Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Tolerance

We have a great group of people in the Humble Fiction Café. We come from many different walks, many different perspectives, and many different life experiences. Some of us are religiously affiliated, some of us are spiritually in tune, and some of us are citizens of the world. Well, actually we all are, but you get my point.

We appear to send out some interesting vibes while we sit in our little circle of chairs, sipping our coffee and talking about subjects like the edible possibilities of human digits (Thank you, Joy, for that one). It’s not for everybody- and some people are understandably not in tune with our eclectic group dynamic.

This kind of thing pops up from time to time. Someone will approach our little table, sit for a while, share introductions, and then either nod along and participate in the discussion, or excuse themselves and impulsively check to make sure their purse and/or wallet isn’t missing as they head for the door.
Yes, it’s true- sometimes they just don’t click with the assembled group and it can lead to occasional awkward moments.
But sometimes, we get an entirely different sort of interaction. Sometimes a visitor comes along and proffers advice or criticisms on subjects that have nothing to do with writing, editing, or the creation of fiction. .

The reason I decided to write about this interesting clash of personalities is because of a recent visitor who, during a discussion, told one of our members that she should not argue with her husband because that isn’t her role as a wife. This visitor made it very clear that she was of a specific religious belief system, and I believe her comment stemmed from either her strong personal convictions, or an overwhelming need to apply those convictions to anyone who happened to present an opposing viewpoint.

Now, maybe I’m totally off the beam here, but I’m sure we have all encountered similar situations and personalities. Anyway, that whole incident got me thinking about my own spiritual convictions and how committed I am to them, and how willing I am to share the particulars of my spiritual understandings with a stranger sitting next to me in a coffee shop. You know- just in case a situation like that presents itself.

Here is a brief synopsis:

I worked for several years as a facilitator in a men’s adiction recovery program. The program specifically dealt with sexual issues and abuse. As a member of this group, I had my own personal baggage to work with, but I also had the opportunity to help others with theirs. Some of the stories these men shared with me shocked me into an awareness of human depravity that no author, no matter how brutally imaginative, could have dared dream up. They linger with me to this day.
Aside from the violence and lawlessness of the stories and the common thread of abuse and neglect that we suffered, the one thing that held us together in those small often smoke- filled rooms was a voice, or an idea, or a God, which offered a way out.

Some of them got it, - some of them did not.
Some of them left the group because it was just too much to face; to hard to change, and they never came back, while still others did not return because their liberty to do so was taken from them by incarceration, illness, or even death.

I’ve never written about this chapter of my life and I think tonight may be the only time I ever put words on a page that come near to what I went through, but I want you to know that I did it all for a title. A contract is what we called it: a counter to all the other names, labels, and indictments spoken against us. It became our identity and was as closely related to us as our own name.
Here is mine:
I am a Strong, Courageous, Righteous Man.

I fought for that, and no one is going to take that from me either by might, principality, or law. But am I willing to sit next to someone I don’t know, and pass that story on to them? Uhh…well, I guess in a certain manner- I just did. But more to the point- am I going to let someone who doesn’t know me, hasn’t spent time with me, doesn’t know my life experience, sit next to me and judge me based on some casual conversation I’m having with my friends at a writer’s group?

To answer that, I can tell you that the most important thing I leaned during my time as a facilitator was not to judge someone based on casual understanding- be they convicted rapist, clergyman, or both.

Time, the elements, religion, relationships- they all leave their mark- and some go well past the bone. I know that each of us is heading down the same road to some type of eternity: either in the grave or somewhere else, and along that path, we pick up, and sometimes cause, many wounds.

So when someone comes to our meetings and professes faith, I welcome them. And when someone comes to our meetings and professes no particular faith, I welcome them. And when someone strolls by and makes an offhanded judgment against another person in our group, well- I quietly seethe and burn inside. Then I remember those rooms, and those men who fought valiantly for the right to be called something other than the names that society and their offenders placed on them, and I try to understand that all of us are wounded- even those who pass judgment.
And I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t one of them.

However, there are occasions when someone comes to our group, and we get to know them, and we talk about our fears and ideas and share our experiences and sometimes the façade we all wear gets pulled back and we see that these people are wounded, and we can almost feel their spirit leaking from them in torrents of pain, shame, and confusion.

And we welcome them.

Because we would be liars if we said we weren’t one of them.

Gary Denton

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