A fellow noder once asked me if I would ever write about this. "I don't know if I can," was my reply, and they then encouraged me, strongly, to find it within myself to write this.
Well, I have. This node is dedicated to that person, the one who inspired me, nay, challenged me to dig deep within myself, and find the strength, and the honesty to share this personal, defining moment with the rest of the Everything2 community.
It just sucks that I can't remember who that person is now.
I've never considered myself a conventionally religious person, even though I've spent a lot of time going to church. I guess I went to church for the wrong reasons. I didn't go to church to be closer to God. I went to church, mainly, because I was in love with the quarterback of the high school football team. I wanted to be near him, and the only way I thought I could do that, was to attend the same youth group as did he. I was caught by my own conflicting impulses. I wanted to be near another male, love another male, while at the same time I wanted to deny it all. I felt such a fool, such a hypocrite, and thus sank deeper into despair through my involvement with the church rather than find anything meaningful.
In the summer of 1981 our church's youth group went on a week-long retreat in the mountains of New Mexico, and there I had what I guess you could call a religious experience. Every night our group would sit around and talk, and on the third night of our retreat, something ... strange happened. One girl broke down in tears, admitting to the group that she had a drug problem. That admission served as a catalyst for all the other teens to admit their private secrets, and the group became overwhelmed, and overpowered, by intense emotions. We, supposedly, all became saved that night.
In retrospect, and through the gauzy haze of memory it seems more like mass hysteria than anything else, but for one thing. That night, amidst a bunch of confused teenagers rolling around on the ground, speaking in tongues, amidst all the prophesying and baptisms, I received two gifts from ... elsewhere. I became an empath that night. All of a sudden, I was able to feel the emotional state of the people around me. It was, truly, as if the scales had fallen from my eyes.
There was the pain of parental neglect. And over there was someone who was horrified by everything, and everyone. In the corner over there was someone as gay as I was.
It was terrifying for me. I felt as if someone had turned up a stereo to a volume that was louder than anything had a right to be, and I was afraid that my very soul would be deafened by it. I felt pinned, wanting to run away and hide from all the things everyone else was feeling. I mean, I was barely able to deal with my own feelings, and now I was being inundated with the feelings of about twenty five other people. It was too much.
I also received the gift of writing that night. In order to help me withdraw and tune out and internalize the tremendous effect my heightened emotional awareness had on me, I began to write what I felt about what I was feeling about others, and it helped me to understand what I was feeling about myself. And from ... elsewhere I was being encouraged to share what I had written, share the clarity of my new-found empathy with the group.
I couldn't do it. It was too much, too soon. Quietly, to myself I told that force from ... elsewhere that I just wasn't ready.
I received an answer, or perhaps an ANSWER in return. It was, "I understand. You will have many other opportunities in the years ahead."
I left the church soon after that retreat. No one else had received the gifts that I had, and I couldn't force myself to fake the ability to speak in tongues or lead a group in prayer, and thus felt alienated. I guess, too, in a selfish way that the church's purpose had been served as far as I was concerned. It got me to a state of mind where I could accept the emotions of others and understand them ...
and write about them.
I'm still not sure exactly what happened that night. I don't know if I found God. I do know that ever since that night I've been able to use the gifts given to me to help other people, and through helping other people, I've been able to help myself. The gift of empathy, the gift of writing ... these gifts didn't turn me into some sort of superhero. I couldn't snap my fingers and make problems go away. If anything, my life became more difficult because I began to tend toward brutal, yet loving, honesty in my dealings with other people, something that's rarely appreciated while in the heat of the moment, though is often handsomely rewarded once hindsight sets in.
I was happy with being able to help. I never wanted it to end, and I never thought it would.
But it did, because about two years ago, and for the first time, I used one of my gifts to a selfish end.
My best friend, you see, is in love with me. And while I feel an enormous amount of love in return for him, I know very clearly that the feelings we have for one another are not the same. My best friend is also a very fragile, very damaged person and that's part of why we're friends, and also part of why he's in love with me. The things we gave each other balanced the emotional scales. He gave me laughter, I gave him self-esteem. He gave me commitment, I gave him freedom. It all washed. Until there came a point where the scales tipped.
My life as it stood two years ago was as perfect as I could hope for, at least at first glance. I lived in Paradise. I was surrounded by friends. I had a terrific job in the burgeoning "dot com" industry. I had money, I had a position of authority in my career, I had friends, and I had lovers. My best friend, too, had these things, mainly as vicarious experiences through me. He hated himself for not having, dare I say coveted, the things he thought I had. And slowly, almost without my noticing, almost insidiously it began to infect our relationship. He began drinking, heavily. When my job began to call for frequent travel and long hours at the office, he began skipping work and drinking all day. He began a slow slide into alcoholism that I seemed helpless to prevent, because that would mean touching upon a truth I felt neither of us was prepared to handle, namely his feelings for me.
And until the night he nearly killed us, I was happy to let things stand. The devil I knew was better than the one I didn't. I was scared to do something to lance the boil his love for me had become, and so I did ... nothing, until he forced the issue.
I had just returned from a business trip and, stepping off the plane and walking across the tarmac I saw my friend, and from a distance of one hundred yards, I knew he was drunk. Pissed (in the British sense). Plastered. It was an embarrassing public display. According to the friend that had accompanied him to the airport, he'd started yelling at the clerk at the ticket counter because the clerk couldn't tell him why my flight home had been delayed (someone in Phoenix decided to run through the airport with a gun that day, shutting it down for awhile). He started yelling at me by way of greeting, telling me what precisely what he thought of the fucking assholes everyone who worked, had ever worked, and ever would work for American Airlines. This caused our friend who had also come to the airport to greet me to say, "I'll take a cab home, guys," and the look of pity he gave the two of us was like an arrow through the heart.
It was a unusual homecoming to say the least. I should have taken the keys from my friend right then. Or called us a taxi. However, when I suggested it, my friend began another tirade and I was so embarrassed that it just seemed easier to let him drive. It was only five minutes to our house after all.
Pulling out of the airport's parking lot, he neglected to look both ways before turning out onto the street, and it was thus that we came about six inches from being creamed by one of those jacked-up pickup trucks. By reflex more than skill, I was able to swerve the steering wheel out of his hands and narrowly avoid that collision, driving us into a ditch.
The next day, I intervened. I insisted that he go to therapy, deal with his alcoholism, deal with his life. I told him I'd stand by his side, even go to therapy with him if that was what he wanted (and he did).
But I intervened for the wrong reasons. I was disgusted by his behavior. I was repulsed by his inability to transform his love for me into something positive for himself. I was enraged that he seemed unable to direct those feelings towards someone who wanted to have them rather than someone who didn't. I intervened out of selfishness, not out of empathy. I went to therapy with him out of pity, not compassion.
That intervention was a personal, defining moment for me. For the first time in my life, I took my emotional awareness of another human being and used it as a mean toward my own ends. For the first time in my life, I manipulated a person, rather than motivated them. I made someone do something I wanted them to do rather than help someone do something that should be done. It utterly perverted one of the gifts given to me so long ago.
I didn't realize what had truly happened at the moment I intervened, nor soon after. However, after the first six weeks of my best friend's therapy, I began to notice subtle signs of role reversal. I began to withdraw rather than participate in social activites. I began to lose my confidence and my self-esteem. I began making poor decisions. I slept with a co-worker, breaking a vow of professional ethics I thought I'd never break, and as a result lost so much respect for myself that I ended up walking off the job in a moment of anger. My circle of friends began to shrink. I drove lovers from my bed, from my side. My brutal, loving honesty became merely brutal. I turned to drugs, not to kill pain, but to feel it. To feel something.
In contrast my best friend found healing, confidence, self-esteem. His career has skyrocketed while mine has plummeted. While he's still not fully the person he wants to be, he's well on his way.
Up until recently, I thought my selfish decision had robbed me of my empathic abilities. Up until recently, I felt a sense of loss so profound it hurt. Up until recently, I thought I'd never get that gift back.
It's not that simple, though. My ability, empathy, clairsentience, intuition ... whatever you want to call it, hasn't left. It never deserted me. It's there now as it has been there since 1981.
I've lost the ability to use it properly.
And that hurts me far, far worse than losing it outright. Its continued existence within me serves as constant reminder and punishment of the consequences of a decision poorly made and poorly executed. It serves to motivate me, to teach me to get my feet on the right track again. It stands as reward should I be able to somehow atone for the mistake, that singular mistake, and find redemption.
Will I make it? I don't know. I'm terrified I won't. I'm terrified I will. However, I do know one thing.
I know now that the continued existence within me of the gifts I was given so long ago, more than anything else, means that there is hope. I had once thought that whatever lesson this defining moment was meant to teach me was a lesson in humility. That's not it.
It's a lesson in hope. I used to feel that hope was a useless emotion, based upon wishful thinking and unattainable or unrealistic goals.
I know better now. I know, well, I'm still learning, really, just how powerful an emotion hope really is. How it drives one to better oneself, to attain lofty, but not unreachable goals. Hope is integral in my own quest for personal redemption. Hope is for me, and as cliched as it might sound, hope is all I have.
Hope is all I need.