My oldest child turned 30 this week. Another milestone for both of us in our history together.
He is, without a doubt, all grown up now. He has held several professional jobs, and, for a while, made China his home, and has a wife and two cats.
He made it known that, for this very significant birthday, he did not want a gift from me, not a material sort of present, anyway. He wanted a full half hour of my time for a phone chat. We see each other so rarely now, and we catch each other on the fly, in different time zones and different places in our lives.
I was thrilled, actually, and touched. It was really a gift to me.
I wanted to ask him what is happening with him, not just on the incredibly-busy and seemingly-successful surface of his, now, all-grown-up life. Not an e-mail status report, but a real conversation. Questions and answers, that sort of thing.
The kinds of questions you were afraid to ask a pushing-away teen and younger adult.
Because, if you dared, you would risk getting a slightly annoyed shrug and then a grunted “I’m OK;” or perhaps even a slammed door.
Before I placed our scheduled call at 11 a.m. yesterday morning, I thought I would start with my just-turned-30-years-old in a light sort of way, always the best thing with a long distance phone call.
I have been listening quite a bit to Bob Dylan these days, I would tell him, after the hellos and how are yous, and happy 30th birthday, and such.
The kids in my church youth group seem to like him quite a lot, I would start off. They like the new songs he is writing, and they have even gone to see him in outdoor concerts. And they also like the old ones, the ones I remember hearing and seeing him perform as a teenager myself. I even play them at church sometimes.
Songs like The Times they are a’ Changing. Songs that urged our parents and other older folks to get out of the way and let the next, the younger, generation have a go at living our own lives, and fixing the messes we were in, even then.
The bombings of black churches. The threat of a nuclear winter. The war in that place in southeast Asia.
The waters had grown, he warned us nasally. The old road was rapidly aging.
Some say that Bob Dylan first warned us to never trust anyone over 30. I’d like to think that it was him who first penned these words and then mumbled them into a microphone one evening, in between songs.
Now that I am getting along towards twice-30 and my oldest child has reached the magic age of 30, I have been thinking a lot about that saying. Was it true that we had the answers, the way to peace and freedom, and were just not forceful enough? Or was George Burns on the mark when he lit up his cigar and observed: Never trust anyone over 30 who used to say never trust anyone over 30.
Now that my oldest child is 30, I wanted to ask him if he thinks that is true, in fact, did he ever think that was true. Who or what did you trust in when you were not yet 30, when you were a child, even?
Who or what did you place your confidence and/or faith in? Who or what did you rely on to give you a sense of security? Who would take good care of you — who was fair, truthful, and honorable?
Like all parents, I expect, I would hope he would include me in his list of the trustworthy. But truth be told, I would be the first to admit that there were times when I let him down, like the many afternoons when I had to work, and there was no after-school daycare — not anywhere. The times he and his younger sister came home to an empty house high on a hill, had forgotten the key, and were locked out. The fire department would call and I would rush from 45-minutes away to collect my kids. They would be hungry and worried and upset.
Or those days and weeks after my first husband and I separated, when I was barely crawling through my own life, tearful, and wailing as a baby, absent to the two young children who were now exclusively in my care.
I could not possibly have been always trustworthy.
My children could not have considered me as a constant source of protection and comfort at that time. Their safety net was sometimes tattered, at best.
Let alone, the trust I placed on their behalf in the many babysitters, childcare providers, summer camp counselors, classroom and Sunday School teachers who came in and out of their lives. The many adults they spent time with, sometimes more time than me.
I wanted them to feel OK with other grown-ups. I needed them to.
Who did you trust? Who did you rely on, have confidence in? I want to ask my adult children.
A perhaps risky, but crucial, question. Are there things I never knew about, things they never told me? Hurtful, harmful things.
I didn’t end up, by the way, backing into what I wanted to know from my oldest child.
As it turned out, for most of our birthday phone call, Josh was holding forth on his graduate school thesis about entrepreneurship among Indian immigrants, and the sad fact that one of his cats escaped his apartment and he is out every night from midnight to 2 a.m. trying to trap him. And time was running out. So I finally just said I was writing a sermon for Sunday and I needed to ask him the trust question.
Actually, he told me, he always trusted adults more than other kids. In retrospect, it might not have been such a good idea, but he did. He liked talking to my friends and the other adults in his life: his teachers, his sports coaches, his counselors.
It was way better to be in those programs and do all those activities than sitting alone, let alone, at home with a sister who depended on him too much — still does — and made him feel way too responsible.
That is, except the time one guy who hung around their summer day camp and seemed strange and scary asked him and his sister if he could go home with them.
We didn’t want too. It felt wrong, Josh remembers. We could have been hurt.
I don’t now remember if I ever knew that happened. I was, after all, alone too. I was busy, I was distracted, I was exhausted most of the time.
The home I grew up in held a stay-at-home mom, but still there were enough left-alone hours in the day for my oldest brother to hold the rest of us hostage: terrorizing us physically, touching me, in the pre-teen years, in places that I later realized should have been off limits. I might have told someone, but nothing was done. We didn’t have safe-touch programs in schools or churches then, so there was a much wider latitude of acceptable behavior. Not the worst case, for sure, but scarring just the same.
Diminishing my sense of trust and safety, stopping me, in some ways, from having my basic needs met.
The hierarchy of needs that psychologist Abraham Maslow identified quite a few years ago and used to explain how and why human beings are motivated.
Maslow believed that people are essentially (inherently) trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing. Humans, he believed, tend toward growth and love under the right conditions.
Although he admitted that there had been, and still are, a continuous cycle of wars, murder, and deceit, he believed that violence, corruption, and deception are not what human nature is meant to be.
People whose lower needs are not met may defend themselves aggressively. Or lie or cheat or steal. Or, more generally, fail to thrive or develop into what was meant for them.
Most basically, if we don’t have food and water and a place to live, we cannot think about nor do anything else. Only once these physical needs are met and not in danger of being taken away, can we focus on other needs.
Like safety, establishing stability and constancy in a chaotic world. We need the security of a home and family, whatever that looks like in a culture. If a parent suddenly disappears and we are left to be raised by a reluctant aunt or cousin, if we are witness to abuse, or abused ourselves, sexually perhaps and/or with wire hangers or extension cords. If we are locked in closets, or are moved from temporary shelter to car to shelter. If placed, not in good childcare or foster care, but in warehouses, where we feel endangered all the time.
If these kinds of things, and dozens of others, happen to us, as they have to the abused and deprived women and children I have worked with for the last five years, we shut down. We use all our energy to survive, to protect ourselves. We get real independent, as one woman told me recently, a woman with an impenetrable face and fists clenched tight. Whose mother had gotten on a bus to the city when she was still a small girl. And never came back. We don’t believe no one. We stay to ourselves. We don’t talk. We don’t let no one near us.
If we stay locked down, because we’ve never known trust, or our trust has been broken, then Maslow tells us we cannot get the next level of need met, the need for love and belonging. That has to wait until we no longer cringe in fear, or react in violence.
So we don’t seek or find mutual love. Or mistake sex for love or having babies for love.
We remain alone or we stay behind our computers, and we seek anonymous, even destructive, human contact, rather than none at all.
And if we continue not to trust, if we can’t open up to love and avoid belonging, we will never know actual self-esteem or genuine power. We can never be self-actualized as Maslow described it. Which is the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
Which is what I call a holy state. Living fully in the image of God, or what we see as the greatest good, our highest potential.
We seem to be living in a period of intensified distrust. Legitimately so. Violated in lots of ways. Endangered in lots of ways. Guarded and shut down in lots of ways. You only have to watch the current crop of spy and terror movies to get how much we are caught up in this collective cycle of dark insecurity. Some of it about the wars and terrorist threats. Who knew what and didn’t tell, or didn’t act. Who is harmless, who can trigger a bomb?
Who can we trust? Can we really trust anyone?
Some of it, I believe, is connected to the disclosure of the extent of sexual misconduct, of abuse, in the Catholic Church. The hundreds of cases, the millions of dollars of settlement pay-offs. The meetings at the Vatican and in Archdioceses across this country.
The old and new damage to, and disruption of, the lives of grown men and women, like David Clohessy, who had lived with a secret, to him, a deeply buried secret, for three decades before he and his fiancée saw the movie Nuts, with Barbra Streisand. It was this Hollywood film about child sexual abuse that unearthed his own history of mistreatment and abused trust by a parish priest. And all the memories.
He developed insomnia; he recoiled from his fiancée’s touch. For one two-month period, he barely left the house.
The horrible irony in David’s case, is that his own brother Kevin, who became a priest, has now been named among those accused in the Catholic Church. He had also been abused, and now, as is often true, he became an abuser.
In God we Trust is what David had been taught, like so many other children and adults.
He had read in the Bible, like so many other children and adults, “The God of my rock, in God I will trust. God is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my refuge, my savior, who saves me from violence.”
Or, from the Psalms, “In God I have put my trust; I will not, therefore, be afraid what man can do to me.”
And yet, he and thousands of others had been betrayed by someone he had also been taught was a messenger, a servant, an anointed of God.
In whom he had placed his sacred trust.
It is for another day to delve more fully, more locally, into the particular issue of sex in The Church, and, indeed, in religious communities of all types, including our own. Suffice it to say that there is work to do for all of us. And that, in my view, much of the publicity, and much of the debate, following the revelation of the incidences of sexual misconduct and molestation in the Catholic Church has missed, what I think is, more the point, or directed its attention where it should not be directed. All the discussion about whether it is a problem of having gay clergy, or even whether the problem is the rule about celibacy.
Without a doubt, there is a great need to reform the patriarchy and misogyny of that institution, and the system that has refused for years to deal appropriately with the perpetrators of abuse. Without a doubt, it is time to re-look at the prohibitions against marriage and women in the priesthood.
But more important in the short-run, anyway, only recently and only incidentally, that there has been any discussion of intentional prevention moving forward: policies like prohibiting any situation where children would go alone to a priest’s quarters, immediate reports of any unsolicited touching, and other specific steps to restore trust when trust has been badly, badly broken.
And while the Catholic Church has been exposed for having tolerated or hidden or bought off the many incidents of sexual abuse that have taken place in its rectories, in its parochial schools and colleges, in its summer camps, it, of course, does not stand alone in these violations of human dignity and trust. Recent reports have also disclosed abuse in non-denominational black churches, in white evangelical sects, and in the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a quasi-religious group of 200 members in rural Georgia.
Let alone, that most of the media coverage has emphasized man and boy sex, not the abuse and rape of young girls, or the abuse and rape of women, thousands of women.
UUA President William Sinkford issued a pastoral letter telling us that his wish for our congregations, all congregations, is that they are places of safety. The very first song in our hymnal, May Nothing Evil Cross this Door, bears witness to this desire.
After the recent revelations of abuse, he wrote, he was filled with a deep, aching sadness, and anger towards the abusers and those who had shielded them.
Many in our congregations, he noted, have been left with more than this: they have been left with memories of abuse when they were young, the pain of family members and friends who have suffered, loss of trust in ministry, even a loss of faith. Many congregations, he reminds us, include members who are former Catholics, and the media coverage of the deep pain in that church may have brought to the surface long buried wounds and anger at the Catholic Church.
But we, too, he admitted, have had some cases of pedophilia, and we, too, have had unacknowledged cases of sexual abuse of women, enough to call for a formal apology in June 2000 by Kay Montgomery, executive vice-president of the UUA, who confessed that, for many victims and survivors in our own midst, the mission of service never reached them, the commitment of trust and support was elusive and often missing, fulfilling our promise to them of safe congregations and right relations was a dream unfulfilled.
She went on to say that our Association has largely failed the victims and survivors of sexual misconduct. Other denominations, she admitted, have done better.
In the past decade, our denomination has done much to right these wrongs, to make changes, to move towards justice. New professional guidelines have been mandated for ministers and religious educators. A handbook has been produced with suggested policies for safe congregations, safe from the violence, terror, and broken trust.
But because we have congregational polity, because we function as independent churches, these are not universal “commandments.” They are only “suggestions.”
I would suggest that we spend some time over next year, not pointing fingers at the Catholic Church or any other institution’s hierarchy, rather focusing on making sure that we do all we can to ensure that we enhance, not prevent, each person in our midst from moving through the hierarchy of human needs.
Not crippled by distrust, but reaching their full human potential and self-actualization.
Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “our distrust is very expensive.”
If we cannot trust, Abraham Maslow reminds us, we cannot then truly love and find healthy places to belong. If we can’t love and belong, we can’t really feel worthy of all that is there for us and in us, can’t experience our own power. If we can’t and don’t know our own worth and our own power, we cannot give to ourselves, and each other, all the gifts we possess.
May we do what we can to create and protect a more trusting world.