Some mornings I buy a newspaper, sometimes not. I used to read the paper religiously — an hour-and-a-half every morning with The New York Times — but that was long ago, before I discovered that the world inside me was at least as interesting as the world out there. Besides, reading the newspaper is frustrating, like remembering only part of a dream. The newspaper reports fragments of a story, usually leaving out the most important parts, the secret meanings, the symbols that bind events.
But I’ve found the news particularly compelling recently, as justice catches up with unjust men, and sweeps them up in the rags of scandal. Ronald Reagan is on his knees at the altar of power, but has nothing left to sacrifice, his soul already mortgaged to the hilt. Evangelist Jim Bakker drifts through the purgatory of ex-stardom; his ministry, through the ghostly miracle of modern technology, showed that the greatest violence on television is done in the name of God. Driven from his PTL empire by a sex scandal, Bakker is at the mercy now of his brethren, who circle him as if he were a wounded animal, and close in for the kill. Amen brother, and good night.
Do I relish the suffering of such men? Surely, I ought not condemn those already imprisoned by their own false beliefs and miserly intentions. Do not hate the warmaker, Thomas Merton wrote; hate instead “the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.” Blessed indeed is he who judges not, who remembers our undivided glory. But who remembers this every moment of every day? I don’t. I could say, I relish the triumph of justice rather than the downfall of unjust men, that I love storms but not flooded basements and snapped limbs. This is the mind playing with itself; nature, and human events, don’t abide by such distinctions. I was told once of a conversation between two friends who, with painful politeness, were picking apart someone they didn’t like; neither one of them, however, wanted to sound mean-spirited and judgemental. Sitting nearby, overhearing them, was one of America’s preeminent spiritual teachers. Amazed at how they were carrying on, he listened to several minutes of their hemming and hawing, then leaned over and said, “You mean he’s a jerk.”
In the name of higher consciousness, I too sometimes walk a tightrope, afraid that if I judge someone too harshly, express myself too plainly, I’ll fall from grace. How doomed and dishonest to expect of myself such perfection! If I can forgive Reagan his irresponsibility and Bakker his greed, surely I can forgive myself the momentary satisfaction that at last they’re paying for their sins.
But the stubborn fact remains that I can’t condemn anyone unless I ignore his inherent innocence. That’s as true of Ronald Reagan and Jim Bakker as it is of my children and my wife and my friends. No one needs to apologize for his original nature; there’s tremendous goodness in each of us. But to forgive politicians and celebrities is difficult; they aren’t people to us but media events, and the intimacy we enjoy with them — close-ups on camera, reading about their private lives — is a sham. Being genuinely intimate with someone always leads to compassion. It means seeing through the public persona, seeing someone as innocent and wounded, someone who suffers just like everybody else.
It’s one thing to be lied to by a politician, and to have to remind myself he’s human. Last month, it was more painful and perplexing to be lied to by someone I respected, a man I’d met recently, whom I considered to be a friend.
I don’t want these words to cause him any embarrassment. Let’s say he did something he shouldn’t have. It was a harmless act, except it violated my privacy. When I asked him about it, he denied it. I told him I found that hard to believe; he denied it again.
Confused now, and angry, I struggled for words. I hated accusing him, but I knew that a friendship without trust was impossible, and that the bonds between us were frayed already, like a rope bridge swaying in the wind.
My voice was dull and weary. This is sad, I said. He looked down and shrugged. A moment passed; he shifted uncomfortably. Without lifting his eyes, he said maybe he had done it, but he couldn’t remember. He kept staring at the floor.
Since we were talking about something that happened the night before, I was dumbfounded. I asked what he meant.
He looked at me, his face dark and unhappy. As a child, he said, he would try to forget any wrongdoing, in an attempt to escape his father’s wrath. His desperate reasoning was that if he couldn’t remember it, maybe his father wouldn’t either. As an adult, he had to struggle with the same impulse; his memory became foggy, for hours or days, sometimes for weeks on end.
I knew from an earlier conversation about the beatings, the long shadow in him of a painful childhood, more terrifying than most. I knew our friendship was on the line, but so, too, was the measure of my compassion. Did I need a confession? If I understood this much, couldn’t I forgive the rest?
I thought about the ways we’d learned to use truth differently. For him, there was safety in forgetting. Not for me. My father didn’t beat me, but he browbeat me about honesty. Never lie, he’d scold, his face inches from mine. I can remember every pore and blemish, the tiny blue vein in his head throbbing, the hairs in his nose. His familiar face, so unbearably close, became a stranger’s face. Never lie, he’d say, forcing me to look in his eyes, the last place I’d want to look. But look I did, and convincingly, as if I understood, and I suppose I did.
To lie was to disappoint, to injure, to diminish. Making a mistake was one thing; compounding it with a lie was much, much worse. For me, being honest was the best protection. At its best, this has kept me — well, honest. At its worst, I’ve learned to confess instead of understand my feelings, to mock truth with description, to trade honesty for a little love. The truth is we can read together from the atlas of our feelings, and still not know each other — not if we keep the truth of ourselves hidden, mistaking the maps for who we are.
As it turned out, it didn’t take long for my friend to remember. Fifteen minutes later, he was back. We talked. We didn’t try to fix with words what was broken. We knew it was better just to sit with the pieces, to look at them and try to understand.
“You carry the weight of inherited sorrow,” Bruce Cockburn sings, “from your first day till you die.” How to acknowledge the grief without denying our innocence is the news that stays news, the story of the ages. Reading the newspaper, it’s easy to forget this; I get caught up in a wish to judge, to see honesty triumph; I see symbols instead of real women and men. Sitting with a friend, I want only to dress his wounds with mercy. You have to wonder just when “us” becomes “them.”