Not too long ago a dear and valued friend learned that I had become a Christian. We had been out of touch for a very long time and when we knew each other in the 1970’s, and ran into each other briefly in the early 1980’s, I was anything but a Christian. For the last couple of years I have been looking for my old friends and then sending them invitations to correspond by old fashioned letter mail, painstakingly written and lovingly folded, enveloped stamped, addressed and sent. There is something human and personal in that which is missing in electronic communication, and I like it very much.
But I did not sit down to write about writing letters. My friend expressed surprise at my faith and wondered how it came to pass. I gave her the short story in a letter which nevertheless ran to six pages (we’ll see if one stamp was sufficient to get that letter mailed!) but I have been mulling her question over and over in my mind and feel compelled to write the longer story. That will require more time and space than can be had in a simple letter, and so I will dedicate a Lent Reflection blog space to this project and will desist my daily Reflections until the job is complete, which may be tonight and may be a week from now. We shall see.
My friend reminded me of something that I had said over four decades ago, something like “I was my own god, and I knew what was right and wrong and had my own standards to answer to”. It humbles me that somebody remembers anything that I said over forty years ago. When you begin the project of defining the word “friend”, I believe that having something that you said forty years ago felt to be worth remembering has to fit in there somewhere.
I believe that my friend’s memory is accurate, and I had even more to say about such things back then. The “Virgin” Mary was just a teenage girl who got pregnant (no surprise there), said God did it, and to her amazement people believed her. I also said that my idea of life after death was a marijuana plant growing out of my skull after I die, which a friend would place on the mantle over their fireplace. That way, whenever they looked at the skull and marijuana plant they could say “There is old Glenn, still getting his head”. But let’s forget the Mary and skull stuff. That was all just shallow cynicism. The part which my friend particularly reminded me of has substantially more meat on the bone and that is what I would like to gnaw on.
“I am my own god.” Yeah, that sounds like something that I would have said, and it would have been true too! I answered only to myself in those days. As a child I grew up in a family where all authority lay unquestionably in the hands of my father. I am sure that Dad was raised in a similarly authoritarian environment, and twenty years in the Navy had done nothing to temper that view of parenting. I was not a robot, really, but my options were a good deal more narrow than those of my friends, and the consequences of arousing the displeasure of my father were something to avoid at all costs. I chaffed under this oppressive system and at my first opportunity, the moment that I graduated from high school and turned 18 years old, I jumped ship and sought new freedom.
Unfortunately, this all occurred in 1966 when we were in the middle of a war and there was still a draft. I knew that I would be drafted soon and honestly didn’t care one way or the other if I was, so down I went to the recruiters’ office one day and signed up for three years’ service. Entering the service is probably not the best way to seek independence, but then I never was a bright kid. I learned the inconvenient truth of this on the first full day that I was in the Army and had it drilled deeper and deeper into my head every day thereafter for the better part of three years. And then my day of liberation arrived. May 29, 1969 I walked off of an Army base, took a taxi ride to the airport and flew back to San Diego a civilian, captain of my own ship, and indeed my own god.
Those were the crazy times; the 1960’s and 70’s. Old institutions were crumbling and I was free to create new ones in my own image. Nobody could tell me what to do, and as long as I did not do anything blatantly illegal in front of any agent of civil authority I did whatever the hell I wanted to do. Ultimately, I did a pale imitation of what the real God did; created my own universe and ruled it by my own rules for my own pleasure.
That plan did not work out so well. My highest good was indeed seeking my own personal pleasure. An anthem of the punk rock days was “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (bawled out in an appropriately brash Cockney accent). I think that the Sex Pistols did that one. Well, I did it before they did. Those three pursuits plus whatever else I enjoyed and desired at the moment were all that I sought in those years, and although I was not completely immune to a noble thought or a kind act, and engaged in those activities as much as anyone else with whom I hung around did, still my foundation was “What I want, I get if I possibly can without getting killed or going to jail”.
In that system friends can become more important than spouses. How my first wife and I stayed together the first two unmarried years of our relationship I have no idea. I was always more happy sitting on a bar stool with my friends than sitting at home with her. And how we managed to stay married for three years after saying our vows is an even deeper mystery yet. I continued to hold down bar stools at every opportunity until I founded a construction company with a friend. From that point on I worked ten to fourteen hours a day seven days a week, intending to found our fortune and make a name for myself as a successful contractor. Being a successful husband did not figure into that picture. Finally and in the most gut-wrenching way, for me at least, the rug was pulled out from under my feet and I was shown that I did not ultimately get to rule what I thought was my kingdom. If I was a god, then I had precious little power to order my universe the way I saw fit.
And then there’s the thing about right and wrong. In my younger years I was pretty certain that I knew what those qualities were, but as I proceeded through my 20’s and the loss of a wife and business and home, became a construction gypsy, met and married a lady and then began to wander down the same old path, I began to rethink just how firm a grip I had on an understanding of right and wrong.
Why is something right? Because I like it? What if I think something is right but somebody else thinks that it is wrong? If the other person is somebody whom I do not like then tough beans for him, but what if it is somebody whom I like and may even respect a little? What do I do with that? Slowly it dawned upon me that right and wrong may be elements which arise from somewhere outside of me and my perceptions; that my old paradigm of being the arbiter of my own personal standard of right and wrong was a philosophy that simply would not carry water. For Nietzsche perhaps, but not for me. Not now. I recall sitting in an apartment with several friends when I was at my college, smoking weed and drinking beer, probably snorting cocaine too, and talking about how we were going to save the world. That was a very common occupation back then. I was a good deal more radical than were most of the others who were present that evening and declared a Trotskyite solution to the world’s problems.
This solution would be for the “good of the people”. We harebrained radicals on either fringe are always plotting our idiocies for the good of the people. One of the guys there, one whom I did not know as well as I knew the others, asked “What if your solution isn’t what the people want?” My predictable reply was “We’ll do it anyway until they realize that it’s what’s good for them.” The person who questioned my utopian vision just stared at me for a moment and then said “Wow man, you’re an elitist pig”. Those were fighting words on so many levels! They were also true, which didn’t help the situation any. Somehow the truth in them seeped into my drug and alcohol addled brain however and i inexplicably allowed the insult to slide.
Maybe that was the beginning of my realiy searching for the meaning of right and wrong. Eventually I came to understand that in the absence of some kind of metric which lies outside of the reach of mankind, and therefore beyond manipulation for any one person’s cynical ends, there is no such thing as right and wrong, or good and bad. If we are the product of time plus accident, where does this notion of right and wrong come from? There is so much doubt among scientists as to whether or not we are able to accurately discern physical reality with our senses, how can these same senses give us reliable information on whether or not those same incompletely understood phenomena are good or bad, right or wrong?
Many years ago a ship washed up on a beach in Oregon. Being burrowed deeply into the sandy bottom of that beach on the Oregon coast, it steadfastly refused to be removed and ended up resting there for nine years. During that time this ship leaked oil and damaged the ecology of that beach, which is rich in clams and bird nesting areas and so on.
Oregon is a socially liberal state. In Portland people who order an omelette in a restaurant want to know the names and living conditions of the chickens and cows who gave up their eggs and cheese for the sake of their breakfast. To this ardent and somewhat comical bunch the fouling of that beach was a horror too awful to contemplate and in my own estimation a very wrong thing, but I had to ask some of the people who held that view, mostly just to be an annoying turd but also partly to make a point, “why do you believe that it is wrong?” To the ship’s owner, maybe losing this old rustbucket in a storm resulted in an insurance settlement that was of more value to him or her than was the ship. Without an unmovable yardstick of good and bad, right and wrong, how do the perceptions of tree hugging Oregonians trump the perceptions of money hugging capitalists? Unless there is a rule, something which says “The Lord God placed men in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it”, then all we have is dueling perceptions which, in a mechanistic and nietzschean universe, end with the strongest person being right.
By 1984 I was utterly disillusioned by my old philosophy of myself as god and as arbiter of right and wrong in the world. Things I had seen in Vietnam, failures that I had endured since then and multiple close brushes with death or injury from drunk driving, drug overdose, or being shot, stabbed or beaten by outlaw motorcyclists or outraged boyfriends, to mention only a few instances, I finally arrived at a point where I had to make a change or I was going to jump off of a bridge. God literally allowed me to feel His comfort and glory one night when I wandered into a church, and I have been with God ever since.
The rest of this story will appear sometime in the near future as “Part II”.