Terminally Unique

I always had a secret mission. In it, I took notes on the Earthlings and reported all findings to the mothership. The assignment seemed simple enough, but it was a long, lonely ordeal. You see, living as an imposter wasn’t for the weak-minded. To do what I needed to do – survive – my goal was to stay as separate from the hominids that populated this planet. This sort of science-fiction mentality saved my life…until I found the one true thing that would skyrocket me to my own private Krypton. Alcohol.

Whether it was the bullying or the apathy in the aftermath of the shoving and name-calling, I never felt quite at home in my own skin. Even as a child, I felt that everyone except me had gotten a manual for living – a set of volumes outlining what one needed to do to thrive in life. How to talk to others, how to smile and mean it, how to feel emotions without wanting to hide or wail uncontrollably. How to give and feel love. I felt a large chunk of something was missing in my life, but couldn’t put my finger on it.

If you were to ask me how I was after the bullies went home, I would have said, “fine”. And that was the veneer I put on for the next thirty years. I was fine. But deep down, I was a sensitive, empathetic, gentle boy who didn’t know how to navigate life’s rough waters. I was rudderless, adrift at sea. Whenever I was myself – doing well in school, playing the flute, being a general nerd – I was beaten down literally and figuratively. Grown-ups were either unwilling or unable to help me deal with these situations so they left me to fend for myself. The prevailing attitude of “boys will be boys” carried the day. So I hid my talents, lived my life under cloak and dagger. To be me meant pain. The only way I could feel safe was to picture myself as an alien who had landed here on Earth and stay a dispassionate observer. I played the role well. I shut down emotionally and cast judgements on everyone who darkened my space.

And then came the alcohol.

Alcohol allowed me to play both sides of this spiritual subterfuge. I could find that liquid courage to play the role of human. I could laugh, talk to others, sing, feel good about myself. At the same time, I could continue to isolate, craft resentments and feel victimized. My alcoholism blossomed and the good times ceased. All I could manage was to pretend to play at life while I crumbled within.

There is a term used in recovery, terminally unique, to describe how you’re the only one to feel how you feel and hence resign yourself to a slow death. I was textbook terminally unique. Playing the victim card stamped by memory of those bullies kept me in the maelstrom of self-pity and isolation. Even my role of observer no longer worked. I knew I had life within me, but couldn’t live it or feel it. I was suicidal. Being apart from, and not a part of, was destroying me.

There is no loneliness, isolation, or sense of being different as there is with the alcoholic or addict. We trod about as if we invented those things. Or at least we try and perfect it. It wasn’t until my bottom tossed me about like a rogue wave was I able to break that idea of being different. I found a connection to the Creator which in turn has allowed me to be open to His children. And in doing so, I found that missing piece which had always had me searching for – me. My authentic self, grounded in the love of others and guided by His hand.

I no longer need to observe from afar. I quit my alien job and finally joined the human race, love and spirit intact.

Paul at Message in a Bottle

Greatness, Finale: The Triumph of Forgiveness

Like a diamond, the attribute of greatness has so many faces its definition remains elusive. Thus far I have traced greatness along the lines of tenacity. I could go on to look at heroes who cope with severe disabilities or who have scaled Everest and run ultras that are four times the distance of a marathon. But I bring this series home with what I consider the most herculean of feats, to reach into the depths of one’s spirit in the costly act of forgiveness.

When someone injures us; mind, body, or spirit, it incites demand for justice. Parent, friend, or stranger has inflicted pain and must requite the wrong with contrition, if not suffering. The question that remains is what happens to the debt that goes unremitted. Someone must pay that debt and where the perpetrator has no plans to, the victim always absorbs the cost in one of two ways: with anger or with grace that clears the debt from the offender’s account. The acrimony that weighs on the unforgiving heart becomes an emotional cancer that often manifests itself physically. The liver literally stores the poison of grief and resentment. Understandably, freeing others of their debt depollutes our spirit and body. But life isn’t a treatise. You can understand the harm nursing grievance means to your emotional and physical well-being but if you’ve been abused, abandoned, attacked, or lost a loved one to a senseless transgression, you’re going to want blood.

Why is forgiveness so hard? To pay evil with grace is hardly possible. I wish it were as doable, as conquerable, as daily hours of exercise. Indignation is the compelling logic of right and wrong, and speaks to our sense of entitlement. The anger also answers the feeling of helplessness with the delusion of strength.

Corrie Ten Boon with her sister and father endured unspeakable atrocities in a concentration camp for having hid Jews in occupied Holland. Corrie, the only one in her family to survive, went on to preach God’s forgiveness all over the world. Here is a part of her story:

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones..the huge room with its harsh overhead lights…the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there. But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’ And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

Since the end of the war I’d had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

I can just hear the cynicism about convicts alleging conversion. That is besides the point at the moment: it is excruciatingly difficult even for Christians. We assent to, oh embrace, the God who sacrificed the Innocent to acquit a guilty race. Jesus made amends through payment of punishment. Atonement. He took every stain of my being and the worst I will ever think or do, and removed them from me as far as East is from West in an act entirely unjust to God Himself. In this post, I offer a glimpse of a long, dark season in which I was incapacitated. I will appreciate your reading The Question of Human Suffering before you debate God with me, and do it under that post while not expecting me to solve age-old mysteries. I share how it was Relentless Goodness that stripped me of all proud claims. But the insistence on self returns. It is the beauty of undeserved kindness, not the threat of retribution, that lifts us onto the higher ground of humility and compassion. Deep in conversation with the theologian Ravi Zacharias on a train, a woman asked him what Christianity offers that other faiths don’t. “Forgiveness,” he answered, meeting contemplation.

Full, deep forgiveness is an achievement of consummate greatness, a triumph worthier than Olympic gold because we are not actualizing or fulfilling the self but denying it. The human heart is the bloodiest, fiercest of battlegrounds; the place of pardon where we most profoundly attain the nobility of our humanity. For, I would add, it images divine glory. To answer insensitivity, violence, or hate with love calls for a power greater than our flesh can marshal.

There are a lot of bloggers writing their pain away. Every one of us has had someone to forgive. There are many bitter Christians, and on my worst days you can easily count me among them. But the Cross offers the why and the how we can move toward grace, makes the transformation possible. For a widened perspective of how people try to heal from unjust wounds, I would like to hear especially from those who do not share my worldview. Where do you get the power to release him, her who did that to you? Do you feel you can even try? Under the smile are you heavy with dirt spit by tires that went screeching into the sunset? Or have you gotten up, refused to call yourself roadkill? Is coping enough for you? Are you walking, or running? Laden with burdens buried in pockets or are you free of them? If so, how?