"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." ~ John Stuart Mill
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December 21, 2006
''But I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice . "Oh, you can't help that," said the cat. "We're all mad here.''*
Yesterday morning, like most, I was seated at my computer workstation. Unlike most mornings, I was suffering some cognitive dissonance, mentally wrestling with whether or not to vote for myself for columnist of the year on my favorite webzine. I love winning! And I was pretty sure it would include a gift certificate to the Pancake House. I had no trouble voting for myself when I ran for state representative on the Libertarian ticket, even though I had to hold my nose during the entire election process. Before that, I hadn't voted for years. Something else was bothering me about this, though.
We live on a dead-end street, so on any given day, other than dog walkers, we don't see many pedestrians. Yesterday, one came down the street, smartly dressed, knocking on doors. We didn't know if he was selling a product or a religion, but we knew we'd eventually find out. He apparently hit pay dirt as he rounded the corner because he stayed at the sheriff's house talking for quite a while.
Later, 'Oh, here he comes, Mom!' My homeschooled daughter, Sis, was ensconced on the sofa with the dog for our morning 'howdy.' I opened our door before he got the chance to knock. I think this frightened the fellow off his game just a little. I didn't get any bad vibes from him, so I insisted he enter and have a seat. Besides, Tony was due home for lunch momentarily. Young Tony was asleep in the next room, and no one is going to hurt his Mama. If I'd left the man out on the porch, it would have been a short visit and my daughter and the dog would have missed out on it completely because it was so cold. After all, it's December in Michigan ; imagine.
The fact that I was still in my pajamas also seemed a little off-putting for Scott (not skankily so, honestly. I do have some compunctions.) If I'd gotten dressed, I might have missed a visitor, and I couldn't risk the loss of this opportunity that the universe was preparing for me.
The fellow had to squeeze past me through our tiny foyer and I complimented his cologne. This was probably my third mistake on the list of what not to do when someone new comes to your door, right behind opening it pre-knock and not being properly dressed for the occasion. His reply included a comment about having a wife. I must have seemed forward (no, just straightforward) or desperate (I wasn't, not yet, anyway.)
Scott claimed to be selling absolutely nothing, which left only religion. He was soon seated at my computer chair. I noticed that he couldn't sit back. He claimed it was the cold. The dog was banished for behaving poorly, my daughter settled in for the show and I was geeked for some improv.
At the time, we'd been halfway through our breakfast of Clementines. My fingers had a drip or two, so instead of a hand shake, I reached past him for a Kleenex. He flinched. I wondered what he was worried about. What did he think I was reaching for?
I told him we were delighted to have a visitor. We don't get many ' couldn't think of a better term - warm bodies. One brow popped up. Another mistake! I needed to shut up and let the man speak.
Language and pronunciation is a hobby of mine, and Scott had a distinct Southern accent. He denied it and claimed he was a native Michigander. To my raised eyebrows he added, 'from the southern Ohio border.' Hmmm. I've lived an hour from the Southern Michigan border all my life, and I've never heard an accent like his north of Kentucky . If there were such a thing as a Southern Michigan drawl, I'd have one myself. I'm thinking more like four years of Bible College in Oklahoma , but I can't prove it. I let that one go. As my dear friend Jeanne says, this is not the hill on which I wanted to die.
By way of introduction, I explained that we were homeschoolers, with the thought that it might put him at ease. I find that it's usually only Christians who evangelize door to door, and many are homeschoolers. (Have you ever seen an atheist going door to door telling people they're bad, that bad things are going to happen to them and what they should do to avoid hell?) Pointing to my computer behind him, I also explained that I work at home and I was writing a column. He asked if I would write one about him. Maybe, but I already wrote a Christian expose. I really needed to shut up!
I asked him what church he was from. 'Grace Baptist' came the reply. 'The one a few blocks over?' No, a few towns over. Hmmm, things were becoming 'curiouser and curiouser.'* There aren't 20,000 or 30,000 people between here and there that need salvation? Been through them already? Don't want to work near church? Prefer to avoid the black neighborhoods in between? Short a quart of blinker fluid? What? I don't like things that don't add up.
I told Scott that I love Jesus, as I do other beings. That is because Jesus was about love.
'Love is truth,' and he pulled out his pocket bible and tried hard to give us a big dose. For some reason, he thought I said my name was Mary. Mary, Retta, hmmm. We parlayed for a while. These were the highlights:
'This bible is God's word.' My brow got a wrinkle, 'uhhh.' Pointing now, 'It says right here,' I'm sorry, I can't read print that small. I know what it says, though. It says a lot of things I would never do. He continued unfazed, ' ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sinners aren't sitting around heaven partying, Mary, they go to hell. Unless you're on board (with what I'm saying), you will too, because this book condemns everyone.'
I put up my hand. 'Wait, something isn't working for me here. What is it?' I asked the ceiling.
'It's the green side and the red side, Mom,' Sis helpfully chimed in, keen observation being her strong suit, performing arts her genre.
I snapped my fingers and pointed at her. 'That's it! You can't divide life between what you want and what you don't want! Life is the whole disaster, such as it is.' I teach a parenting class and Sis has probably heard me talk about humanity's unceasing attempts to divide life between good and bad sides (written in green and red for effect) more times than she wanted to. Who decides which god is the one true god, which book contains the word of god and which is false, and who decides who's good and who's not?
'No, sin is wrong and you must confess and turn from it.'
About this point, Tony made his lunch-hour appearance. He shook Scott's hand and raised his eyebrows at me before moving into the kitchen. Not much gets in the way of eating around here. He seemed happy that there was lunch entertainment and he was within earshot of it; he misses so much working for a living. Truly the universe was smiling down upon us all.
I tried to be as gentle as possible. I explained what the bible says about the kingdom of heaven; that it isn't off somewhere in the sky, it is at hand. I went on with the fact that a book cannot condemn anyone; people condemn one another. 'Christians use the bible to condemn other people. Jesus refused to condemn anyone, even those who had clearly broken the law. Jesus was about love,' and, slowing now, 'I'm not really getting any love vibes here.' Now my parallel hands, unbidden, were making slow flowing motions back and forth between Scott and I.
'Love is truth! Love is truth!' Scott was beginning to sound like his scene had been cut from the film '1984.' I don't think he had a second stone in his slingshot. He was on his feet now and beginning to shake. He looked like a man going into withdrawal, like an edgy addict when they are confronted.
I started to feel sorry for him. 'Dude, you seriously need to chill out.' I tenderly explained, as I would to a very sick cancer patient, what was really happening. He was trying to set a psychological trap for me and that this was not how Jesus operated. 'Jesus drew people to himself with love.' (I became aware that I was beginning to sound like Joan Cusack playing the flaky principal in ' School of Rock .' I needed to stop that.) 'Jesus was the kind of man who rubbed elbows with prostitutes and tax collectors, the lowest of the low. He did not 'overturn their tables' as he did the moneychangers in the temple. He sat down with them and dined with them. He loved them.'
I explained that sin, condemnation, heaven and hell were very black and white, which is how addicts perceive the world. I asked him what he would say if someone told him that he had a religious addiction. (Putting bad news into context this way can help soften the blow, but, as is usually the case with advanced addiction, the idea was rejected.) I gently explained that I have extensive experience with addiction and that he had a religious addiction. 'It's like a hopeless alcoholic on the street, Scott. It's plain for everyone else to see that 'he' is sick and needs to stop because he's lost the ability to choose.'
Religious addiction is actually worse than heroin addiction, in that it is almost impossible to recover from. Unlike substance abusers, the religious addict cannot recognize that he has a problem. He believes that he is doing God's work. Wanting to quit is another thing altogether, but nothing changes without first becoming cognizant of the fact that there is a problem. One can't help but feel pity for this man. Statistically speaking, there is almost no chance of his recovery. But, it happened for me, so it does happen.
Before making a break for the door, he shoved a tract into my hand. Stamped onto the front were the simple facts that he had attempted to lay out for me. On the back was the address of his church. Right before the door slammed behind him he called out, 'If you write an article about me, send a copy to my church so I can read it.' Salvation exited stage right. I earned a 'well done, Mom!' from Sis. The dog returned to investigate the scene with her nose and it was over. The universe giveth and the universe taketh away.
I'm supposed to place the care of my everlasting soul into this man's hands, and maybe throw him 15 minutes of fame, too? The former is not happening today, the latter, well, here it is. In standing up to this psychological warfare, I blissfully realized that I've healed quite a bit from the spirit-crushing tyranny my existence had been as a child in an abusive, hierarchal Catholic family.
We had marvelous new material for the rest of the day, joking about what we'd do and say to the next person who tried to save us. I told Tony that the next time he comes home and finds a strange man standing there, that he should yell, 'What the hell's going on in here!' I'll whip off my pajamas and cry that Scott and I can't hide our love for each other any longer. Young Tony, regretting having missed the entire episode, swore next time he'd 'rack' the broom and stare down its 'barrel' at any such intruder. My protests that Scott had been invited went unheeded. I had considered waking Young Tony for the show, but you see now why we had to let sleeping dogs lie; it had already ended too soon.
At the end of the day, I decided not to vote for myself. I was beginning to see the ugliness of seeking 15 minutes of fame. It's not exactly the confidence of your peers if you vote for yourself, now matter how much you admire your own work. Besides, just as Dorothy had learned in the Land of Oz, 'if you're looking for happiness, don't look any further than your own backyard, because if it's not there, you never had it to begin with.' Enough happiness had already found us for one day.
Don't send me any emails thanking me for sharing my addiction expertise with this poor fellow. The universe had sent Scott to my door, what else could I do but give as freely as had been given to me? Repeat after me, 'love is truth, love is truth . . . .'
* Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll