Thirty-five years ago, I was in Hollywood on my way to work, and passed a tough-looking man on the corner, offering copies of Watchtower and Awake to passers-by. These are the magazines sold by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was slightly surprised to see someone so obviously street-hardened doing such a thing. When he noticed that I’d paused, he began to proselytize, engaging me in a discussion of why Christianity, and especially his particular splinter of it, was the Path.
The arguments were typical, Faith-based (boiling down to “It’s true because I feel it’s true” in the final analysis) and the various logical tools he used to buttress it were so flawed and self-referential and shoddy that at first I couldn’t help but poke holes in them.
Then… I noticed how angry he was getting. Now, I wasn’t telling him he was wrong overall, only that he was wrong to believe that his was the only way. This was one of the first times I suspected that anger and fear were connected. Behind the anger, I saw anxiety. Massive, crushing, and because it was manifesting as anger, potentially violent.
And asked myself a critical question: “What is he afraid of?” And a possibility occurred to me, one that was life-changing in implication.
This guy had lived a life of violence, and possibly crime. At some point he hit bottom, or someone reached out to him and convinced him there was another way.
Criminologist Lonnie Athens believes that there are five steps to becoming a violent criminal:
1) Brutalization or violent horrification. You are hurt, or you observe those you care about hurt.
2) Rebellion against the pain and violence (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.”)
3) Acting out with increasing success.
4) Finding a reference group of role models who approve of your behavior.
5) Internalizing their voices.
Athens says that, by the time someone reaches step #5, there is no known form of institutional rehabilitation that can reach them any longer. Best simply keep them away from society.
But… a discipline called ”Core Transformations” suggests that everything, and that means EVERYTHING we do is an attempt to connect with the divine, to re-experience that sense of total love and acceptance that we all experienced in the womb, or in the first months of life. Everyone experiences love, or they literally would have shriveled and died.
So… spiritual experiences (like religion) can offer a framework in which people can see even their worst behaviors as expressions of lack rather than expressions of their actual core being. By committing to the Path, they can be like Saul on the road to Damascus, experience epiphany, be forgiven no matter what their former sins.
This young man was clinging to his religious beliefs for dear life. They were a frayed, fragile tightrope over a lake of burning fire for him, total fear that he could not trust his own feelings or thoughts. But he had faith that if he invested himself totally in this interpretation of the Bible, if he became The Teacher and saved other souls, he himself would have moved to a new level, a new identity, leaving behind the man who had done things he was ashamed of, and been things he was afraid of.
And… by putting cracks in the shield he had erected around his wounds, I was exposing the terror without offering him anything to replace it with.
I realized I had no right at all to do this. Unless I could offer someone something as healing and soothing, something as foundational, a community of like-minded people to tell him what “good” was until he had internalized it, I was just engaging with the world from ego, and not from love.
So I spent a few minutes disarming the fear, showing him how he was right, encouraging him to continue his work and support his church. Stopped short of actually buying a copy of Watchtower, however.
I often think of this young man. Hope that he has continued down a righteous path. Left his old life behind, and found a new self. Perhaps found a congregation of his own, teaching his experiences of sin and salvation.
We find such people in other arenas: academic, political, and others. They shut their fear up behind certainty. Question it, and you unleash their terror, mobilized as anger.
When you meet it with anger of your own, that is YOUR fear. But if you can meet it with love… and recognition that they have a NEED to be right about this, and that unless you can offer them something of equal security you are actually stealing from them… and that if you love them you will not do that…
Then, I think, you make the world a better place. More on this later…