March 9, 2007

Do overs

One of the fun-but-serious things that my partner and I sometimes do when we've unintentionally hurt each other's feelings is that we request a do over. By the time we're requested the do over, we each have recognized how our own stuff got in the way of deep listening, or how we misinterpreted the other's actions or words, so we really can make different choices, during the do over, "knowing then what we know now."

It might seem artificial or trivial or even pointless to have a do over, but the proof is in the pudding and the truth is in the experience. Each time we have used a do over, it's been as if we've heard each other for the first time, not the second, and the air between us is clear once again.

For some reason, there's a moment in my fairly recent life that keeps replaying, and I find I am longing for a do over. This memory has resurfaced because of an anecdote I read recently in Friends Journal, tucked away in a long article by James Fletcher about Black Friends' experience among Quakers.

The segment tells of an unexpected Opportunity for worship among an AFSC delegation traveling on a segregated train through South Africa. It tells of how, when confronted by an officer to move to the whites' section of the train, the white Friend travelling among the Black delegates

shouted out firmly that he could not obey that order because he had orders from a Higher Authority that he had to follow. When the policeman asked him to show him those orders, [the white Friend] replied, "I can't, because they are written on my heart."
My own experience has nothing of a threat of being confronted by police, let alone of being arrested--and arrested in another country at that!--but it is one that called for an Obedience to a Higher Authority that I fear I still lack.

A few years ago, the partner of a friend of ours had died of AIDS, and it was known that the man's father was a fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone Christian. In the last week of his partner's life, our friend fretted over how he might respond to his father-in-law had he started with any talk of "repenting for your sins," or "you're damned and going to hell." Thankfully, the last days in the hospital and at home were quiet ones, in every way.

Then there was the low-key, close-friends-and-family-only memorial service. As low-key as it was--and it wasn't a Quaker memorial--there was a tension in the room as soon as you walked in: Michael's family took up the first three or four pews and was seated on the left; Michael's friends, his partner, and his partner's family took up seven or eight pews (or more) and were seated on the right. I briefly wondered about sitting with Michael's family, but maybe it was some of our grieving friends who waved us over to where they were already seated...

There were the usual funny and tender stories that a few close friends shared, and our friend had graciously invited Michael's father to say a few things about his son, his only son who had died before he was forty, to close the service.

The eulogy started quietly enough but quickly turned toward something else. I kept thinking of the Reverend Thrower in Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, who could not see the innocence and open-heartedness of a young boy named Alvin, and who could only condemn Alvin for sinning and could hurl only the worst condeming passages of Scripture at him during church services...

I sat in disbelief. Could this man, Michael's father, really be saying what he is saying, condemning those of us who loved Michael, who happen to find Love and God in someone of the same gender as ourselves--could this man really be using such hateful words in the midst of a memorial service for his son?!

But it was happening, and Michael's family was allowing it to happen and were in fact nodding in agreement to what was being said. And none of us across the aisle moved to counter it.

Two minutes passed. Five minutes. Ten.

Hoping that someone else would be the first to leave, but not seeing a hint that that would happen, I excused myself from the middle of the pew and stepped into the anteroom.

But stepping out to get some space to think didn't help, not to think clearly, anyway. I had all sorts of other thoughts go through my head, though:
Can I ask the proprieters of the funeral home to interrupt this man in such a way that it won't embarrass the friend who had rented the home in the first place? Did I have that power, especially since I didn't consider myself to be too close of a friend to Michael or to his partner?

Can I walk back in and ask that Michael's father simply stop and allow us time to resettle before heading back to our homes?

Can I pull the "Pull in case of emergency" red handle under the glass box on the wall and deal with the consequences of having made a false fire alarm?
Fifteen minutes turned into twenty, and then finally Michael's partner stood up and interrupted his father-in-law, saying something like, "We have to stop here. I'd like for us to close with saying the Lord's Prayer together."

Then Michael's family went one way and everyone else went the other and headed to Michael's and his partner's house, where we debriefed, guffawed, vented, and roared with uneasy laughter.

But I'm still tormented inside by the whole thing, two years later. I want a do over, but I don't know what it would look like or sound like or be like.

I don't know that I'd have the courage now that I didn't have then, to be able to say, Stop. Stop now. This hurts. This is not what God asks us to do at a time of grieving and loss.

Maybe what I want, really, is some input on how to change the ending that I had experienced that day.

Have you ever spoken up at a time of great peer pressure to remain silent?

Have you ever been among the group that was being verbally or physically attacked, yet had found the will, or had called up the courage, or had felt the Presence strong enough in order to say No More...?

I find I'm eager to hear your own stories; I'm eager to have this experience re-done in my own heart, if possible.

Thanks for reading me.



Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Hi, Liz,
What a wonderful, thought-provoking post! Thank you so much for sharing such a sensitive memory...

I myself find it very easy to find the will or courage to challenge someone I think is being hurtful to a group I'm part of or to another person. What is hard for me, though, is to wait to feel a Presence other than my own self-righteousness behind my actions--to wait and act from love and in tenderness.

I have, at various times, broken up fights on the street, spoken out at work at risk to my job, and so on. There's a kind of a "click" I can feel happen at such times, and I sometimes find myself unusually articulate and "on."

I'm pretty sure I'm effective at those times... but I'm not sure I'm doing right. This is one of the places where it's hard for me to know where the promptings come from. Sometimes, I'm pretty sure they come from something pretty arrogant in myself that always believe I know best. Other times, I think it comes from something in me that really is tuned in to and responsive toward truth. But rarely, I think, am I as tender toward the person I'm confronting as I ought to me.

It seems to me that it would be very hard to know how to respond in a situation like the one you describe. After all, the father was also grieving, however angry or abusive he may have been. And though it seems pretty clear that stopping him would have been a good idea, doing it in a way that would not have caused harm strikes me as tricky.

Maybe, if this were to happen today, for a "do over," you'd have a sense of what to do. Or maybe not. And not acting without clarity actually makes sense to me--speaking as a chronic gadfly, I think the quality of restraint is one worth cultivating. I'm trying, at least.

I wish I could share some more specifics. Two or three stories come to mind--one where I am glad I spoke up, a couple where I'm pretty sure I served my own ego better than the needs of mankind! However, all the examples I can think of involve people whose stories probably shouldn't be shared online without their OK, so I'll have to stick to being annoyingly vague. Darn it.

Though I'm looking forward to checking back and seeing what wisdom others bring to the question!

Nancy A said...


Your story hurt.

I wish I had a story of triumphant words to give. But i am a master of Knowing The Right Thing To Say And Do The Next Day.

It never comes to me when I need it. Even though it's in my heart, it never comes to my mouth or hands.

What is that, fear? Our culture's stolid politeness and fear of offending? I live in hope that whatever Next Time lies ahead, that my lips will move in time.

I do recall one incident, however, that a friend of mine handled beautifully back in the 1980s.

She was a very Christian young woman, a single mother with a baby boy, newly divorced and moving into a new apartment in an old house. She happened to be singing a gospel tune cheerfully at the top of her lungs while we were lugging in the furniture.

The door next to her opened (the doors opened to the outside) and a young woman's head popped out. My friend quickly introduced herself. The other woman looked very cautious and nervous. Then her partner, another woman, appeared behind her and introduced herself as well -- as partners-- and quietly offered to help.

And the two of them stood in the doorway, taut, defenses up, coiled as if to accept the blow that they knew was coming.

I'll never forget that steely, pained look on their faces.

But my friend was no match for them. She beamed at them both and thrust her baby into their arms and asked them if they wouldn't mind playing with him for about an hour.

Two faces changed in an instant -- melted into a rush of disbelief, then wonder, then delight. I don't think that kind of acceptance from a Christian stranger had ever happened to them before.

Said baby vanished into their apartment, we moved the furniture, and the two sets of neighbours became close friends.


Liz Opp said...

Cat and Nancy --

Thanks for your comments... If nothing else, I'm glad my story hasn't drifted off into some cyberspace black hole.

And I won't underestimate the healing power of simply being witnessed and of feeling understood, even if that witness and empathy are conveyed electronically rather than face-to-face or over the phone.


Nonsequitur said...

Nancy, I loved your story in response :).

Liz, reading your post was uncomfortable and a little painful, by no fault of yours, it was necessary for you to tell it and I found it enriching as well. It is sad to hear about someone being quite so driven by apparent insecurity and cruel sentiments. I don't have much in the way of wisdom in a case like this, I am a timid person who rarely takes any sort of action in the face of loud reactionaries... leftover survival instincts. My only thought to offer is that you remember your friend, honor him by relating his life to others and use the example of his father as a cautionary tale to teach about social appropriateness and/or the dangerous underpinnings of the fundamentalist mindset.

Anonymous said...

Liz, I have a fairly dramatic story of speaking up for an oppressed group (gays/lesbians) at a time when I was under tremendous peer pressure to remain silent. But I'm not comfortable telling it on the Web, because I don't know the words to prevent it from sounding self-important.

Perhaps at yearly meeting. Or at midyear, if you'll be there next month.

Liz Opp said...

Nonsequitor - I didn't want to share this painful story, but it wasn't letting go of me so I decided to "lean into it" instead. I do like what you offer, though, that my duty in part is to "honor [Michael] by relating his life to others." Already that has happened once or twice since I have written this post. Thanks for your comment.

Marshall - I sense that Way may not be open for me to attend Midyear Meeting (of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative), but I have hopes to attend yearly meeting. Of course, in-between those two events is FGC's Gathering: will you be attending?

Anyway, Marshall, perhaps Way will open for me to hear your story some other way.

And, while sitting with your comment another minute, I find myself wondering if I remained silent because of my presumed lack of privilege/power: being a woman and being "not straight," and being preached at by a straight (white) man.. Do people of privilege have an "easier" time speaking up and speaking truth to power...? It's a question I just thought of and seems to have some resonance for me.


RichardM said...

Here's how I see the do-over.

the Dad gets to talk as long as he wants and he talks and talks and talks and talks. Everybody listens and listens and listens and listens. As they listen at first they are upset. After all the purpose of the speech is not to honor the deceased. It is to insult his friends. It is to make the people on one side of the aisle understand that the people on the other side of the aisle feel better and holier than they are. So naturally it is pretty upsetting. But no one interrupts. Eventually the people who are turning the other cheek to the "Christians" begin to silently pray. After the Dad gets tired of talking there is silence. The silence is unbroken for a long time and then someone from the insulted side gets up and delivers a message about love. About how the deceased was loved and how he felt loved and how he shared love and about how our gathering here is to honor him and to show our love for him and our love for all who cared about him.

The way to answer hate is always love.

Anonymous said...

Liz, no, I won't be attending FGC's summer gathering, for roughly the same reason I won't be attending the 52nd General Conference of the Assemblies of God USA in Indianapolis this August. I know it will be a wonderful event, and I know I would enjoy it, but it's not my faith, it's more than a tad at odds with my understanding of what true religion is all about, it's a twelve-ring circus that would somewhat distract me from the practice of my religion, and I have no compelling business there that would require me to attend.

You are phrasing your concern in terms of the post-World-War-II liberal Quaker cliché, "speaking truth to power". But I would remind you that in the time of the first Friends, what people generally meant by "Truth" with a capital "T" was is not factual-accuracy-as-they-understood-it, or even philosophy-in-harmony-with-reality, but faithfulness to the commandments of Christ. If you look up "truth" in the Oxford English Dictionary (which charts English usage in the U.K., not the U.S.), you'll find that the first listed meaning is not "factual accuracy" but "faithfulness". (Compare the meaning of "true" in the phrases "true lover" and "the arrow flies true".) That was the primary sense in which early Friends were using the term when they called themselves "Friends in the Truth", and it is, in my opinion, the best way to understand "speaking truth to power".

When Francis of Assisi, as a young man, rejected his father's claims on his life, taking off even the clothing he had from his father, returning it to his father, and then presenting himself naked to the bishop of Assisi for adoption, he was not speaking "truth" in the sense of factual accuracy or recognition-of-reality, he was speaking "truth" in the sense of faithfulness to Christ. It just so happened that his faithfulness to Christ doubled as a rejection of his father's hardness and materialism and ego -- things which a modern liberal would also detest. But this was a neat demonstration of the way in which faithfulness to Christ just naturally aligns with the actual "truths" of liberalism, while doing so for reasons that are different (and in my own opinion, discernably better) than liberalism's usual reasons.

The young Thomas Ellwood (a great second generation Friend, an early disciple of Isaac Penington and later the personal secretary to the poet John Milton) defied his own father in a remarkably similar spirit to Francis of Assisi's, while (apparently) knowing nothing of Francis's story. He too "spoke truth to power" in the sense of truth-equals-faithfulness-to-Christ, not the sense of truth-equals-here-is-how-I-see-reality.

And when the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott -- the civil rights struggle where Martin Luther King first achieved fame -- was underway, the boycotters were not "speaking truth to power" in the sense of conveying facts to the authorities, but they were speaking truth to power in the sense of keeping faith with Christ rather than with the corrupt world.

Why am I making this speech? Because I want to convey the idea that keeping faith with Christ is just as hard for "people of privilege" -- white males in the power structure -- as it is for the downtrodden. It might, in fact, even be harder, because people of privilege have a lot more to lose.

Rob said...

Hi Liz -

As usual, I don't have anything profound to say, but I just wanted to pass along how moving this story was to me. It reminds me of the mundane little moments in life when words fail me at times when I need them most. More often than not, I'm tempted to doubt my hearing before I'll recognize hurtful talk. It always seems to catch me off guard. One practice I learned from a friend was to engage in role playing--particularly if you know you might be entering just such a situation. My friend asked me to role-play the person I feared, and she pretended to be me. It really helped me plant my feet, and I only wish we could rehearse more often. What's the saying?: "Life is not a dress rehearsal." Anyhow...

See you this weekend,

Liz Opp said...

Marshall - Thanks for explaining why you included the number of examples you did about "speaking truth to power" versus being faithful to Christ. I especially appreciated your words, I want to convey the idea that keeping faith with Christ is just as hard for "people of privilege" it is for the downtrodden. Had you said nothing more than this, I would have been helped just as much. I guess I was needing this reality check, since I yearn to be faithful and don't easily accept it when I fall short.

Rob - Nice to see you here! And I think part of the difficulty for me was that there hadn't been any tension prior to the service as has been predicted, so I was really caught off-guard. But I still need to remember that there really aren't any dress rehearsals, as you say... at least, not for the really important life-changing moments where life can turn on a dime... And yes, I'm looking forward to meeting you at last!


Liz Opp said...

Whoops, my apologies to Richard M, whose comment I skipped over!

Richard, this is such a tender reply, how can I argue?! And yes, the way to answer hate is always love. I suppose that's why I left when I did, because I couldn't stay in the room and open my heart just then; and I suppose it's also why I didn't take any of the action I had toyed with, because I knew I was not able to act out of L/love. ...Well, I shall continue to let this experience--and your reply--work on my heart.


Johan Maurer said...

It's for stories like this, that I was given the gift of tears.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I went on at greater length than needed, Liz. I guess I was talking to myself more than you, although I didn't realize it at the time.

RichardM said...


Well if it makes you feel better I couldn't have been the one to stand up and speak of love then either. I know from experience that I don't have a gift of vocal ministry. The most I could hope to do on my own is to silently hold up whoever was moved to give the message. It's not that I would say I lack gifts, and in fact I'm clearer these days as to what my gifts are, but I am also clear that I lack a gift of vocal ministry.

Liz Opp said...

To everyone, all over again -

Thanks so much for your presence to me, even though it's been months since this incident. Your words of comfort and support provide me encouragement and hope such that, if called upon, I might make a different choice.

(I pray that no such need arises, of course...)