When I was 5 years old, I had a rat-tail.*
(*NOTE: The addition of the hyphen between these two decidedly embarrassing dance partners lends, what I believe to be, a more genteel rendering of a hairstyle worn almost exclusively by folks screaming “Dale YEAH!” from the cheap seats at Bristol Motor Speedway each spring.)
I must admit, there are few things quite like —after a surprisingly pleasant and unexpected lunch with your estranged father who initiated the meeting because he wants to pass on “something meaningful” to you— feeling the oddly smooth fibers of your childhood neck tickler* after it’s been hermetically sealed in a sandwich bag for the last 23 years.
My life is a Flannery O’Conner short story where everyone dies in a tent revival fire.
Ever since that fateful lunch, I've found myself continually mulling over this embarrassing uncle of a childhood memory anytime I notice judgmental vitriol pouring out of me unexpectedly (and by "unexpectedly" I most certainly mean "after voluntarily reading 300 articles about the election"). As, for years now, I've spent the better part of my waking hours mentally deconstructing the internal motivations and proclivities of the people around me: what they wear, who they read, where they went to school, what they do for a living, who they voted for in the primary, what music they listen to (and if you say “all kinds” I WILL LEAVE IMMEDIATELY), who they do or don’t date, and what movies “speak to them”.
In the late 90s I lacked a truly compelling medium upon which to paint these witty and withering critiques (bathroom stalls at Hobby Lobby notwithstanding), but in 2016 the Internet affords me an incredibly captive audience of old high school classmates and people I've met in person only once (and can't remember where) right at my fingertips at all hours of the day (UMM, DOES YOUR SPOUSE KNOW YOU'RE READING THIS INSTEAD OF LISTENING TO HIM RECOUNT YET ANOTHER EXPERIENCE WITH SURLY GREG FROM ACCOUNTING?!).
Thanks to criminally-unknown Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee* and the time-sucking monster he created, every party, drive home, and eternal-grocery-store-register-experience-behind-someone’s-check-writing-great-aunt quickly becomes an altar upon which I can sacrifice those around me in the name of my own endlessly narcissistic struggles for meaning.
(*NOTE: Seriously, the man MADE the internet and you’ve never googled him. Just imagine the Frankenstein-esque feeling of witnessing the thing you’ve built for human flourishing suddenly use that power to create a Twitter account.)
Needless to say, I get it when, in our painful strains to reach for the authenticity endlessly bouncing around in the backseats of our souls, all we manage to lasso these days is destructive snark ham-handedly parading as righteous indignation. With each passing moment it feels like sarcasm and disappointment are the only things back there anymore, and the more we leverage the lives, choices, partners, hair styles, and recreational activities of the humans in front of us for the laughs, likes, and retweets the more our actual (and probably our Internet) souls die.
As I’m sure Rene Girard* would have said were he active on Facebook in an election year: When the only thing connecting you to someone else is an agreed-upon verbal, political, religious, and/or social disdain of another, you have and you are, nothing.
(*NOTE: Rene Girard is rarely read and often quoted for his work on systemic violence, literary theory, scapegoating, and Christian atonement theories. Needless to say, don’t expect to pop open Violence and the Sacred in bed unless you only plan on sleepily reading the table of contents.)
Which is why I’ve decided to wear that lock of my rat-tail in an amulet around my neck.
No, sorry, got ahead of myself there, what I meant to say was:
Which is why I’ve found that remembering all of who we are —especially the missteps, the false-starts, and the cringeworthy times we took a fashion risk that continues to haunt the pages of our family photo albums and our dreams— is the only way we can carve out enough space for other people to come to the very same redemptive conclusions about their own baggage-laden stories.
That, even in our worst selves, we’re worth the breaths we’re taking now.
Or, in the words of 17th century Rabbi, Susya of Hanipol:
“When I die and stand before the Heavenly Judge will I not be asked why I was not like Abraham or Moses? To such a question, I could provide a very convincing answer. No, when I die I will be asked only one question, the answer to which will determine whether or not I take my place in the world to come: “Why was I not Susya?” And to this I will have nothing to say at all.”
Despite the fashionable queries of late 90s bracelets in technicolor all inviting us to reflect upon just what exactly Jesus would do, none of us will ever be like Tim Tebow…or Jesus. Mercifully, the validity of the Christian faith actually depends upon our very failure to reproduce the life of a man we believe to be a uniquely concrete embodiment of the creator and sustainer of the universe.
The exceeding novelty of Jesus across the eons of history has been an incredibly important point of fact for Christianity. Which may also mean the question playing softly in the background of your (or that of your preferred politician's) existence isn’t why aren’t you (or they) more like Abraham, Moses, or even Jesus;
it’s why aren’t you Susya?
That is, of course, if your name is Susya.
Flying in the face of a great deal of advertising to the contrary, your identity isn’t rooted in how successful, thin, conservative, wealthy, well-read, fertile, intelligent, progressive, polite, or faithful you are when compared to others filling the cocktail party or Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in which you find yourself. Rather, the question greeting your life time and again is why aren’t you, the person who uniquely lives in a very particular time and place with very particular offerings and ideas and thoughts and dreams and doubts and fears, you?
If the cosmos didn’t need you, believe me, you wouldn’t exist;
life is nothing, if not sadistically efficient.
A great lie filling the nooks and crannies of our world is that both this life and the one following it, are crowded. The idea that there’s only so much space, meaning, resources, grace, and redemption to go around is a popular one. So much so, that each time someone discovers their own belonging in a sea of noisy anonymity, a sudden fear wells up within the rest of us that ours is now in peril.
The foundation of the Christian story is that, at our core, humanity has a fundamental misunderstanding about distribution, cosmic and otherwise. In the words of Susya, and not unsurprisingly a fella named St. Paul (WHO IS IN THE BIBLE!), there’s more than enough room for all of us when we stop spending the lion’s share of our time standing in someone else’s place. So, as we work and pray and read and slick back our regrettable neck ticklers-
(whatever they may now be: I mean, you can't convince me you won't (years from now) regret having a man bun in your rustic farmhouse wedding pictures...MASON JARS!)
-remember that we are never behind nor ahead,
we are only beside.
Annnnd, in the discovery of unexpected solidarity disappointedly tethering us one to another, may we come to embrace the counterintuitive beauty of the fact that we aren’t the only ones with confusion, angst, fear, and regrettable fashion in the room. Which, I suppose is what the divine voice has been reminding us of ever since that first afternoon in a garden many years ago:
“It is not good that the man should be alone.”
And all God’s people cheering in turn 3 said: “DALE YEAH!”
Photo credit: Lucas Jackson/AP