There’s a man I spoke with recently who has been a lifelong friend. It was so good to reconnect again. It had been a while. He’s always been exceedingly transparent and brutally honest with me, and he was cool with my sharing a bit of his story here. For that, I am deeply grateful, as he has a witness to offer.
He was raised by two parents with different forms of mental illness. Life growing up, though it certainly had its beauties, was marked by physical and psychological abuse, marital infidelity and long-term estrangement among family members. He and his siblings, to varying degrees, suffer from the effects of being raised in such a home environment, and some of them manifest similar mental health issues.
He said he survived his childhood largely by learning to hide from his father, though there was nowhere to hide as his mother used him for emotional support, beginning when he was in middle school. He was constantly bullied in school and in his neighborhood, right up to his high school years, when he finally decided to make physical strength, hate, manipulation and deception his way of life. He said he vividly remembers the day in his freshman biology class when he learned about Darwin’s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest.” He said, “I decided that day I’d just found my philosophy of life.”
As years went on, he had a faith conversion in an Evangelical community he came into contact with through a friend of his, and he quickly began to turn his life around in some radical ways. But the scars were deep and, he said, were permanent. He added, “Eventually I realized God wasn’t going to take the scars away, but eventually I figured out he wanted me to allow him into them.” To this day, even with the immense progress he has made over decades, he still bears a persistent sense of worthlessness and self-loathing that keeps him – as I see it – from accepting and living out of the many gifts God has given him. What good others can see, he cannot.
Occasionally when we speak, as he opens up his soul to me on some of these painful parts of his life, he will sob like a little child. But mostly he lets no one in. As his wife once said to him, “you need a hundred lifetimes to grieve the pain you carry. But please let me at least help you to grieve in this one.”
He and his wife, whom he met in that Evangelical community, eventually had children. What a beautiful family they have! Certainly his pride and joy. There have been several tragedies and crises in their own family over the years, which I will not detail here. But, he said, they have been able to survive them all and, in the long run, come out stronger on the far side because of their shared faith in God. But it has not been easy for either of them. He told me not long ago that some of the very deeds he once cursed his father for, he has found himself struggling with, which has given him a deep and real sense of both humility and compassion for his dad’s failings. He said, “I came to see that man is me.”
He also says quite frequently that being married and having children have allowed him to receive from God a second chance at childhood. That nothing else in life has healed and redeemed him more than his calling as husband and father. “They schooled me in love, which is what I needed to learn.”
He said the other day, “My whole life is a testament of pure grace. The grace of God, and the graces of many good people along the way.” If anyone ever compliments him on his character or anything good he has done, he told me, with a hearty laugh, “I say to myself – Oh my Lord, if they only knew.” When I asked him what word summarized best his whole life story, he said, “Ah! That’s easy. Surrender. It’s only what you let go of that you get to keep. Choose to hold on to all the past shit — or even to the good stuff you have now — like it’s a possession? You’ll lose it all.” He added, “Look for the things you’re clinging to, and then practice every day letting it go into God’s hands. Everything. Good, bad, success, failure. Place it all at his disposal.”
He wrote to me last Good Friday, “This is the real the genius of Christianity to me — placing at the center of everything a God with permanent scars. Makes those of us who are beat up by life feel like all of life worth living. No matter how f****** up you feel, he’s right in it. Broken, together. That’s my hope my friend. Gets me up every day. That’s the love that has me still alive. What keeps you going these days, bro?”