Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Incomplete and Streaky

by Troy Chapman

(published February 06)

Knowledge of ourselves begins with an awareness and an acceptance of our brokenness. In this sense my crime and imprisonment — hitting the very bottom of depravity — was the beginning of redemption for me.

Up to that point I had been able to deny that anything was wrong with me. Or, maybe I should say, that anything was inherently wrong with me. I knew something was wrong but I blamed it on others. That was my form of denial. I wasn’t the problem. But after I took a man’s life, this denial could no longer hold up under even the mildest scrutiny. I was broken in ways that were obvious to everyone.

And I still am. So what’s different? Just that I know it. Not only that I know it but also that it’s all right. As Ernst Kurtz and Katherine Ketchem point out in their book, “The Spirituality of Imperfection,” “Spirituality suggests not ‘I’m okay, you’re okay,’ but ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay, but that’s all right.’” And being okay with our brokenness — with our very selves, really, because brokenness isn’t an aspect of us, it’s who we are — is the beginning of redemption.

Sometimes when I see my brokenness and admit it my mind translates it as “bad.” I stop liking myself and drag out all my (many) flaws, braid them into a whip and start in on myself. Then I try to be perfect and walk around on egg shells, afraid to take a chance, afraid to do anything spontaneously for fear of doing it wrong. This ping-pong between “I’m no good” and “I’m perfect” is an impossible way to live. Not only that, but it’s a denial of my self — neither no-good nor perfect but rather imperfectly perfect — which leads on either side to self loathing. Which leads in turn to frantic efforts to measure up by accomplishing and acquiring and proving my worth.

The acceptance of who I really am, one imperfect human being longing (and striving) for completion, dissolves all this and allows me to love myself. Whenever I come back to it it’s like a burden being lifted off my shoulders. I can never be perfect but that doesn’t mean I’m no good either. I am what I am and whenever I look directly at that I can suddenly breathe with the honesty of it.

There’s a story of a preacher putting this question to his students: “If all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?”

Little Linda Jean thought mightily for a moment. Then her face brightened and she replied: “Reverend, I’d be streaky!”

I can’t think of a better description of myself — of all of us — than “streaky.” And our streakiness isn’t a problem. Our problem is that we insist on seeing ourselves and others as all red or all green. And when we do we vacillate between self-condemnation and self-righteousness, neither of which allow room for love, generosity, and compassion.

This dualistic denial of who we really are is also played out in our national psyche between the so-called Left and Right. During the sixties and seventies liberals seemed to excuse others’ bad behavior by blaming themselves and America. We’ve all heard of “liberal guilt” and people on the Right still call liberals the “blame-America-first crowd.” Then Reagan came along in the eighties with the appealing notion that we should feel good about ourselves because, really, we’re pretty darn swell. If liberals were the “blame-America-first crowd,” conservatives became the “never-blame-America crowd.” Reagan encouraged us to be self-righteous, arrogant even, about our own goodness, and in so doing made intolerance and lack of compassion permissible and even virtuous, as Mario Cuomo noted at the time of Reagan’s death. If liberals blamed themselves for every bad thing that happened to them, conservatives went to the opposite extreme, aggressively denying all blame and transferring it to various others.

Liberals have moved away from their self-condemnation to some extent (and seem not to know who they are as a result) but conservatives are still very much the party of self-righteousness. Again, both of these positions represent a denial of who we really are and consequently foreclose the possibility of self-acceptance, which in turn forecloses the possibility of accepting (read: loving) others.

If I’m optimistic, I can see our political psyche balancing itself out in the middle, where both sides see that together they comprise the truth. Yet I know from my own life that both self-loathing and self-righteousness are seductive. We love our self deceptions, especially when we’re sitting across from someone who holds a deception opposite our own.

We run to one side or the other in order to escape the tension and anxiety of our paradoxical selves. But since tension, anxiety and paradox are who we are, we lose ourselves with this solution. A more courageous, though admittedly more messy, solution is to accept our incompleteness. To embrace with gentle good humor the tension of our imperfect selves. I am flawed. We are flawed. It’s so easy when I just say it. It’s all right. I don’t have to be anything else.

Yet I see us inflicting so much pain on ourselves and each other by insisting on one of the extremes of self-condemnation or self righteousness; either “I’m perfect and you’re to blame” or “I’m no good and deserve to suffer.”

Getting out of these two extremes is a form of forgiveness. We tend to think of forgiveness as having to do only with past sins we’ve committed. But for me, forgiveness isn’t only about the past but also about the present and the future. It’s forgiveness of who I am. In the case of divine forgiveness, it’s like God saying: I give you permission — indeed, blessing — to be who you are. What a powerful release! I don’t have to apologize to myself or anyone for being here just as I am. Yet, I can only hear this when I repeat it — to myself and to others.

I think of this as fore-giving, a promissory kind of forgiveness that covers not only the past but, again, the present and future as well. It’s a permission to be imperfect, to make mistakes, and, well, to sin. Without it there’s no permission to be who we are. This may seem like a bad idea, giving ourselves and others permission to sin, but, in fact, it leads to less, not more of it. This is because it makes room for love, both self-love and love of others. And love alone dispels both self-condemnation and self righteousness. Love (with a bit of humor) allows us to be streaky with no need to blame others or curse ourselves.

And that is a thing that this world is in sore need of.