My two best friends turned forty this summer. One in July, the other yesterday, two days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. That means in fourteen months, I’m next.
My younger friend is a four decade survivor. We both got bullied as kids, for different reasons. Those experiences helped to form us into who we are. When we met over two decades ago, we thought we knew all about the things that could hurt us. We were already practised in the multi-layered, nuanced art of self-loathing. We offered ourselves as prey. It was somehow gratifying, it felt justified. But we had enough insight and clarity to see ourselves in the other, and to seek protection for what we knew was actually love, the pieces splintered and buried deep, reflected back one to the other. Something that no one else could give to us, something no one else could pretend to understand. It did not require articulation. For a time, we were able to protect each other.
Over the course of decades, he’s been more harmed by these innate forces, though the collateral damage has been extremely heavy for both of us in different ways. We both had an uncanny knack for getting drawn in by bullies who wound up doing us great harm. But it would be a lie to say we were victims, purely innocent bystanders of chance. Though it happens a lot, to many people across the spectrum in every single walk of life, the bare truth of it is that we all knew intuitively that our choices were bad ones. We became too afraid to get out early, or avoid the danger all together, before it was too late. Experts on violence call this process “the interview”. The predator sizes up the prey, assesses what he is capable of extracting, of whether or not he will be able to overpower and control. All the while, inside the deepest part of ourselves where the will to survive was ringing the alarm, we kept on ignoring the nagging fear of impending calamity. Then it became like quicksand. Once you realize the true nature of the ground you have stepped upon, the more you struggle, the faster you sink.
He talks to me now about how I saved him. It’s true, years ago, I did do that. At the time, it wasn’t something I thought twice about. His parents could not handle the revelation that their only son was gay. I was outraged when he called me to tell me that his mother had given him two weeks to get out. I don’t even remember the conversation I had with my own parents about bringing him home. By then I considered him family, and it was just a given, he had to come home with us, since he was being turned out of his own. I travelled 700 or so miles north, a few months before I turned 19, and brought him back with me. Over the phone, talking about it now, he tells me that I was the first person who ever loved him unconditionally for who he was.
After years of suppression, emotional and mental violence, manipulation, and abuse, I still made out better than he did. No one threw me head first down a concrete stairwell with my arms pinned behind my back. No one delivered death to me with a kiss, and the false promise of something masquerading as love. Even so, we both know that we’re lucky to be alive, and neither of us take that for granted. We don’t know how much time we have left, but at least we found each other again before it was too late.
My daughter is trying to figure out the question of god, and I explain to her that I’m not an atheist, but an agnostic. I have serious issues with organized religions: their dogmas, prejudices, corruption, oppression, and violence. I remember the hypocrisy and exclusion I witnessed and experienced through my entire elementary and secondary parochial school education. But I also know that when people are in trouble, in crisis, many good, honest people are the first ones to help, tirelessly and selflessly, through their churches. They don’t care what the beliefs of those in need happen to be, they just reach out and give of themselves, give hope, and help. There are so many contradictions interwoven with the issues of religion, human institutions all. I’d like to believe that the good outweighs the bad, that the light smites the darkness, that evil can be avoided, rooted out, rehabilitated.
Part of me wants to. I would believe, if I was able.
*U2, Crumbs from Your Table. I do not own the rights to this song or film. No copyright infringement intended. This has been up on Youtube for years without being pulled down.