Embrace the fear

I loved “Batman Begins” when it first came out. It has since been greatly overshadowed in my mind by “The Dark Knight”, but it is still a very good film. In some ways, it feels like a deconstruction of the Batman mythos. One of the scenes I really love happens when Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City and starts on his quest toward becoming a crimefighter. He begins to develop the Batman persona and his loyal butler Alfred asks him “Why bats?” His answer?

“Bats terrify me”

Think about this; this man who is now going to dedicate much of his future life to being dressed like a bat and making bat-everything to get his point across, adopts the one thing he fears to be his official symbol. He decides to associate with his fears. It’s actually a pretty remarkable element of the character.

Most of us intentionally disassociate with our fears. We avoid those things that frighten us or we refuse to admit to ourselves and/or others that we are actually afraid. This is foolishness. Our fears, to a long degree define our reality. I don’t mean by that that because I fear being a bad father that I am, in fact, a bad father. Hopefully the opposite is true, but that fear defines my reality. I actively work against that fear. I am driven by it. I make life decisions based around it. I am moved by it. I am stopped by it. Like it or not, I have become companions with this fear.

And so if my fears are to be my companions, I must name them. I must embrace them, not as my masters, nor really as my slaves, but as my associates, my companions on the journey. So…

I’m afraid of failure.

I’m afraid of success.

I’m afraid of being alone.

I’m afraid of being around people and still feeling alone.

I’m afraid of being a bad father.

I’m afraid of being incapable of being a good husband.

I’m afraid that I’ll never be content.

I’m afraid of working at my current job forever.

I’m afraid that there is no job that I will find fulfilling.

I’m afraid of being incompetent.

I’m afraid of being useless.

I’m afraid of being unwanted and unattractive.

I’m afraid that I’ll never have enough money.

I’m afraid that the world won’t be better for my having been in it.

I’m afraid of being like everybody else.

I’m afraid of being different

I’m afraid of being ordinary.

I’m afraid of the burden of being special.

I’m afraid that my children will question how much I love them.

I’m afraid that I’m not actually capable of love.

I’m afraid of frogs.

I’m afraid of clowns.

I’m afraid of being eaten by sharks.

I’m afraid that sharks won’t eat me because I don’t taste good.

I’m afraid of being all talk.

I’m afraid of not thinking through my actions.

I’m afraid of being in the way.

I’m afraid of being an inconvenience, nuisance, or burden.

i’m afraid that I’ll always be depressed.

I’m afraid that being “happy” won’t be all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m not afraid of death. I am afraid of boredom.

I’m afraid of being afraid of the wrong things.

I’m afraid of my fears getting in the way of me living my life.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list of my fears. These things are my companions. They are with me all the time. They are the places where my life is most real. They are the things I face and try to overcome everyday. They will be there tomorrow when I wake up. It seems foolish to deny them. Naming them gives them less power over me, but it doesn’t make them go away. I guess if they’re not going anywhere, we can at least be friends, right?

Hurt people hurt people

I’ve never felt compelled to put a “trigger warning” at the beginning of a post, but this one feels like it might require one. So… you have been warned.

I work in a bookstore. Most of the time, I am kept pretty busy, but occasionally we will have a slow day like yesterday. While I was adding content to our demo NOOK devices, I cam upon the autobiography of two term California governor, and the only Republican I have ever voted for, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The book, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story caught my attention, and in the lulls during the day, I read through the first couple of chapters. I’m a fan of Arnold as an actor, but I realized that there was much I didn’t know about his life before coming to America. He grew up in Austria to parents who had lived through the second World War and were part of the losing side. Their country was occupied by Allied forces. He grew up in incredibly humble conditions. His father was a police officer and it sounds like he was a man of discipline, something I guess that could be expected of someone who seems so driven. Schwarzenegger talks about growing up in a house of discipline and rules. But he also goes into some territory that is clearly beyond discipline and into the realm of abuse. He talks about hard hits and beatings with switches. He then makes an insightful observation. Here I will ask for your forgiveness for lack of direct quotes as I do not have the texts in front of me. If I can rectify this soon, I will. He discusses how he was not the only person in his village to experience such abuse at the hands of the men in his village. The aura of losing was part of the Austrian psyche at that time. They had been on the wrong side of the war. They had been promised a glorious new empire and got occupation instead. Loss and humiliation had seeped into the hearts and minds of the men in his village, many who had fought for the Nazi cause. Schwarzenegger is insightful in pointing out that the men took out the frustration of this internalized humiliation on their wives and children. Humiliated men, humiliate those they observe to be weaker, other men, but most often women and children. This is a cycle, repeated throughout history. Hurt people hurt people.

I continue to process all of the issues coming to surface in my favorite sport. While the release of the Ray Rice video was disturbing, the allegations against Adrian Peterson hit much closer to home. Peterson is accused of taking a switch to his four year old son. The allegations seemed to draw attention to another racial divide as many African Americans defended Peterson’s right to “discipline” his kid. I read many “I was spanked and I turned out okay” comments. It was jarring and triggering for me. I have a four year old son. I would never hit him with an object. I’ve actually only hit him once. He was two. I cried and apologized to him profusely. He was two. He didn’t get it, but in that moment I had become something I hated.

It’s taken a long time, and several therapists, for me to call what I went through as a child as abuse. I was told it was discipline. I was told it was out of love. I was told that it hurt them more than it hurt me. I was told “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24). I believed it. I believed that I was bad enough that the evil needed to be beat out of me. But I have kids now. And there are some things I can’t imagine doing to them. I can’t imagine making them bend over a bed with their bottoms exposed. I can’t imagine showing them that I was wetting the leather belt so that it would hurt more. I can’t imagine making sure that belt was visible every time they entered my bedroom. I can’t imagine waking either of them up to a whipping because they had given me a dirty shirt to iron.

The things I experienced kept me in line. By all measures, I was a “good” kid. Good grades, active in sports and activities. Never caused trouble. I was also afraid. I was afraid to be at home. I stayed down in my cave and only came up for food. I avoided people. I lied to avoid being punished. I did whatever I could to not be noticed in my own home. Those things that were survival tactics for me as a kid carried over into my adulthood. I still have difficulty sleeping and have to have covers on me when I do. I try to blend in. I’m skittish around those I determine to be authorities over me. I’m dishonest at times to protect myself.

One of my favorite writers/thinkers, Michael Eric Dyson wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. He connects the ideas of corporal punishment in the African American community to our history with slavery:

While 70 percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment, black Americans have a distinct history with the subject. Beating children has been a depressingly familiar habit in black families since our arrival in the New World. As the black psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote in “Black Rage,” their 1968 examination of psychological black life: “Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated.”

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

The beatings I experienced accomplished the goal of keeping me in line. They also did deep psychological damage with which I am only now coming to terms. I use the words “abuse” and “trauma” now so that I do not let myself off the hook when thinking about how I want my children or other young people to be treated. Hurt people hurt people unless there are hurt people who are willing to not hurt people. My hurt cannot be my sons hurt. If we teach children that violence is necessary to maintain order in the home or in the school, then they will learn that violence is the only way to maintain in their communities and in the world. Haven’t we outgrown that lesson yet?

Hurt people hurt people. But hurt people can also heal people. It’s time that we call abuse by name, bring it to an end, and begin the process of healing.

The Fantasy of Football

I root for a team whose all star quarterback should probably be in jail. I spend a great deal of my time and energy in watching games suppressing the revulsion I feel about rooting for a man whose actions I have found to be reprehensible. It affects the way I feel about the game and the way I feel about myself.

Yet and still I watch.

Every year around this time I put some defensive statement about the fact that I enjoy football out into my social network. It’s usually snarky, to a degree, but it I try to also respect my friends who take ethical stands against the game or who simply don’t enjoy it. My defensiveness comes from a twinge of gilt in my own conscience.

And still I watch.

This week has been a tough one for the football apologists. Video of running back Ray Rice (of the hated Baltimore Ravens!) was released showing the athlete leveling his then fiance (now wife) with a punch before dragging her out of an elevator. It’s a brutal thing to behold. The week ended with allegations star running back Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings… to whom I am ambivalent) abusing his four year old in the name of discipline. I hope to write more in the future about this particular form of discipline (spoiler alert, I’m against it) but for now I can say that it felt like another black eye for the league that I enjoy.

Thursday night the Ravens played my beloved Steelers. Many fans showed up wearing Rice’s jersey. The team seemed galvanized by the incident. The Ravens dominated the Steelers. Several players after the game stated that they won for their former teammate who had since been released from his contract. Then Sunday rolled around. I set my fantasy team line up and watched a half of a game with my son. We then went outside and threw a football around for about a half hour. I watched another half of football Sunday night and a half on Monday night after work.

I still watch.

I started watching when I was about 12. Don’t get me wrong, football was always on in the background. I grew up in Pittsburgh, a drinking city with a football problem. The city of champions. Everyone here bleeds black and gold (not “yellow”, Wiz Khalifa!). But I personally started getting into it after I started playing it. It was quite by accident that I ended up in the sport. My mother thought she was signing me up for baseball. When we found out it was football, I decided to give it a try, which shocked everyone because I was a scrawny nerd. Oh, how things have changed! I started to love football when the chalkboard came out. I realized that there was strategy involved and not just brute force. I loved the way that plays were designed. I loved the idea of synchronizing eleven moving parts in order to achieve a goal. I realized that my coaches were chess players moving human chess pieces and not just meatheads.

Other things happened too. I, skinny kid who always escaped to worlds in his head, began to live into my body. I discovered that I was fast. I discovered that I could be strong. I discovered that I had some coordination. It gave me confidence that I hadn’t had before. I, the loner kid who played on his own, began to have teammates and friends. I socialized. I communicated. I found a communal identity. When professional athletes retire, they often say that what they miss most is the locker room. On some very small level, I get that. Football connected me to my brother and stepfather. My brother was an obvious athlete. Playing the game gave us something in common. It gave us something to talk about We gathered around the TV as a family on Sundays. It was one thing we did as a family.

And yes, football taught me how to hit. Which for me, as a child of abuse, was a great gift. I learned that there was a time to hit and that there were proper outlets for aggression. From the snap of the ball to the blow of the whistle I could hit the guy across from me as hard as I had been hit and it was okay. When the whistle blew, it was over. When the game ended, that guy I was hitting was my friend and classmate again.

For lots of reasons, I was never a great football player. I didn’t play past my sophomore year of high school, but I developed a love for the game. That love got ramped up when I moved out of Pittsburgh for the first time for seminary. Watching the Steelers connected me to home. I was 24 and had never experienced homesickness before. The Steelers gave me tastes of Pittsburgh. Plus, Steelers fans are everywhere. There’s a Steelers bar in every NFL city. It didn’t hurt that we were really freaking good those years! When we won the Super Bowl in ’06 it felt like I was connected to the whole city from thousands of miles away. I started playing Madden to get my fix of the game during the offseason. I started watching the draft. I started watching college football. I started playing fantasy football. If this sounds like the confessions of a drug addict, it some times feels that way as well.

The players in the NFL have been compared to modern day gladiators. If so, then the 325 million dollars that was won by former players in the class action suit related to head injuries was the Spartacus rebellion. Sure, it looked like it might threaten the empire, but ultimately it did nothing but show the might of Rome. Historians show that after Spartacus’ war, slave owners had more control over their slaves, not less. The NFL is a juggernaut. College Football has become a feeder system, the minor leagues for the pro game. It is a big business. It is a big business owned by white men, profiting primarily off of black bodies. It is a game often played by men who used the sport to escape drug-infested streets or forgotten rural towns. It is a game where men will sacrifice their bodies for the sake of making a living for their families. For every $20 million dollar a year contract paid to Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers (white quarterbacks who rarely get hit) there are 50 $50,000 a year contracts paid to no name offensive lineman on the practice squad. It is a game where our national inequalities are put on display for all to see.

And it is a game where our national thirst for violence is put on display. Football, more than any other sport, is TV ready and it is easy to see our favorite athletes as mere characters on a show. The violence becomes less real until it becomes violence against a young woman in a bathroom, a fiance, a dog, or a four year old. Then it suddenly becomes very real. It’s fine when the gladiators stay in the arena. When the violence spills out of the stadium, the hand-wringing and navel-gazing begin.

I learned to hit. I don’t want my kids to learn to hit. Nor do I want them to learn to be hit. When the time comes, I will most likely steer my son towards track, basketball, or soccer. It’s hypocritical, I know. I love the game. I do not have an answer for my love of the game. I am conflicted. It connects me to so much of what I love and it simultaneously reminds me of so much of what I hate. At some point I suppose I might give it up. At some point, the ethical weight of being a fan of this most popular of sports will be too much for me to bear. I am torn apart every time that I watch…

…And still I watch.