Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Fundamentalist's Despair

Catch up with the series here.

Warning: there is a phrase in this post that most will find offensive. It is offensive; but it's what I said; and, I'm simply quoting myself. I, in no way, condone the phrase now.

Early fall of 2003, I arrived back in Greenville, SC after spending the rest of my traveling money partying in Pensacola. I had driven straight to Pensacola from San Antonia. By that point, I was tired of feeling alone and confused; I was tired of thinking. So, I called two of my old bosses in Greenville, and got assurances that I had jobs waiting for me; and then I blew through the rest of my money. I decided that the best way to shut-up my troublesome doubts was to have fun. Besides, the path to freedom from what I had recently discovered were the hypocritical constraints of liberal activist moralism appeared to lie down the wide, fast-lane of hedonism.

Working in a pizza place during the day and a bar at night meant that I didn’t have a lot of free time; but, working two jobs did ensure that I had plenty of money to party with during whatever free time that I did have. To help with finances, I conned my ex into letting me stay at her place for free, but I was rarely there. Most nights found me in different and strange beds. I won’t lie; at the beginning, it was fun. Not only was I doing whatever I wanted with little to no regards for anyone else, but I was enjoying the reputation that I was garnering. One of my coworkers from the pizza place saw me on a “date” with two girls; and gave me the nickname “Gigolo.” At the bar, I became the guy who insisted that we all go to an after-hours club once we closed. There were many mornings when I would wake up with no idea of where I was, how I got there, or whom I was with. I went from being the vegetarian, activist artist to the womanizing life of the party.

During that fall, neither the businessman from Miami nor the church in California made their way into my thoughts very often, if at all; but, the pilgrimage’s existential impact on my life was manifesting itself in a continuously growing rage. I became more vitriolic in my attacks on Christians and their faith. I would seek out Bob Jones University students walking around downtown Greenville. I didn’t care if they were “proselytizing” or not; while blowing cigarette smoke in their faces, I would profanely confront them about their racist, homophobic, and misogynistic religion[1].  

Like all religions, hedonism isn’t free[2]. Using and mistreating other humans made in the image of God requires either ignoring your conscience, or finding ways to keep it quiet. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do either one of those 100% of the time. Being angry helped. But, ultimately anger and fun make strange bedfellows; and my anger began to grow and direct itself at the people and activities that I had surrounded myself with, and, as a result, placed my fun under bondage. 

My anger had some help, though. Several events that fall hastened my eventual divorce from hedonism. Of course, those events were on top of the growing emptiness that was quickly replacing the initial euphoria found in only caring about myself. One of the seminal events that fall, however, betrayed that hedonism wasn’t as entrenched in my soul as I hoped.

One evening, on the way to meet up with another girl, I stopped at a friend’s apartment. It was odd that she neither answered the door, nor her cell phone. Not only was her car in the parking lot, but she was expecting me. After banging on the door for a few minutes, and attempting to call her several times, I became worried and tried the door. It was unlocked. I tentatively walked in and called out for her. As I entered, I could hear faint crying from the kitchen. Walking around the corner, I found my friend lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood with a kitchen knife in her hand. She had slit her wrists. She looked up at me and weakly said, “I’m sorry.” Trying to catch my breath, I stood there for a second or two.

Like most people, I was aware that there is a correct direction to slit your wrists if you want to kill yourself. She had slit them the wrong way[3], and her bleeding appeared to have tapered off quite a bit. As I helped her sit up against the kitchen cabinets, she asked me not to call 911. She was worried about being committed, and was afraid that she would lose her job if her boss found out. Not knowing if either of those things were true or not, I hesitantly agreed, but knew that I had to do something. Discovering that she only had band aids in her apartment was a further complication for someone who didn’t know what he was doing. While I was fairly confident that she didn’t really want to die, there was still a part of me, the part that had found her lying in her own pool of blood, that didn’t know if I should risk leaving her alone to go get first aid supplies. The stupidity of this didn’t escape me at the time, but I made her promise to not do anything stupid while I went to CVS.

After bandaging her wrists, I didn’t think that it would be wise for me to leave her alone. I called, explained the situation to the girl waiting for me, and told her that I wasn’t going to be able to come over. She cussed me out.

The next day, this girl and her friends let me have it about how wrong my decision was to stand-up my “date” for another girl. I was flabbergasted. I tried to explain that I believed that it wasn’t wise to leave her alone; that I was worried that she might actually kill herself if left alone. They didn’t care. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the tension between my desire to be like Cain and the fact that the Holy Spirit was revealing the Father to me and drawing me home to Him was the source of most, if not all, of my internal struggle. This event – my desire to help a fellow Image Bearer clashed with my brand new hedonism, and that tension helped eventually propel me to my knees.

One of the other seminal events happened just a few weeks later in late November while I was partying with the same group of friends who had deemed it inappropriate for me to be concerned about the well-being of a suffering and possibly suicidal friend. Leading up to this night, I had already stopped enjoying the type of partying that had characterized the previous two and a half months of my life; and, I had become increasingly annoyed by the antics of the group that I had been hanging out with that fall. I’ve searched my memory in a vain attempt to remember when and why my disgust with my current hedonism had begun. I may not be able to pinpoint the moment when the disgust took root, but I vividly remember the night that I finally reached the point where I was finished with the frivolity of hedonistic Vanity Fair.

That evening began like most evenings; after my shift ended, I joined the group, some of them my co-workers, which had congregated at the bar. No longer simply annoyed, but having crossed into disgust at their myopic world of the immediate moment, I stubbornly refused to drink. My propensity to rebel had ironically begun to manifest itself into refusing to do the very things that I had once believed were necessary in order for people not to assume that I was a Christian. So, I hung out at the bar, surrounded by drunk people I no longer liked, and listened to countless conversations about their favorite night in Vegas or who in the group had had the most STD’s[4]. If you’ve ever worked in a bar where you’ve had to spend night after night being around drunk people while you yourself were sober, you understand the incredibly, annoying stupidity that characterizes drunk people. So, in other words, standing there sober listening to drunk idiots pushed me to the brink of my temper.

One of the guys who had been bragging about having had the clap, and whom I didn’t even know, decided, I guess, that my surly demeanor was ruining everyone’s buzz. So, he sauntered up to me, grabbed my face with one hand, and tried to get me to drink a shot of something with the other hand. I immediately shoved him back into the crowd at the bar, picked up a chair, and threatened to put him in the hospital if he touched me again. The crowd at the bar, having their buzz most definitely ruined by me at this point, hurled invectives at me. My friends, specifically the girl that I was actually there for, decided that it was best that we leave.

It was just past one in the morning when we stepped out of the bar and onto Main Street. In the group of four, I was the only one not drunk. And, in that group of four, two of them were barely-able-to-walk drunk. One of the girls who fit into that category decided that it was wiser for her to drive than for me to drive. I was too far away from her to grab her when she simultaneously announced her decision and lurched for her car door. By the time I got to her car, she had already locked her doors and started the car. The girl I was with was the least drunk out of the three, and realized that her friend driving was an incredibly bad idea. Unfortunately, she was drunk enough to not realize that jumping onto the hood was also a bad idea. The girl in the car gunned it in reverse and immediately slammed on the brakes which sent the girl on the hood sliding headfirst over the driver’s side wheel well. Not to be deterred from her brave, selfless, and ultimately stupid act, the girl jumped back onto the hood. The girl inside the car was laughing hysterically. I stood there pissed off that I knew these people and pissed off that I knew that I needed to do something. My theatre classes[5] at Bob Jones University hadn’t prepared me for this, so I improvised. I began pounding on the side window and screaming at the top of my lungs for the girl to get out of the car. To make a long story short, these events mercifully only lasted for less than a block. That was the last night that I partied with that group. I also quit my job at the bar not long after.

In early December, I moved into an apartment in Spartanburg with a co-worker from the pizza restaurant. It was a one bedroom apartment, but Jose graciously let me have the bedroom. Although, to be fair, the mattress on the living room floor that was his bed was probably more comfortable than the 70’s era futon that I slept on. The futon was only about five feet long, and had thick wire coils in it that had defeated the padding years earlier. But, that futon matched that apartment and I don’t think that I would’ve had it any other way.  

That apartment was a mess. On top of being messy, it was filled with dirty ashtrays, weird clutter, and really old and musty furniture. By weird clutter, I mean things like a giant inflatable penis and a collection of IQ test books. The voodoo doll that I had purchased in New Orleans fit perfectly hanging from the dining room light fixture. In fact, everything about that apartment felt oddly affirming. I felt depressed and dirty, and the apartment matched.

In January, I began rehearsals for A Murder is Announced. During the first table read, I immediately fell into lust with the actress playing opposite me. Not only was she engaged, but she was also a Christian; I had no shot. Unrequited love can be a very satisfying emotion, though, and I pursued her relentlessly and single-mindedly. I even went so far as to brush my teeth after smoking during rehearsals so that she wouldn’t have to “kiss an ashtray.” I followed her around like a puppydog, and lapped up any and everything she said to me. She was kind and gracious to me, although, to be honest, somewhat confusing for me. I don’t believe that she intended to ever lead me on, and I never actually believed that I had a shot. I think that I tapped into her mothering instincts; and, so, she spent more time with me than a good, engaged Christian girl should have with a guy like me. To be fair, she would often share the Gospel with me. Unlike the poor BJU students that I would seek out, my side of the discussion with her was far less arrogant proselytizing and far more attempting to explain myself to her. I don’t think that I was still an atheist at that point, but I had yet to openly admit that to myself. So, much of her Gospel talk took the form of apologetics. During one of our many discussions, she encouraged me to read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. In a shocking coincidence, my parents had given me that very book for Christmas. I read it, and immediately wished that I hadn’t.

February of 2004 saw the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. My sister’s brother-in-law, who ended up being my pastor a couple of years later, invited me to watch the movie with him. Before I left for the movie, I told some people that I was planning on clapping and laughing at inappropriate times during the movie. Except I spent pretty much the whole movie trying not to feel shame and a desire to know this movie character. When the movie was over, I just wanted to get out of there and forget it. Back at the apartment, I got high and tried to go to sleep.

By the time March had rolled around, it was practically impossible for me to quiet my trumpeting doubts. It seemed like that no matter where I turned, this God was in my face. Even my roommate Jose had become part of the problem. We would get high, and then he would pull out his Bible and began reading. I would sit there, fuming that he was ruining my high by forcing me to think about the Bible and God.

It finally reached the point where I could no longer deny the existence of God; so I intellectually assented to His existence. But if I was angry before, my intellectual assenting of God filled me with a rage that I wasn’t aware I was capable of. I began reading the Bible. But, I was reading the Bible to find God’s trick. I was convinced that God was a liar. As I agonized over it and discussed the topic with people, I concluded that God was scared of us. I believed that the Serpent had been correct, and that humans could overthrow God. I wanted to overthrow God. I told Jose that I hoped that I was the anti-Christ.

As my anger at God grew, my anger at my fellow humans, including myself, grew, too. During that time, my previous hedonistic driven lack of concern for others had morphed into a rage driven desire to hurt people. I began to seek out happy people in stores, at the movie theatre, and among the customers that had ordered pizzas, and did whatever I needed to ruin their happiness.

That March, Jose and I were evicted from our apartment. Our rent money was being spent on drugs. We moved in with a mutual friend who worked with us at the pizza restaurant. (That apartment was a level of bizarreness that will have to wait until the next post for further explanation.) One night, standing on the back porch of the apartment and, at the conclusion of a discussion about God, in immense pain and anger I screamed, “Fuck you, God!” The people on the porch with me chuckled nervously, trying to determine if I was serious or not. The next day I walked onto a bridge with the intention of jumping off.

As I looked down onto the sidewalk below me, I had two main thoughts. I told myself that my family would be sad at first, but in the end my death would save them a lot of pain. I honestly believed that. My second thought was, “I thought this bridge was a lot higher.” I concluded that this was not the bridge to jump off since I would probably only succeed in shattering some bones. So, I walked down to the park along the bank of the Reedy River and sat down. Almost immediately I was overwhelmed with what I was contemplating, and I began sobbing uncontrollably. After a several minutes of probably unsettling the families who had come down to feed the ducks, I sat up and allowed my mind to go back to my pilgrimage, which, unbeknownst to me had begun years earlier. I thought about my dorm supervisor at BJU who had warned about the empty and destructive nature of the party lifestyle. I thought about Mr. Bean at the Christian school in Florida, and his kindness and grace to me that lonely day in his office. I thought of the businessman from Miami whom I had met in Denver, which caused me to think about my mom praying for me. And I thought about that fundy church east of San Francisco, and how kind and welcoming the people in that church had been. In that moment, I decided that that was where I needed to be. I needed those church people to smile at me and ask me how I was doing. I decided to move to San Francisco. Unfortunately, I still had a little ways to go before the Father ran out to meet me as I struggled down the road to His house.

[1] Normally I don’t point out the irony, but, come on, I, of all people, was accusing the BJU students and Christians in general of being misogynistic.
[2] And, yes, Christianity is a religion. See the book of James for one thing. But, in Christianity the cost has been paid by God himself.
[3] On purpose, of course. There is a difference between being suicidal and having suicidal thoughts.
[4] Yep, you read that correctly. At least some of them were proud of their past STD’s (which meant that many probably had and still have STD’s of the non-curable variety). I, on the other hand, didn’t see the enjoyment in having a q-tip shoved up my urethra – besides the incredibly obvious fact that STD’s are not points of pride.
[5] The theatre classes were the only ones I paid attention in. Maybe freshman orientation covered things like this. I don’t know. I never listened.

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