Everybody Hurts

I’ve just broken Josh Gonnerman’s first law of staying sane on the internet: I went and read some of the comments on Chris Damian’s Crisis article. I probably had the same reaction as most other Spiritual Friendship readers who made the same mistake. It seemed like the responses had nothing to do with the article. I rankled at the too-familiar accusations of “relativism” “spreading confusion” and “pride.” Damian’s article seemed to so clear, so lucid, so charitable and full of good will that I couldn’t understand how it provoked that kind of response.

Then my husband suggested that instead of getting angry I should try to think about the Crisis readers the same way that I think about people on Truth Wins Out. When an ex-ex-gay says something that I really disagree with, or calls the pope emeritus Pope Palpatine XVI, I very quickly and easily forgive them. I understand where they’re coming from, I see their hurt and I don’t feel inclined to blame them if they say something insensitive about my faith. So my husband suggested that I try to find a way of relating to and understanding the way that Crisis readers feel when they post the kind of comments that make my blood boil.

Now I don’t think that there’s one brush that can be used to paint all Crisis readers any more than there is one brush that can be used to paint all homosexuals. I’m going to offer one possible narrative. I want to stress that I don’t necessarily think that this is the dominant cause: I’m only giving it my attention because it’s the psychology that I am most able to personally empathize with. I’m sure that there are other psychologies and motivations that I don’t get, and I’m not qualified to talk about those. This I know from the inside.

I think most readers are likely familiar with Dostoyevski’s dictum “All are responsible for all.” This is a profound and beautiful sentiment—but like any profound and beautiful sentiment it is capable of perversion. One of the difficulties that I’ve often faced since converting to Catholicism is a fear that I am responsible for other people’s sins, not in the sense that I take responsibility for my brothers and sisters in Christ but in the sense that I feel unreasonably guilty for things that I have no power to change. Part of this is pride: an exaggerated sense of my own importance and of my capacity to be the saviour of others. But part of it is a completely involuntary disorder: my natural desire to have solicitude and care for others becomes distorted into a visceral sense of fear, dread and guilt when I find that I am powerless to help. If someone who I feel responsible for commits a sin I often literally feel as if it is my fault. Even if I’m able to show myself that this isn’t true I still doubt my own arguments: maybe I’m just making excuses. Maybe I’ve scandalized that person without knowing it. Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently courageous and clear in telling them that what they were doing was wrong, or if I was really clear then maybe I was too harsh and I hardened their heart. Maybe what they’re doing is a response to some fault in my own behaviour that is enabling them, or maybe instead of enabling I’m provoking them and causing an occasion for their sin.

These thoughts aren’t really any more voluntary than my feelings about gender, or my sexual attractions. The pain that they cause can be terrific, and if they get out of hand they really do have the capacity to control a lot of my behaviour. There have also been periods in my life where I didn’t recognize that these feelings were disordered at all: where I thought that my feelings of guilt were the legitimate prickings of conscience and I felt that my need to apply fraternal correction was the fruit of humility, solicitude, responsibility, and zeal for the Kingdom. I’m now able to recognize that it’s a form of scrupulosity, but that doesn’t make the feelings go away.

I think this sort of thing is a part of what motivates some people on the extreme “right”—and although its outward manifestations often make us hurt and angry it’s really important to try to understand it with compassion. For someone who is in this kind of headspace the things that we say here on Spiritual Friendship can be deeply threatening. When I was really suffering from scruples it was very unnerving for me to have to deal with any kind of uncertainty in my beliefs. Having a clear set of absolute truths that could completely rely on helped to take a lot of the edge off of the anxieties. In a lot of cases I craved guidelines that were even more clear and I became really upset whenever I found a grey area in Church teaching where the Vatican hadn’t pronounced on exactly what I was supposed to do or believe. I wanted the feelings of guilt and inadequacy to go away, and there was always this implied promise that if I behaved perfectly and read enough Vatican documents and prayed enough rosaries I would be at peace.

For me, when I realized that the Catholic answers that I had received about homosexuality didn’t adequately explain my experience it was really unsettling. I was depressed and anxious about it for months. The first time that I used the word “queer” in public I was literally sick with fear. I felt like I was throwing myself off of a precipice. I had prayed about it, discerned it, wrestled with it rationally, read (and reread) all of the relevant documents and talked it over with people whose judgement I trusted but none of that took away the feeling that I was somehow doing something horribly dangerous. Looking back that seems absurd, but at the time it really felt like the entire foundation of my identity was being shattered. Obviously part of that is because I was dealing with something that effected me personally—but I’ve also felt that to a lesser extent with issues that are much less personal. Besides, when I read a comment from a Crisis reader I have no idea what’s going on in their private life. I do know that in a lot of cases when I’ve followed an emotionally charged but superficially abstract rational argument to the end I’ve discovered that the person I’ve been arguing with is actually just as invested as I am, and for equally personal reasons.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect that for at least some commentators when they talk about “spreading confusion,” “relativism,” and “pride” what they really mean is “What you’re saying frightens me. It destabilizes my faith. It erodes my certainty. And I need that certainty or my entire world will fall apart.” Or “I don’t want to listen because you’ve touched a sore spot. It hurts. I’m trying to forgive, but it’s a long process and I’m not ready to take this step.” Maybe underneath the invective and the accusations there is a vulnerable, hurting person who needs from me the same love and compassion that I ask of them.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

10 thoughts on “Everybody Hurts

  1. Very good point and good to try to keep in mind while reading those comments. Its so easy to get angry and dismiss people when they do not agree with us. I’m speaking to myself here. Thank you.

  2. This was a very charitable response and oozes holiness. Can I siphon some off of you? I probably would have just called him ignorant or something even less charitable and been done with it.

  3. Yeah, Melinda, I think you’re general assessment is probably true, broadly speaking, of the sort of people who make the comments that make you so angry (and me too). But there’s no faster way to get people– strangers, friends, family, ideological opponents– really angry with you than to make unsolicited psychological observations. It’s an imposition of narrative equivalent to someone telling a gay person that they experience SSA because of their father wound. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant; you are making guesses about someone else’s inner world and it will not be welcome.

    But you still raise an important question. What do you do when someones words or actions are so hurtful they make your blood boil? It’s not about explaining the other person, making excuses or even understanding where their behaviour is coming from on a deeper level. We don’t know why other people do what they do– we don’t understand ourselves most of the time. Mercy means forgiveness even after we’ve run out of reasonable excuses.

    • You’re right. But that’s also the reason why I’ve emphasized that this is one psychology that may be true for some people — and also the reason why I’m talking primarily about my experience of something that I’ve been through myself. In terms of how common it is, I don’t know. I do know that if you hop over to the Catholic Answers Forums you’ll find that one of the largest groups is the Scruples/OCD group — and you’ll find a lot of people who are really struggling with the fear that they are unforgivable, that they are responsible for other people’s sins, that non-sinful behaviours are a cause of scandal, and so forth. One way or another, it’s one of the things that can happen to people in the pursuit of holiness and I know from my own life that it can be the motivating force behind intellectual rigidity and hurtful forms of fraternal correction. Again, I can’t say clearly enough that I am not psycho-analysing anyone in particular apart from myself.

      • Thanks for the reply. Yes, you were talking mostly about your own experience and feelings, which is totally legitimate. The other thing I should have said in my comment was thank you for opening yourself up so much. You say that you had “the feeling that I was somehow doing something horribly dangerous” and that it “really felt like the entire foundation of my identity was being shattered.” Wow, what a statement. I’ve had my own journey out of intellectual rigidity and judgmentalism, but I never felt like that. For me it felt more like coming out into fresh air and finding a much more solid identity. I learned that I can love and be faithful and obedient to the Church without letting her do my thinking for me or asking her to provide me with an identity. Thanks so much for telling us about your own experience.

  4. There’s much truth here, however, it also has to do with the ignorance and self-righteousness that many “faithful and orthodox” Catholics have. They want a Baltimore Catechism world where everything is black and white and there is little diversity. Basically a caricature of 1950’s complacent and wholesome America. Having said that, I sympathize with them. The world they knew, a white dominated and nuclear family oriented world,is quickly disappearing. Minorities of all types, ethnic, racial, and sexual, are more visible than ever and are increasingly accepted. This throws their worldview into chaos because the middle-class conservative American narrative is no longer sufficient to keep our diverse country together. It’s a very complex situation.

  5. I agree with this article, but also agree with Jose.

    Which is to say, undoubtedly there is a spiritual scrupulosity or rigidity in these people, individually, that needs our empathy. They speak like they’re stuck in adolescent spirituality, and as someone who was adolescent myself once (and quite traumatized!) I can empathize and pity (though people hate pity…)

    However, I’m more interested in the collective phenomenon than the individual. What is the politics of it? It is one thing to ask “Why might an individual react this way?” But it is another (and perhaps more useful for fighting for change) to ask the sociological question: why do so many different people get caught up in this outraged self-righteous dynamic around this particular issue or trigger? Why is there this visceral homophobia masquerading as moral concern (even when the gays in question agree with them on morals)??

    I suspect the answer is power and privilege, sadly. How those cross-currents manifest psychologically I’m the individual may be manifold and varied, and they may not be conscious of their real motives…but I suspect a sort of class conflict. Society is moving away from the comfortable 1950s Pleasantville that gave them privilege, and now the world is requiring different competencies they lack the tools to navigate, and power and wealth and social capital is becoming more diffuse and diversely distributed, and suddenly the identities they built according to a sort of “conventional” conformist normality and subtle authoritarianism…are being radically reordered in ways that make their modes of subjectivity obsolete. And so they panic. And gayness is a wedge and flashpoint for that deconstruction, sexually active or not.

    Conservatives by definition hate change, usually because change hurts, it requires new growth, new learning, and because the old order always has privileged folks who resist the new order where they lose power or prestige.

    • “I suspect the answer is power and privilege, sadly. How those cross-currents manifest psychologically I’m the individual may be manifold and varied, and they may not be conscious of their real motives…but I suspect a sort of class conflict. Society is moving away from the comfortable 1950s Pleasantville that gave them privilege, and now the world is requiring different competencies they lack the tools to navigate, and power and wealth and social capital is becoming more diffuse and diversely distributed…”

      Brilliant! Exactly my point. I think this explains, in part, the political divisions between white older men and everybody else. Archie Bunker’s world has turned upside down. This isn’t easy to accept.

  6. Melinda,

    Thanks for your measured and charitable response. I could feel myself getting dispirited and frustrated and I needed this message. I often find that defining terms in a debate is a tricky business, as no one wants to budge on the definitions they’ve chosen for fear that their entire thought argument will collapse if they tweak something – yet, on a topic as nuanced as sexuality, the nuance matters. I feel like many church leaders I interact with are willing to engage in that debate – I only run into frustration with certain lay people. I realize I need to be better about backing up and understanding where they are coming from first before I try and convince them that orthodox moral positions include more nuanced understandings of certain terms.

  7. Pingback: Why Should A Straight Person Care About Spiritual Friendship? | Spiritual Friendship

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