Things My Childhood Taught Me
DISCLAIMER: This essay probably doesn’t have the kind of purposeful ambiguity that makes for good creative nonfiction writing. It is, in other words, probably a bit too straightforward and preachy. But I feel the need to say it anyway, given recent events. I therefore call it a rant—the first in a series, probably. Thanks for understanding.
DISCLAIMER #2: In this writing, I talk about unnamed family members, friends, and acquaintances. The experiences I discuss below are not necessarily indicative of what these people are like in most respects, nor do I claim that they constantly evince the attitudes attributed to them below. I am merely demonstrating how I learned what I learned.
Recently on Facebook, I found myself in the middle of an argument about abortion. I don’t know how I get into these things. I had linked to a recent article detailing the new Texas law requiring abortion-seeking women to get a sonogram and have a doctor explain its meaning before undergoing any procedure. I see this law, and others like it, as part of the right-wing war on women, the same war that has resulted in other unconscionable laws being proposed and, in some cases, passed. I’m sure there’s another essay or six to be mined from proposals that want to redefine rape for the benefit of men or that, in one case, distinguishes between rape and “forcible rape,” as if any other kind exists. Much of what I’ve seen on this subject seems flat-out insane; even more seems dangerous and regressive.
The odd part about my posting the article on the Texas law? I did not say one word to defend abortion. I simply asked why, if such a law is going to exist, it doesn’t make a similar requirement of men. “It takes a man, or at least a man’s sperm, to get pregnant,” I reasoned. Men enjoy the privilege of walking away from a pregnancy if they wish, and their choices to do so—as well as other factors like the mother’s education, her employment situation, the parents’ families’ willingness to help out, and the existence (or lack thereof) of aid programs—affect a woman’s decision to abort or not just as much as her own self-interest or morals. Are there callous women who use abortion over and over as a means of retroactive birth control? Probably, and I admitted as much. But I believe that the majority of women who seek abortions do so for a plethora of reasons, not simply for convenience, and I know for a fact that these women suffer all kinds of consequences for their decisions—emotional, mental, financial, religious, physical, social. My wife Kalene recently read an article in which a doctor stated that 40% of American women have had abortions. I have no idea how accurate that statement is, but in any case, it is dangerous to characterize abortion as an uncommon act perpetrated by a few immoral women who simply don’t want to bother with a baby. Such an attitude encourages us to ignore the very real trauma that leads up to and follows an abortion.
The Texas law, and others like it, oversimplifies a complex situation by dumping all responsibility on the woman instead of sharing her burden (or blessing, or responsibility, or whatever you want to call it) with the man, the potential grandparents, or the state. That was my point—not to praise abortion per se, but to support women. Still, the discussion thread that followed sidetracked us all into a discussion of abortion itself—whether it should be legal and why, whether it can ever be considered a moral decision, whether we can understand why some women choose it, who should get to make that choice, and, finally, whether the Bible has anything to say about the situation.
Should anyone like to know my actual views on abortion and why I am a staunchly pro-choice Christian, I’ll be glad to write a column about that in the future. But today I am interested in discussing how the abortion debate led me to consider my formative years and what I learned then.
During the Facebook conversation, my own mother chose to articulate her own view on abortion. From her fundamentalist point of view, abortion is always wrong, no matter the circumstances; the Bible, she says, remains clear on this matter. As proof, she offered multiple scriptures that, in her view, baldly stated how life begins at conception and that abortion therefore constitutes baby-killing. When I read the scriptures, I found that none of them seemed to address the genesis of the soul, or the point at which life begins, or God’s stance on abortion. At best, they were ambiguous; at worst, they seemed completely off-topic and/or out of context. Thus, while I admired her conviction and her courage in standing up for her beliefs, I doubted that her evidence would convince anyone not already on her side. What really troubled me, though, was a statement that she later made: “We were not by any means perfect parents. We made many, many mistakes, but we did our best to instill Christian morals and beliefs in [Brett] as a child. We no longer have any say in what he does or what he believes, but I know he’s a good man, and I stand on the promise that God will bring him back to his Christian teachings.”
Upon reading this, I felt simultaneously proud of her assessing me a good man and angry about the rest. Here’s how I responded to that particular comment: “I take offense at the idea that I’ve got to come ‘back to my Christian teachings.’ I’ve never left them. I have a strong relationship with my God and, for the first time in my life, spiritual peace. I have achieved that peace by rejecting much of what I learned when I was a kid–not necessarily from my parents or family, but from society at large. But the teachings that I base my life on–faith, and love, and charity, and helping one’s neighbor, and so forth–stem directly from what I believe God wants me to do and what my own conscience tells me is right. I don’t hold all the political beliefs that my parents do–perhaps not any–but I reject the notion that I’m somehow spiritually bankrupt because I believe in a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body.”
Though I’ve taken a rather circumlocutious route to get here, these ideas, readers, represent the crux of what I’m after today. I am forty years old as of this writing—older than I can sometimes believe, especially given that I’m just now able to concentrate on my writing as a career, but still young, hopefully not even middle-aged. I am who I am today because of what I learned in the past—the past as recent as yesterday and the past as far back as the beginnings of my memory. Much of what I learned seems positive to me. Other lessons were negative, and many of these were taught me in the context of “good Christian morals” or “political ethics.” Allow me to illustrate, with a series of anecdotes, why I believe that rejecting much of what I learned as a child has molded me into the man I am today, for better or worse.
I come from an immediate and an extended family that is deeply steeped in Christian tradition. My mother’s family members mostly go to the same Assembly of God church in Crossett, a small town in southeast Arkansas. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist deacon; my father has served in the same capacity. Some of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my mother’s side used to tour the area in a gospel band, singing in all kinds of churches. They did so after and beyond their work hours and their family responsibilities. If someone needs a meal, or prayer, or clothes, you won’t find anybody acting as fast or with as much conviction as my family. These are good people in most ways.
But they have their blind spots. Once, I sat with an aunt at a family gathering. She was praising a local sports team’s accomplishments—games won, tournaments conquered, teamwork represented. Then she said, triumphantly, “And they did it all without any blacks!” She did not explain why that might be considered an extraordinary accomplishment, as if her conclusion was self-evident.
Another time, at a Christmas gathering and right after a heartfelt prayer for blessing, one of my cousins and I were talking college football. I was extolling the virtues of LSU, my alma mater, and he was arguing in favor of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He has no connection to the Razorbacks that I know of, other than that they play in the state he lives in. He said, “You know, LSU should change their team colors from purple and gold to green and pink.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“You know, watermelon?” he said. I still looked puzzled, so he sighed and said, “Niggers! That team is full of niggers!”
A college football team with African-American players? Perish the thought! I had no idea how to respond to his statement, because I felt so taken aback at the very thought of disliking a team for its racial components. I thought we were living in the 21st century, not the early 19th. I also never learned why he thought Arkansas’s black players were somehow exempt from his attitude. Ah, the “logic” of racism…
Another time, again not long after a family prayer thanking God for His blessings, an elderly family member opined that her neighborhood was falling into disrepair and squalor. For her evidence, she mentioned the recent increase in noise, attributable to “the blacks who have been moving in.” Personally, I didn’t know that African-Americans brought with them ambient noise.
These are three of the milder examples I experienced. Countless times when I was growing up, I heard some of these good Christian people use the term “nigger” uncritically, spitting it out of their mouths like rotten meat. Show them an individual black person in need, and they are as quick as anyone to help in any way they can. They are empathetic and compassionate. But remove the individual from the situation and the faceless mass of “niggers” becomes an object of dread, spite, even hatred. I have remained unable to locate the disconnect between this racism and the rest of their values, but it exists.
I saw more evidence of such a disconnect in school, where student groupings often broke down on racial lines. Oh, we all played on the same sports teams and went to the same classes; during those times, you might have been fooled into thinking that racism had gone extinct in the south. But after school, or even during lunch, racial groups went their separate ways. I can’t speak to what happened in other groups, but amidst my group of white friends—again, good people in most ways—the term “nigger” was used freely and uncritically. So were terms like “faggot.” I would see these same people in church, praising God and discussing the values of love and charity and human connection. And it bothered me from an early age. I wasn’t always thoughtful or courageous enough to act on my feelings, but I knew in my heart that what I saw and heard often wasn’t right.
At the church my parents made me go to during my teen years—a place that I hated, a place that made me feel farther from God than I ever have—I once heard a prominent member say that if any niggers ever walked in the church doors, they would walk right back out again, or he would.
And so, as I grew up, I learned that it’s okay to be Christian and still hate people who looked different than me, especially if they were black. I learned it at school, in church, and at family gatherings. I even learned it when I drove through town, knowing that most black people lived in the section between the western city limits and the highway known as the “truck route.” Racist white people often referred to this section as “nigger town,” as if it were a separate place altogether. I’ve searched the scriptures and my own conscience over the years, and I have never found one single shred of evidence that Christ justifies such hatred and exclusion. Not one. Yet so many Christians obviously harbor hatred in their hearts.
I mentioned above that many of my professing Christian friends used the word “faggot.” They also used “queer,” “fag,” “chocolate-churner,” “ass-bandit,” and just about every other pejorative name you can think of. These terms served to ostracize people who already did not fit in, regardless of what their actual sexualities might have been—the comic book readers with thick glasses and bad skin, the poor kids who could not afford good clothes and whose parents did not seem to own a washing machine, the gentle boys who were not interested in sports and the thickly-built girls who were. Back then at least, the children of that town seemed hyper-aware of sexuality and perfectly willing to verbally abuse, shun, and even beat up those who exhibited even one highly-stereotypical characteristic that supposedly connoted “gay.” I watched some good kids go through high school miserably, having been saddled with a label that they did not understand. Others who were gay, but closeted mostly out of self-preservation, stayed constantly on guard against themselves, lest they betray a sign of who they really were. They could not seek love, or physical contact, or acceptance because they would have been mercilessly mocked or worse, and by the people you saw in church every Sunday. This happened in late 20th-century America, in a town with more churches than you could count.
I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar, but I do not remember a single scripture in which Christ speaks out against homosexuality. There are some Biblical passages that seem to, but most of these are taken wildly out of context or refer to historical circumstances that no longer apply. I have read the works of Biblical scholars who feel the same way. In no case do I find that the Bible supports hatred of gay people or violence against them, or anyone else for that matter. Yet those who enact the worst violence against alleged gay people—and others assumed to be gay who are in fact not—often do so in God’s name. I wonder what He thinks of that.
Once, during my first divorce, I moved in with a friend and his father, who happened to be bisexual. I needed a place to go while I sorted things out, and they took me in without question. Later, when talking with a close family member who was extraordinarily active in his church, he said, “I hope you’re having a good time living with that queer,” pronouncing the word as he might “demon” or “Nazi.”
And so I learned—in school, with my family, and in and around church—that you can be Christian and hate gay people.
Familial relations appear to be a problematic area, too. Once, while I was attending my first wife’s church, one of her brothers had been scheduled to sing during service; I’m sure anyone who has gone to church is familiar with the “solo.” This church was fairly large, so it had a good sound system that piped the music and vocals from the pulpit to speakers at the back of the hall, into the vestibule, even into the nursery. Someone controlled the sound from a mixing board located in back of the church; on the day of my ex-brother-in-law’s solo, his own uncle was running the board. But as the song commenced, the sound faded in and out, usually during the most emotive portions. I looked back at the uncle, and he did not seem alarmed or even aware that anything was wrong.
After the service, I asked my ex about it. She said, “Yeah, he was mad that his son hadn’t gotten to sing, so he was messing up the sound on purpose.”
And so I learned that it’s okay to be Christian and to screw over your own family because of petty jealousy and spite.
In this same town lives a man who drives an old lawnmower everywhere he goes. Something is wrong with his head, and I don’t mean that metaphorically; his skull is actually crooked, tilting far out of true. This man is poor; he doesn’t drive a lawnmower because of the gas mileage. He is dirty; I have never seen him wear anything but the same pair of grimy, grease-and-dirt-stained overalls. He usually goes barefoot. He works, if I am not mistaken, odd jobs. He is, in other words, a good example of the financially downtrodden, the physically afflicted, the outcast. He is the kind of man that I believe Christ would be drawn to.
But in that town, people make fun of him because his head is crooked, or because he drives that mower down the shoulder of our roads, or because he isn’t clean. I have heard such comments made in a church parking lot as the man puttered by on his mower. And so I learned that you can be Christian and reject those in need, that you can be pious and make fun of others’ misfortune.
Did I learn anything positive while I was growing up? Of course I did. I learned positive lessons from my parents, my schools, my friends. But many of the lessons I learned were also negative; in other words, I learned what kind of man I did not want to be through the examples I saw around me. I did not do so immediately; I don’t claim to be better than any of the people I’ve discussed. When I was much younger, I too used words like “nigger” and “faggot.” I too made fun of the poor and negatively judged women who found themselves in adverse circumstances. I too shunned people who weren’t like me; I even participated in some of those verbal and physical rejections of difference that I discussed above.
But I did so, I can now honestly say, to my everlasting shame. Even back then, when I heard such words and saw or even participated in such actions, a voice deep inside me cried out, “This isn’t right! You’re a liar and a hypocrite! You don’t really feel this way!” And as I grew up, I discovered that the voice was right. I was professing to be a good person, a good Christian, while my actual life exemplified beliefs that contradicted progressive politics, Christian teaching, and my own conscience. If I do any time in hell, I believe it will be because of what I did and failed to do in those early days, not because I believe in a woman’s right to choose or because I can understand why some women feel abortion to be their only choice.
What I have done differently from so many of my peers and relatives—and I only say “differently” because you have to judge for yourself whether my beliefs are any better or worse than theirs—is that I have tried to reject those negative lessons. Rather than refusing to think about the contradictions in my stated values and my actual life, I have tried to bring the two into a kind of harmony. Rather than dismissing my own early complicity in hatred, I have tried to own it and make up for it. I don’t do so out of guilt alone; I don’t believe in civil rights for everyone, for instance, only because I feel bad that I once ignored any societal problems that didn’t directly affect me. I do so because I truly believe that it’s right—that it is what my own conscience, and my God, would have me do. I have tried to make myself a better person so that I can make the world better, and I have tried to pass those values onto my children as a counterbalance to the negative lessons that I know they, too, are learning deep in the American south.
Does this make me (or people who think like I do) some kind of role model or paragon of virtue? No. But for the first time in my life, it does allow me to look at myself in the mirror and like what I see, to sleep at night knowing that if I didn’t contribute anything especially transcendent to the world today, then at least I didn’t make things worse. I have tried to take the positive lessons of my youth and apply them. And I have tried to take the negative lessons and build something positive from them. I try to serve as an ally for those in need, those I might have once mindlessly rejected. I don’t try to speak for them, because they can speak for themselves, but I try to do my part, and I am honored when they allow me to be a part of their missions. I strive to live by the principles of love, faith, hope, charity, and acceptance, and on those occasions when I still fail, I wake up the next day, ready to try again. I am at peace with myself and with God.
And in this imperfect world, perhaps that has to be enough.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.