Truth is uncomfortable. It shatters our preconceived notions about right and wrong and must be uncovered intentionally. It must be sought out, or at the very least, invited. It doesn’t stand in plain sight shouting at us. Like wisdom personified, it gently knocks and waits for us to open the door. We’re often able to distract ourselves from truth’s subtle call until the norms we comfortably depend upon are shaken by the inevitability of death. It is the reminder that control is an illusion and time is not our servant.
This past Wednesday, the U.S. observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the life and death of the 41st president George H. W. Bush. As soon as news of his passing broke out, articles touting his conservative credentials and strong leadership style emerged. In contrast, others asserted that the president put political expediency over the common good and that his policies did lasting damage to the lgbtq+ community.
Which perspectives are true? As most of our childhood stories have taught us, you’re either a hero or a villain. There is no room for complicated legacies or nuanced understandings of history. We’re an either/or society. However, in death, we have the opportunity to hold competing perspectives with grace.
One of my dissonant truths emerged slowly but forcefully one evening several weeks ago. I sat on the back steps and intentionally took in the crisp autumn air. With each slow breath, I gathered and held my anxious thoughts, before releasing them into the atmosphere as I exhaled. With every cycle of breath, I became lighter, clearer and more still.
Soon, I was still enough that the truth washed over me like the first waves of high tide, steady and unsettling. Instead of stepping back from the waves, I remained in that moment, allowing myself to be rocked back then gently but firmly drawn into the depths. This truth was deep, unsettling, and challenged long-held narratives about my childhood, my family and my own identity. The truth I was faced with on my back steps was that…
I love my mom.
Mind-blowing right? If you don’t know my history, you’ll likely think I’ve just wasted your time, so allow me to take you back to 1997. You remember ‘97? I didn’t, so I had to do some research. Turns out, it was quite a year. Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Notorious B.I.G died. Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of someone’s ear, O.J. Simpson was finally convicted, and the cinematic world was set ablaze by such classics as Flubber, George of the Jungle, Austin Powers, Liar Liar, Men in Black, Hercules, and a lesser-known film you may not have heard of called Titanic. What a time to be alive!
I wasn’t aware of any of this because I was nine-years-old and living in a homeless shelter. I have my own memories of that year, but one, in particular, stands out above the rest.
I’m standing in a homeless shelter kitchen. My is mom walking towards me, but something is wrong. She looks upset, and my gut initiates that slow and steady lurch which tells me something bad is about to happen. As I’ve done many times before, I brace myself. My mom kneels down in front of me, so we’re looking eye to eye, and says what I imagine are the hardest words of her life.
“Ben, I have to go away right now. You’re going to stay here, with your brothers and sisters, but don’t worry. I’ll get a lawyer and come back to get you.”
With that, she hugs me, turns and walks out the door. I stand there struggling to comprehend what has just happened.
Why does she have to leave? Who is making her go? Why can’t we come with? Who is gonna take care of us? Will we have to move again?
The anxiety surges through my thin, nine-year-old body, causing question after question to race through my mind faster than I can comprehend. I stand there for a moment searching for answers and desperately trying to make sense of the life that is shifting beneath my feet. As I watch the only constant thing in my life walk out the door, I feel rejected, alone and abandoned.
Then, right on cue, my coping mechanisms, which have been tested by years of abuse and neglect, kick in and I feel the familiar resolve to survive. I will not let these feelings overcome me. I can’t. I have to it keep it together for my brothers and sisters. I don’t know what is coming, but I know we must survive.
While we did indeed survive, and at times thrive in our new home, the pain from that moment remained. One night my foster mom was tucking me into bed, and I laid there overwhelmed by a sadness, maybe even a deadness within me. She asked what was wrong, and my eyes immediately filled with tears. I laid there in my bed, fighting back the deep, dark sorrow that threatened to take over and I said:
“I miss my mom. It feels like there is a hole in my chest where my heart used to be.”
Over the years, that pain continued to present itself as anger, depression, and longing. The more I processed my childhood experiences, the more betrayed I felt by my mom. Before that moment in the homeless shelter kitchen, I never would have questioned her, but after that, I started to see things through a different lens.
It occurred to me that she not only left us, but she never protected us from our stepdad. Every time he punched or kicked, she stood to the side and allowed it to happen. Every chance she had to get away and start over, she refused to take. She kept letting him back into our lives after every arrest and separation. With these realizations, the illusions I had of my mother began to crumble. She not only caused deep emotional hurt, but she allowed us to be hurt physically as well.
I love my mom.
Do you feel the dissonance of those words now? They trigger a flurry of questions and unleash a torrent of anxiety. If I admit I love her, does that let her off the hook? Will it make my adoptive mom feel less appreciated? Will my brothers and sisters feel betrayed by my admission?
I’ve spent twenty-one years carrying the scars, trying to forgive, and hoping I’ll stop being affected by her. I’ve spent twenty-one years trying not to be that vulnerable ever again, yet here I am.
I love my mom.
As I sat on my back steps allowing the weight of this realization to wash over me, I experienced the warmth of healing slowly emerge as the first light of the sun at dawn. I was swimming in both the discomfort and the release; truth embedded in dissonance.
Within this dissonant truth, I’m finding a restoration. In some way I can’t fully articulate, I am more fully myself today than I was two weeks ago. The pain has not gone away. That homeless shelter kitchen still brings tears to my eyes and anxiety to my heart. However, I know that I don’t have to protect myself anymore.
I’ve lived my whole life waiting for people to hurt me. Which means I never let them in, or I emotionally detach at a moment’s notice. These are coping techniques designed to keep me from experiencing vulnerability and pain. While I will remain discerning about who I trust, I will also trust God enough to know that I can be deeply hurt, and still be restored. Healing is always possible.
Truth can be present in dissonance. We have to be willing to remain in the discomfort long enough for it to emerge. Once it presents itself, do your best not to judge it. Give it space to be validated. Let it be, and feel how it begins to change you. The process of remaining in the dissonance and holding your truth will be uncomfortable or even painful for some of you. Some truths are shrouded in shame while others are shackled with pain or regret. Allow your truth to exist without the shrouds or shackles and listen for what it will tell you. Not every truth will make you suddenly feel more whole, but each one will help you experience more of your true self. There is freedom in that.
Find space this weekend to get into a quiet place. Through your own practice of centering, find that stillness which makes room for dissonance. When your truth emerges, invite it in without judgment or condition. Hold it gently and trust that it will do the work it set out to do, even if that work is not immediately evident to you. Then, as you’re ready, share your truth with someone you trust so that they too might see more of who you are.
More will be written about the dissonance in President Bush’s life and legacy. His death has given the nation an opportunity to choose how much discomfort we’re willing to hold for the sake of restoration. As you formulate your own opinions on our 41st president, remember that truth is knocking. Be still and open the door.