When you go
Would you even turn to say
I don’t love you
Like I did
My Chemical Romance
I’ve been waiting to hear those words. I’m not going to, and I finally know why. I won’t hear them because there’s nobody there to say them. Which means there’s nothing to end, no good-byes to make, no reasons to give.
I couldn’t think how to write about it. No longer being a Christian, becoming an atheist — lots of people write about that. I have, too. But this time was different — what I discovered was bigger than “once I believed this and now I believe that.” It was about how my faith kept me lost in an artificial childhood. I never grew up. I stayed a child because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you believe. And I paid for it.
Here’s where the idea of remaining childlike came from:
* * *
“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Matthew 18:2–4 ESV
That sounds deep, and it gets a lot of mileage. It took it at face value, as I did with all my Bible reading. It worked great in the realm of belief, but in adult life… not so much. How to write about that? Then the idea came to me: write to the Jesus who said that. So here goes….
The whole thing started with me feeling like a zero, screwing everything up. I needed help, and you would help me, dust me off and get me pointed in a better direction, make me into somebody I didn’t dislike, somebody useful. You would do all that because you wanted to- not only could you, but you would. It was easy for you, it’s what you were for.
All I had to do was believe in you, trust you, throw it all in for you. I did, and you came smiling into my life — strong, kind, generous. You were invincible — with you around, there was never anything to be afraid of, nothing was ever out of control (including me). You were the best of friends, the best of times, the best of company. You could keep everybody and everything together just by walking into the room. You were the big brother everybody should have but nobody does. You made things right. You straightened life out. You straightened me out — gave me what I lacked, filled in the blanks, the holes, the empty spaces. You gave me everything to believe in — a cause, a calling, a purpose. You made me strong, like you.
* * *
Now, after all those years, I finally see that there was no you and me, no you doing all that for me. Instead, I made you up like an imaginary friend, to be everything I wasn’t, to do everything I couldn’t. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t believe in myself, so I made you up to be someone I could trust and believe in — someone outside of me, out of reach of me, someone I could never be, who could do what I would never be able to do. You were the me I wanted to be but could never be on my own.
Or so I thought.
I was 17, 18, 19 when I reached out to you — in late adolescence, when children differentiate into their young adult selves. I never did — I differentiated into you. So did all my new friends that were joining the faith at the time — all of us wannabe Hippies who became Jesus Freaks instead. We were all Lost Boys. We became adults intending to be just like you. You were our highest and greatest selves — the best we could be. Better to turn ourselves over to you than keep going it alone, making a mess of things. It’s dangerous out there, everybody needs somebody like you — crazy thing is, not everybody knows it, so we have to tell them.
Or so we thought.
Children can be arrogant, too.
In your shadow I could stay a Lost Boy forever. True, according to the faith I had technically become “found,” but I was still a boy, still a child, and still lost — or on the verge of it. You encouraged us to think that way so that’s what we Lost Boys did. Plus, you told us about your father (who never made an appearance, we only had your word about him, which turned out to be way off base, but that revelation only came much later), and you said he would be ours, too. He would be the too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving father (yes, with a mean streak when he got angry, but that’s how grownups are and we could dance around it) who was rich and wise beyond measure, and who had our backs for good, just like you did. We were family now — we could count on that. There was nothing stupid we could do that you and your dad wouldn’t forgive, no need we could have that the two of you wouldn’t meet.
* * *
With all that, why grow up?
Children know a good deal when they see it.
One day decades later I snuck away from my law practice one afternoon to go to the movies. I’d heard about people doing that — I thought it was so out of line it was just plain immoral — and then I did it myself. The movie was Hook. I sat in a matinee with all the moms and kids and cried all the way through. I was Robin Williams’ character Peter Banning — maybe not quite as blatantly obnoxious, but just as lost. I looked good on the outside, my life looked good, but I had broken faith. I had meant to never grow up, but had done my best to do so anyway.
I was an adult on the outside, a kid on the inside, and had a life to match.
* * *
I left Hook and did what kids do when the adults doing something that doesn’t make sense: I assumed it was all my fault, took the blame, vowed to do better, to make it right. I returned to my childlike ways. Never mind that others in the “family” were living by the creed of “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV Obviously they had sold out, like Peter Banning. They’d become adults. They didn’t trust and believe. They weren’t childlike anymore. They were still nominally part of the family, but it wasn’t just that they’d forgotten how to fly, they didn’t even want to anymore. Not me. I was still eager to please.
* * *
I got back to work on my flying.
Thinking that way, I committed the same crime against myself that I had at the beginning: I robbed myself of ever knowing the adult I might have become. I never found out who I could be. Instead, the Lost Boy in me ran to your side once again, hid behind you, tried to wear your mask, tried to look and sound like you. The outcome of my new Lost Boy life was predictable — a drunkard’s random walk from this to that — always after the newest spiritual insight, the latest religious fad, the next way to prove my allegiance to the idea of you. Meanwhile I remained the afraid child who was doing it wrong, if it went bad it was my fault, who had to take the blame for what the adults did.
And then something happened that was never supposed to happen but did anyway. It’s not that you just up and left, that you didn’t come around much anymore, that you had other things to do, other friends. No, nothing like that. It was more like you started to fade — like you were dematerializing, losing substance, fading from view, getting farther away, turning into a ghost, your voice muffled, muted, softened, distanced. You lost presence. You became like a really great book that once had moved me, that meant so much to me that I kept it on the shelf to remember that feeling but never opened it again. You became a memory, an experience I once had.
I had been so practiced at generating the energy of your presence that it took me a long time to realize I had been the one doing the generating. It had been my job to make sure you kept walking into the room. You never came on our own. And now, you never came at all. I wondered at first why you didn’t seem so real as you did at first. I worried that I might have left you, wondered if you might have left me. I felt you far more in the loss of you than I ever had in the thought of your presence.
* * *
And then you were gone — faded from view. And your father too.
The Lost Boy had lost the one who found him.
In the midst of your disappearing came the beginning of growth, of self-awareness, of letting the child go and telling the adolescent it is safe to grow up, to finally differentiate after all that deferral, to become human — to recognize that no Lost Boy can be found by losing himself.
The final realization was that I had never gotten the help I needed so desperately at the beginning — not because you wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t, but because you weren’t. You never had been. I made you up, then lived in service to the you I created — the surrogate for the authentic version I was afraid to create. You couldn’t help me because I didn’t take on the one job we must all do, we are all unqualified to do, we can never do to the satisfaction of the rules and forms and laws we invent, but we all must do anyway: the job of creating ourselves in the wide world. After all those years, I was finally taking it on — the inevitable, inescapable job of learning to be human, of engaging fully in this thing we call “life” as if it was something apart from us, but it is not, it never can be, it is simply us, living.
Until we don’t anymore.
When you go
Would you have the guts to say
I don’t love you
Like I loved you yesterday
* * *
* * *
And now you were gone — without the decency to tell me you were leaving. Handling it that way made you a coward and a cheat. I shocked myself, calling you that, but your leaving without a good-bye made me mad.
I mourned, felt discarded, abandoned. I felt the crush and the pierce of your neglect. And then it came to me: you would never turn to say you didn’t love me anymore — not because you wouldn’t but because you couldn’t. How could you? You didn’t exist, you never had. You were the fabrication of my Lost Boy self’s need of you, my misguided need to be found to the point where I lost myself in you. And now I was the one who was ready to let you go. I didn’t need you to tell me why you were going. You couldn’t anyway.
For years as a Christian I heard sermons about the following passage and feared I would come out on the wrong end of it:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21–23 ESV
Ironically, even though you said it would be to no avail, we had all done our best to prophesy and cast out demons and do mighty works. Hedging our bets, I guess — unable to believe you would actually say that, after all we did to try to please you. Now, I am appalled that some depth of me had a need to appease you, like the abused tries to appease the abuser, making excuses for the smoldering rage that lashes out, wounds and kills. In this, I have come to see that, despite all your likeability, you were unavoidably a chip off the old block — just like the father you kept so carefully hidden behind you, who I came to understand was not the good Father you said he was, but the horrible God of the Bible — the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people. And you? You appeased him, too — all the way to your own death by torture.
Some family I had been adopted into.
I had made that father my own, as I made you my own. And now, thankfully, he is gone too — has also faded from my view — until I no longer need either of you to turn and tell me that you don’t love me anymore, not like you used to.
Because you never did anyway.
Depart from me — I never knew you.
But now I’m the one who has something to say to you as I do the leaving.
Originally published at http://iconoclast.blog on June 28, 2021.