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Rediscovering Respect

This year has been a very trying time for many people. In America, in addition to the global pandemic, we have had an unprecedented amount of civil unrest in many of our larger cities and a presidential election that, of course, went completely sideways. Listening to the “news” or other programs, viewers are constantly bombarded, not with facts, but with opinions. This constant barrage of pseudo-factual babbling has been exhausting. This year has taken its toll on everyone, but the discord that appears so evident to our now hypercautious and hyperconscious society was always there, I suppose. My concern recently has been about those differences of opinion. I try to be as respectful as possible of other people, but my respect for another person can only go so far, and my respect for their beliefs…perhaps not even that far. This conundrum, exacerbated by a truly odd year, has brought an experience of a few years ago back to the fore. It was Friday the 13th, October of 2017. What could have gone wrong?

Everything was going well when, a little after two in the afternoon, one of my daughters shows up at work. She calls me from the parking lot and asks if I can step outside to my car to talk. She is crying into the phone, being that perfect combination of lugubrious and enigmatic for which young women seem to have a particular flair. My wife and I work together, so I told her about the phone call, and we both excused ourselves to take care of our nearly twenty-year-old daughter. As we approached her in the parking lot, we noted that her eyes were red and swollen as tears continued to fall. Her makeup was half wiped from her face as new mascara-filled tears created dark tracks down her cheeks. She was still in her nurse’s uniform from college. “What’s wrong?” my wife and I ask almost in unison. The nursing program is notoriously difficult, and we assumed that she had perhaps performed poorly on a test. My wife immediately began scanning our daughter’s car for evidence of a wreck; princess has a history. Still actively crying, our daughter just says through clenched teeth, “I am so pissed right now.” After calming herself only slightly, she began to tell us what had happened that afternoon.

Let me offer some background. My daughter attended the college where I once taught. For years, I was an English teacher at our local community college—or commyurn’ty college, as the unwashed masses sometimes call it—and I am now aware that I was known as a secular person to more people than I was aware at the time. I say “secular,” but this adjective is simple euphemism for “irreligious” or what some might call “plain ole evil.” One of the first things that I did when I took the job was to politely recuse myself from the school-wide “email prayer chain.” I found it both unprofessional and personally distasteful; besides, I had other ways of hearing gossip. As happens, however, people talk, and I was in an office suite with four other instructors, and I operated under the pretense that we genuinely liked each other to quite a high degree.

Religiously, there were three Southern protestants—two Baptists and a Methodist, I believe—one Catholic, and myself—all tolerant and tolerable for the most part. The only one of us who was zealous in any obnoxious form was A—. She was the one who would audibly play what she called “adult contemporary Christian” music in the afternoons. The two other Protestants had a tolerance to the point that they may have liked it. On the other hand, my more traditional Catholic friend referred both derisively and accurately to her taste in pop liturgy as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. One of the things that A— had going for her, however, was that she was my daughter’s favorite teacher. She had taught my daughter in high school, then later when a position opened, she began teaching at the community college, where she taught my daughter again. My daughter chose her, adored her. Gotta love that small-town life.

So what went wrong? Just that afternoon, my daughter had been talking with a long-time friend and fellow nursing student L— about something or other when her friend almost laughingly offered up a snippet of an odd conversation that she had had with A— at a recent church service. A—, it seems, told L— to stay away from my daughter. When pressed, she explained that she had come to this conclusion because I was an atheist and my daughter did not attend church. When L— told A— that my daughter is Catholic, A— responded that it didn’t matter. Now whether this latter assumption is due to Protestant prejudice or simple presumption of bad faith, it is difficult to say. A— also mentioned that my wife did not attend church. Princess was incensed.

My daughter was, of course, more than mad; she was hurt. Until that very moment, my daughter had not only considered A— a teacher, but also a friend and, in many ways, a mentor. That objectification came to a swift end that day. What happened next, though, was the cherry on top. My daughter then began to ask me why I had to talk about my beliefs—or lack thereof—to people in general and especially A—. Why couldn’t I, she demanded, either believe like everyone else or, at least, keep my heresies to myself? As she was saying these things, she was still crying and becoming more agitated. She began to pat herself forcefully on the chest, repeating that her beliefs and mine were different. The entire time that she confronted me about why I did or did not believe, she repeated that she should not be judged by others based on what they thought of me and her mother.

I looked at her as calmly as I could at that moment, and, in an effort to redirect her ire back to its more appropriate target, told her that A— was wrong about both of us. “Well,” she retorted less vehemently, “she said you weren’t Christian…” and I confirmed for my daughter that this is true. She knew it already from a very young age when we discussed why she and her siblings were being reared, as I agreed to do at my wedding to a lovely young Catholic girl, in her mother’s church. Years ago, when it came up in office suite conversation, there was no reason to deny these facts. The confession of faithlessness was neither a production nor a mea culpa nor an argument.

I reminded her, too, that when I sit down and lay out a deck of cards hoping for spiritual guidance outside myself (or even “within myself”), the act itself suggested both sacredness and a sense of a universal consciousness that would sound to many like God. I explained to her that simply because A— considered “unchristian” and “godless” to be synonyms in no way made it true or accurate, and honestly, shouldn’t an English teacher know better than to conflate words in such a manner? I do not consider myself an atheist, but I also know that my definition of God is quite different from the local norm and that my own particular practices fall well outside rationally defensible beliefs. My projection of the divine is formless, spiritual, and intellectual; it is not paternal. I strive to know the “divine,” knowing full well that the goal is unattainable. The implications inherent in these personal axioms indicate immediately that I would never presume to know the will of the Almighty based on the agglomeration of three-thousand-year-old Semitic tribal texts—or their supposed sequel, still wildly questionable at only just under two thousand years. This supposition, too, is not meant to indicate that these sacred texts have no value. They do. These texts should be read for the things that make them special and valuable psychologically and socially, not those things that make them fantastical or untenable scientifically or even reasonably.

By this time, of course, my wife had gone back to work, and my daughter had calmed down a bit. As I returned to work and she to home, we parted ways that day with an understanding that we had not had. And we have talked more since then. Of course, what infuriates me about this situation—apart from my daughter feeling attacked—is that I had to defend myself to my own child because of this woman’s aspersions; my daughter was ashamed of me because of an ignorant attack on her character based upon our association. And what of my friendship with A—?

Since my departure from full-time education, we have kept in regular contact. She and I worked in offices so close that we could talk without moving from our desks. I consider her a friend and have defended her to other students and my own wife, who never shared my affection for my co-worker. She is a good woman with a good heart, doing everything that she knows to do to make herself and her family welcomed into the Paradise she knows awaits her. Shall I confront her? No, because arguing with a stone of faith is a waste of time, and the stone will remain unconvinced. Has this episode ruined our friendship? No, because I am a reasonable adult, and I can overlook it, and I am teaching my daughter to overlook it. Am I hurt? No, but I am disappointed in A—, in her presumption, in her condescension, in her…smallness. I have told my daughter that when things like this happen, as they will from time to time, we must look to the Good Book, just as her favorite teacher taught us. We must remember to respect individuals even if we cannot respect their actions or beliefs when they fly in the face of reason and good sense. We must forgive—not forget—and be patient, dwelling upon the words of Christ as he spoke directly from the cross in the book of Luke, Chapter 23, verse 34: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”      

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