  This is what he did instead of being my dad.  Chose the church culture over his family, God and all that is good or prudent or loving, to be honest.  Never let logic or empathy deter him in his quest.  Some of us definitely have an obsessive streak that is viewed as a cheating, annoying superpower by people playing the game more casually.

And I will tell you what happens when you live like this, burning yourself at both ends: it makes you stand out.  You are trying far harder than "old godly."  You are clearly trying too hard.  What's wrong with you that you have to try that hard?  And your reward for this is you remain forever on the fringes.  You never quite get let in.  There's always that carrot and there is always the stick, too.  You are continually under suspicion and in need of explanation. 

Anyone who really starts to accept you gets a bit of your outsider smell on them, and those you grew up knowing will inevitably socially punish, in the various ways that children and young adults can, anyone who spends a bit too much time with you.  And if you were, for example, to somehow overcome the constraints and awkwardnesses and prejudices of your birth culture, and connect to people outside it?  This would certainly count simply as evidence that you simply never were "one of us" to begin with.

Failed New Godly
So you are very, very, very alone, if you are failed new godly.  When you run full tilt for the prize and smack your teeth into the brick wall that is painted to look like a doorway.  Heaven help you if you object in any way!  If you say things aren't fine, or need to be looked at.  This culture is, after all, a worship of How Things Have Always Been.  Your family is torn up with the members blaming each other for possibly risking the family's tottering, almost gone status in the culture.  With not succeeding in it.

Two things are there waiting for you: emotional issues and substance abuse.  Either one is certainly enough to shatter any possible remaining association with the culture.  Our culture isn't one that is known for accepting and helping alcoholics, pill poppers, gambling addicts or the like.  And there really is that usual Christian attitude that, if you have addiction, anxiety or depression, you clearly don't have Jesus.  Otherwise, you'd be fine, right?  Are you saying that having Jesus doesn't work? Why aren't you happy?  Get over yourself.  Move on.  Focus on the positive.

Unlike the guy who died this time, I myself was spared problems with substance abuse by virtue of being a clinical control freak. This means that emotional issues are the only dysfunction left open to me.  But so much more of this story I feel like I "get."  Being alone.  Family very welcome to leave the culture at any time.  Fighting for a status you don't really have and will never get.  Trying too hard, and this hurting rather than helping your status.  Giving up everything healthy and personal and natural in vain pursuit of getting accepted to a position you will never occupy.  Trying to regain something you never really had.

Because the thing that human cultures are, that church cultures should not be too?  Competitive.  Someone was waiting in line behind you with their hand out for status, importance and inclusion, and if you step out of line, they step up and take your place.  These cultures are status hierarchies one can only be born "old godly" into.  Last name helping or hurting you, quite beyond your control.  Being encouraged to cut off ties to friends and family to save yourself and try to keep any status problems they may have from spreading to you.

Sins of the Father
Speaking of which, how was this recently deceased young guy given a "tough time"?  Specifically? What little I know of this guy's story is that he was haunted and hounded his whole adult life by the fact that his father had fought with their local church when the guy was a young teenager, and so his dad was put in an "out" position to perpetuity.  This young guy always felt like maybe the way his father was treated was a wee bit wrong, and refused to "admit" his father was 100% to blame, and for this he was never forgiven his whole life.  He was formally required to officially declare that his father "needed" to be kicked out, and that the church was 100% correct in how they acted.  As the young man argued that maybe things were wrong on both sides, he himself was then also kicked out forever.  Because that's how we roll, in some corners.

The young guy moved West across the whole continent, and changing country of residence to America, wanted to be a missionary.  Wanted to work in a church connected with his birth culture.  But when he moved, a letter arrived ahead of him, warning people to never include him.  Never let him take communion.  Never let him help out at church.  Under pain of starting a fight with Us.  ("Us Out East.")

And as I said, when those various bible conferences were held, where one might meet potential spouses in the culture, people in this guy's position are often told they are simply not welcome. (In my case they said "the older brothers have decided it would be best if you did not attend.")  And he attended the one bible conference in a pleasant village "out East" from where he'd originally been given the "tough time" about his dad, and was required to eat outside, plates literally passed to him out a window.  By those who proudly claim they are responsible to "feed God's lambs" in Maritime Canad. What did they feed this guy, socially, spiritually and psychologically?

Still, he got to go out East, and they did find a way to compromise between getting in trouble with "Us Out West" for accepting him for once in his life, and actually making him stay home.  And this young guy travelled all of the way across North America from the west coast to the east, only to be sent outside to eat every meal, literally segregated, in this the 21st century.

And no one ever agreed to let him help out anywhere.  No girls agreed to date him.  People who spoke to him much were given an update about him.  The solitude and the emotional problems and the substance abuse he eventually fled into slowly ate him.  Eroded him.  His heart couldn't take it.  It degenerated to a point that it could not be repaired, even in this, the 21st century.  And now he's dead.

His body was put into the ground by two people: his parents.  That's it. No words were said.  His church culture did not come to mourn.

Despite this, to this day, folks who speak about him, including his own father, are reluctant to see anything terribly wrong with the church culture itself.  With How Things Have Always Been.  Oh sure, a few guys in it acted poorly.  But the culture?  How Things Have Always Been?  We're not actually going to take blame, or try harder, or talk about it, or change or anything.  Why should we?  This is as good as it gets, right?  This is How Things Have Always Been.  You wouldn't want to bring in compromise and change, would you?

We're All Fine, Here...
This guy had a tough time, alright.  But that doesn't mean anything to the rest of us.  Because we're, more or less, ok and we've got families to think of, and family reputation to uphold, and that's what matters.

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