The cashier frowned as he took the cash from the man standing in front of me. It wasn't an obvious frown, merely the downward wrinkle of lips and gathering of skin between the eyebrows, as if he was thinking about something important. Unless you had seen it before, or you were looking for it, it was difficult to spot. I was standing next in line, waiting for my turn to pay for gas, so it wasn't hard to miss. The gas stop was painted a bright red and white, as if to counter the gloom of another rainy night. The smattering of conversation from a couple of girls buying snacks drifted up towards the front. The man in front of me however, didn't seem to notice the slight as he accepted his change with a smile. He was wearing a dark sports coat and gray slacks with a white button down shirt. Well dressed, but nothing out of the ordinary. But his movements just felt wrong. Too fluid. Too much wrist. As if he was dancing while standing still. He was about my height, but lean and smooth shaven. He said good night, and the cashier whistled silently through his teeth, watching him for an extra second as the man glided out into the rain.
I bit my lip and frowned at the cashier, a burly man in his early forties, but he didn't notice and brightened considerably when he saw me.
"Another rainy night, eh?" He said, taking my money.
"Another rainy night." I repeated, my voice flat.
I wanted to say something more, but what could I say? Hey, Mr. Uneducated Jerkoff, I saw how looked at that guy because you thought he was gay? Instead, I was left to fume at the obvious bigotry, and headed out into the rain without saying another word.
Rain teased down the windshield, blurring the lights into a miasma of yellows and greens and reds. It was still warm enough to leave my window open, and I drove slowly through the streets, listening to the patter on my roof and the squish of tires, enveloped by the silence that always seemed to follow the rain. I had a hard time getting the incident at the gas bar out of my head. The cashier was probably a conservative, I thought. Probably a Christian, too, since there weren't a whole lot of white Muslims here. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. How could someone be so prejudiced? Hadn't he read the papers lately, heard anything at all about the rash of gay suicides by teenagers down in the States? Who was he to judge someone like that?
By the time I pulled into the underground parking lot, I was so angry that I nearly drove into one of the columns before finally bringing my car to a screeching halt. I had to write about this… do something. For a writer, turning thoughts into words on a page is largely how we deal with things, but it doesn't necessarily mean we deal with them correctly. This however, was something else. I was tired of the prejudice, misogyny and bigotry so evident in our society. Why couldn't people see it? I didn't know the cashier, but I'd seen his type before. White, of course, and male. Probably loved Glenn Beck and wondered why the world didn't look like 1950. Probably watched Mad Men and wished things could go back to the way they were. (Missing the entire point of the show) That women and minorities had few rights sixty years ago probably affected him not at all. By the time I was sitting in my spot on the balcony, I was ready to chew nails. For the next four days I pounded out two thousand words on a fictional white male who tries his hand at both the Tea Party and Homosexuality before realizing that he might have made a misjudgement. I let Bethany read it, and she gave it back with a few suggestions. (She's a great editor) There was something about it however, that I didn't like. I knew a few liberal magazines that might be interested, but I had this feeling that I was missing something. Something important.
You have to understand that I am not a classically trained writer. I did not major in English or do an MFA. Most of my formal education, though not all, is theological. Whatever you see here (and hopefully you find it stimulating) is the result of fifteen years or so of reading How-To books and sitting at the Desk, pounding things out. As a rule, I write by feel, not unlike a musician who plays by ear. (There are more effective ways to write, and I do wish sometimes that I had more formal training, but it has always been such, and I've learned to live with the results.) I put my ear to the winds blowing in both my heart and mind, to the phrases that stick and those that stick out, to the order of thought and clarity of presentation, and try to listen. More importantly, I listen for the tone of the writing itself. Tone is important, because once you're comfortable in your own voice, the first step for any writer, the tone is more than just another tool. It is the music behind the lyrics. More than that it a reflection of self, it is a vivid mirror that reveals a great deal about where you are along the road to discovery.
And so, as I looked at my article a few days later, I realized what was wrong. I was ashamed of what I'd written, and spent some time in prayer to do some soul searching with God. Why? Well, we must go back a ways to understand…
"If we let gays marry, what's next? Polygamy? It's a slippery slope once we go down that road." I said.
I was sitting at the Starbucks after another long week at the school. Jim sat across from me, playing with the lid of his cup.
"I don't know, Steve. Seems kind of… wrong. I don't like dudes, but what if I did? Seems kind of crappy that they can't get married and be unhappy like the rest of us." He said, smiling.
"Bah. It's a lifestyle. A choice. Marriage is a sacred institution."
I felt good saying that. After two years of separation my wife and I had put everything back together. Things weren't great, but marriage was sacred. A covenant. A vow to God. And if it wasn't great, so what? You just had to work harder. I certainly wasn't going to let people who chose to have sex with the same gender up and change our society with their liberal views. Hell, if we made gay marriage legal what would be next? Brothels? Men with six wives? Animal lovers? Why couldn't people see just how dangerous it was?
Jim didn't say anything, just played with his cup.
"How are things at home?"
"All right." I said. "Well not great but we got a lot of issues. We'll figure it out. We have to."
The pub was packed. We were near the front though, so it was quiet enough to talk. I sipped my beer, and Duane plopped down beside me. He was a relatively new friend, a friend of a friend, and we'd been hanging out throughout the summer. The divorce had gone through the past winter, and I found myself out more often than ever. I guess it was to be expected. Being alone was not a lot of fun, and while the pain of the divorce had slowly receded, my life had changed drastically. For now, I was happy to be out and have a few drinks and forget about the past two years.
"I have a question for you, Steve." Duane said.
"You're religious, right?"
I nodded cautiously. Less so than in the past, I thought, and yet in some ways, it meant more to me now. Most of my friends weren't Christians, but it wasn't an issue. If anything, we'd had a lot of great conversations about faith and spirituality and what it all meant. Or what it might mean. In some ways, it was a role, and one I didn't mind. I liked talking about God. I certainly had never been shy about it.
"Do you think God would love a gay man if he got married?"
I nearly choked on my beer, but managed to smooth my features in time. Barely. Duane was well dressed, as always, with an open collared shirt and black jeans. His hair was long and wavy, and though his smile suggested this was just another one of our 'religious' discussions, I knew there was weight to the question. The thing is, we all knew Duane was gay. He hadn't admitted it to his friends, but it was fairly obvious. He'd never had a girlfriend and showed no interest in girls whatsoever.
"Well, the Bible is pretty clear about sex outside of marriage. And so-"
"I know, but what if they were married?"
"Um, I don't know, Duane. I mean, marriage is between a man and a woman. It's always been that way. And the Bible…" I stopped and looked at him. Watched his fingers curl around the glass of his beer. Noticed the flex across his jawline. "It doesn't mean God doesn't love you. I'm not sure it's right, but God always loves you."
My answer sounded lame even to myself. It wasn't right, I thought. For a moment, I allowed myself to walk in Duane's shoes. What would it have been like to spend all those years growing up and NOT being interested in girls? Especially when your classmates and friends were talking and joking about them. Girl watch and social status are the two highest priorities for a straight adolescent boy. As awkward as that was, what would it have been like to be attracted only to boys, the same ones who were asking you about girls? And then there were parents and family expectations. Long dinners and reunions answering questions about when 'you were going to bring someone home'. And then, of course, was the inevitable bullying that occurred if the other males caught a whiff of your sexuality.
I wanted to say something more, but what? When I finally looked up however, Duane had drifted over to another group of friends. When I went home that night, I thought long and hard about his question. I was determined to give him a better answer the next time.
It never came.
People always tell us that sex sells, to the point where it has become a truism of our society. Perhaps fifty years from now we'll discover that it doesn't sell nearly as well as we think it does, and something else will take its place. There is however, something that sells even more readily than sex, especially within an increasingly diverse, postmodern population. Advertisers use it. Writers and talk show hosts use it. Churches use it too. Even more than sex, surety is the greatest force of all. With all the choices now available to us, either through the market place or the information highway, nothing sells like surety. This is the paradox of choice; that given too many options we are mostly apt to freeze. We want someone to tell us what to do, what's best how we should think. We want our choices narrowed so that we don't have to think about everything. In some ways, it not only makes sense, but it's a legitimate response. (Whether it's lifestyle or business or our choice of movies, there is simply too much out there to know everything.) And the ones who take advantage of that vulnerability can reap the greatest rewards.
How else can we explain the counter movement of fundamentalism cutting a wide swath through our cultural landscape? I'm not talking simply about religious fundamentalism, but the entrenched black and white thinking that dominates politics as well. We so desperately want to be assured that we are either right or wrong, that we have created a polarized culture that has become increasingly judgmental and filled with vitriol. Just go to any article on the internet. Listen to the radio and you'll hear it.
Hate mongering is on the rise. Instead of being more understanding about sexuality, despite what we've learned, hate crimes and bullying, and consequently, gay suicide, are on the rise. Despite all we've learned about gender and equality, there is a boorishness in young males who can find any number of books to wallow in their destructive stereotypes regarding women. And yet, the source of this vitriol has skipped no one, not even the ones who count themselves to be enlightened and tolerant. People who question religion and tend to think of themselves as better than others because their worldview is more understanding.
Yes, people like me.
Self-righteousness and arrogance are two sides of the same coin. And wherever they are present they inevitably infect whoever else is there. Self-righteousness tells me that I am right most of the time. It gives me special status and allows me to look down at others, because I have somehow advanced myself more than the other humans with whom I share this planet. Self-righteousness is a creeping disease because it knows no boundaries, and cannot be stopped by any single belief or system of beliefs. You may think that you are more loving and tolerant and wise because of your religion, or because you reject religion, or because of your politics, but that is merely the voice of self-righteousness speaking through you.
It is one thing to believe that you are right. It is another to know it. One requires faith and humility. The other asks you for nothing. Self-righteousness does not need you to feed it, it merely needs you to ignore it. To brush aside questions about your own mortality and beliefs and accept your own convictions. I have sometimes wondered how it is that people can be so wealthy, and yet so nasty, so dismissive of others. But if we never question our own ideas, or at least entertain them with humility, why would we be considerate of those we consider less than ourselves.
Ultimately, self-righteousness is about status, and our hunger and desire for it. So long as we believe that all humans are NOT created equal, it will continue to grow and fester, and as it does, continue to spread its vitriol throughout our culture.
…The balcony was still a bit damp, but the wind had pushed away the clouds, and the stars glimmered in the night sky. Beads of rain water clung to the railing like a row of unlit lights. In the distance, the blue lit CN tower nestled in along the other lights of the city. I didn't like admitting what I'd written or the way that I'd written it. It was akin to saying that I'd been a jerk. That I hadn't published it or sent it out didn't matter. That I supported gay marriage, or worried over the increase in bullying and taunting in light of the gay suicides this past year, were important and weren't going to change. However, thinking that I was better than people who did not agree with me was unacceptable. Had I not thought the same things myself? Had I not been wrong in the past about my convictions? Where was my humility?
The white light of my laptop seemed unnatural somehow, as I watched the beads along the railing shimmer in the wind. Some days it was hard to be human. More than that, it was difficult to continually admit that I was fallible and often wrong about how I considered the world. It was so easy to get drawn towards self-righteousness, so easy to sneer at others through either my words or my actions. I could pray that I would get better, that I would remember we were all just trying to figure out this thing called life. In the meantime, I asked God to forgive me as I clicked off my computer. Tomorrow was another day. Another day to remember what I'd discovered and respond accordingly. Perfection wasn't attainable, but with God's help, a bit more grace and a little more understanding could go a long way.