The Rubber Band

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There was a week in high school when I wore a thin rubber band around my wrist. I first heard the idea through a quick comment in a cabin at church camp. My counselor, a cool long-haired 20-something, said that the way he conquered his lustful thoughts was by snapping a rubber band against his skin.

Involuntary look, snap.

Look leads to thoughts, snap.

Thoughts wander away, snap.

The rubber band idea stuck with me, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Training through repetition, through conditioning, always seemed to work. Like studying after an F or flossing more after dental work or even the way my dog would listen after a few squirts of sour juice in his mouth. Aversion was effective.

 

And yes, even then I faintly sensed how stupid this was.

But I had nothing else to lose.

I had tried everything.

 

I had knelt by the bed and prayed in sobs. Shouted for saints and rebuked the dark. I read scripture emphatically, with decision and eyes wide open. I wrote in journals, over and over, that I most certainly am not gay. Not gay. Not gay…

 

And yet, my orientation continued to settle in as I continued to grow up. It grew stronger. Despite all my writhing and raging nothing seemed to do anything. It felt inexorable.

 

The rubber band looked like something that could fling me from the darkness. I didn’t want to be gay and I didn’t want to come out, I just wanted the narrow, thin-aired closet to disintegrate all around me, like it was never there at all.

 

Every day I would walk through the school hallway and, inevitably, my eyes would betray me. I knew the “flesh is weak” so I snapped it harder against my veins. The sting and splotchy skin was, I believed, creating some sort of muscle memory in me. Something to make it all stop.

 

The pain throbbed through my arm, but I knew that this was the way. And truth be told, I kind of preferred this way. There was this internal zest whenever I cracked the whip on my sexuality. For such a long time, I hated it so much. Being gay meant being a sinner of the worst kind of sinners. It wasn’t the same as the other sins, which came through choices, this was more like an incarnation. I could not be clean, I could not be Christian unless I became straight. My sexuality stood between me and heaven’s small gate. It had to be slapped out of the way. One. Snap. At a time.

 

In sixth period I sat next to an Asian gothic girl who would always wear a baggy black hoodie and thick black eyeliner. We were in the middle of lecture and scrambling with our scribbles. She hastily raised her arm to pull back a stray lock, and her loose black sleeve slipped down to her elbow.

 

And that’s when I saw them. Big blue and purple zig-zags written down her wrist- still tender like they were born yesterday, rising and plump. I don’t know if she knew I saw, but she quickly covered them up like a child in winter.

 

I felt so bad for her, but I knew that the rubber band was a different thing. The exercise I was conducting was to correct a flawed part of myself. It was to make me normal. It was to purify my perverted soul. It was to save me from hell. What she was doing was savage and heartbreaking.

 

Only later did I learn about self-mutilation. Teenagers ripped the blade across the body for a variety of reasons, but all of them linked back to one: they didn’t like who they were. For a long time, they had tried everything.

 

They had probably tried to fit in, but the cliques kept them out. Perhaps they tried to change, but they couldn’t bring themselves to betray themselves.

Maybe they tried to do drugs and climb the social stepladder, but ended up addicted and alone. Maybe they tried to sleep with as many people as possible, thinking maybe, with just one, it would become first love.

They tried and got tired of fighting for themselves and, soon enough, started hating themselves. They became repulsed by the blood rushing through their veins; the sound of their own beating heart. Yet, they refused to give up and die. Maybe death was just too generous. They hated themselves so much.

 

And I looked down at my splotchy red wrist and looked up at the road I was walking down. Zig zags of dripping blood and ingested poison. Endless agony.

 

I started to wonder if this was the road of the suffering servant. If this is what it meant to walk with Jesus. And then I started thinking about God creating every hair on my head, my arms and my wrists, and every last detail down to each freckle. I remember someone say, “God doesn’t make junk.”

 

And the sympathy I extended to the girl with the Zig Zags felt like everything I ever wanted people to have for me. I wanted them to see me falling apart, disintegrating into dust. I wanted them to hold my wrist high and say that I am most certainly loved. I wanted someone to say Stop. I wanted someone to tell me that my sexuality need not be a burden or a blemish, but beautiful part of who I was.

 

On the bus trip home I took off the rubber band and stretched it between my fingers. So light and seemingly harmless. Venom in a veil. What I had first imagined was my way out, became another heavy chain, another damaging disappointment, another quick fix that would fail and let me fall. In that moment, on that bus ride home I knew there had to be a better way, even if I didn’t what it was.

 

So, I pulled it back and shot it out the window. Watched it hit the wind hard and fly off somewhere else. Never would I get that close again.

 

RR

Hester the Whore

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There is perhaps no better character, fictional or non, that better exemplifies the life of a social pariah than Ms. Hester Prynne. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic tale, The Scarlet Letter, Hester has a baby out of wedlock, and is thus forced to wear a scarlet “A” (for Adulterer) and stand on a scaffold in the middle of town for 3 hours, once every year. The complete humiliation and vulnerability that Hester feels as she stands above her scoffers is best described when Hawthorne writes:

Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!

Having been caught in the mother of all scandals (pun intended), Hester retreats to the countryside, only to return once a year for her public roasting. There would be no future romances or even friendships for Hester Prynne. Her penance required of her to no longer contaminate the community with her shabby self. She was better for it, she believed, to be alone was safe. It freed her from fear. The world she now lived in revolved around the letter stitched upon her gown and the eyes of indignity that looked up at her face every morning. It was safe here, they could no longer reach her.

After seven long years in her sectioned of Siberia, Hester re-engages with the people that once disowned her. Having been thrown into the Puritan penalty box for nearly a decade, she saw the world she once lived in with a dramatically different perspective. It occurred to her that she could be much more than a church cautionary tale. While her skeletons were hung high above the town, there was an invisible cohort of fellow runaways struggling to keep the lock secure on their own cupboards. Her eyes were opened to the sick, hungry and shamed that had long lived in the shadows of her hometown. Instead of trying to disguise the mark that made her untouchable, she brandished it as a red badge of courage. And instead of trying to become popular with the Puritans, she dressed the leper’s wounds and gave dignity to their divorcees.

Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.

Death by a thousand condemnations can spare us of being who they want us to be. Our fullness will never be found on the Christian bestseller list or the church confessional. It’s found when we strip away the expectations of every circle we have a foot in. It’s found when we rest and realize that the only expectations we are required to meet are His. And his yoke is light. That’s when thirsts are quenched. That’s when the frostbitten toes we try to cover become marks of empathy, attracting those with still soft feet.

There are a number of paths that Hester could have taken with her shame, be it living as a hermit or trying to blend back in with the world. Instead she retained the mutilated mark of her disgrace. She resolved to show her former friends how much she still cared for them despite their hatred. She put her pride down and lifted her love up. In this fictional community, Hester was the hero.

Are we not called to do the same? Those who have been slighted by the Christian community may be tempted to slip away from the world they once knew or try to fit into the outfit of a wonder bread believer. But what if we went the way of Hester? What if we made it our mission to show them how much God cared about us and thus, we care about them?

Is it possible for the Scarlet Letter on our chest, to incarnate the red ones in the Gospels?

RR