What is the value of seeing our lives as stories? Well…
Thirty-five years ago I encountering a Jehovah’s Witness on Hollywood Boulevard. A rough-looking fellow who started his spiel. I found him curious: I would have expected him to demand my wallet in a dark alley far more than share The Word of God. I had a half-hour before I was due to start working at GNC, and so engaged with him. It was fun. His arguments were all memorized, and it was easy to poke holes in them. The slightest unpredicted shift in question or answer created stress. And anger. I watched it…he was getting palpably enraged that he couldn’t shift me, and couldn’t answer questions that weren’t part of his scripted sequence.
Anger is a mask over fear.
What was he afraid of..? Oops. A simple story presented itself. He hit my hind-brain as a mugger because he had walked on the shady side of the law. Had done bad things. And had found salvation, or at least a way to stop his downward slide, by taking a Leap of Faith…in a higher power. He was afraid of destroying himself, guilty about what he had done and been. And all of that guilt was barricaded behind his faith, his conviction that if he could stay on this new path, he was Forgiven.
I was wrong, STUPID to poke holes in a faith like that. It may have been “smart” but it wasn’t wise. I had nothing to replace his faith, or his supportive community of believers (allies). I was “smart” to see the flaws in his reasoning. But wisdom was understanding why he needed these very basic beliefs. I’d seen evolved, brilliant versions of everything he said, things that went far beyond the simple analogies and explanations in his script.
He couldn’t grasp them. In essence, I was mugging him intellectually, taking his wallet in an alley darker than midnight, his own troubled soul.
In a moment of sickening realization, I saw that I wasn’t the good guy here. I began to back-track, allowing him to win a point of discussion, admitting that one of his arguments struck home, and promising that I’d think about what he said, carefully.
I wasn’t lying. I HAVE thought about that conversation, for thirty-five years. And my interaction with him has made me a better man.
We all have journeys, all fall short of perfection, because no matter how fast and how far you run, you are always the same distance from the horizon. None of us are perfect…unless perfection, like the word “master,” is viewed as a verb, not a noun. A vector, not a position.
He was a hero on his own journey, and he touched me more than he knew. Not because of the script he parroted, but because of who he was, who he was trying to be in the world.
There’s a great scene at the very end of “Pulp Fiction”. Remember how that movie begins? With two small-time robbers, “Honey Bunny” and “Pumpkin” terrorizing a diner. Then the rest of the movie is demonstrating the world of serious, no-bullshit, lethal men with contempt for life but oddly powerful codes of honor. Two of them, Jules and Vincent, played by Samuel Jackson and John Travolta, are almost killed while executing a trio of thieves. Jules sees the incident as evidence that his life must change. He plans to quit “the life” and “walk the earth” making atonement.
Vincent thinks this is stupid, and when you unravel the time-line of the film, you can see clearly how each attitude turned out. No spoilers here.
But at the very end of the (non linear) film, Vincent and Jules end up confronting Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who had been pretending to be tough and dangerous to intimidate the crowd. Faced with REAL killers, they collapse into near-catatonic panic. Jules allows them to take his money, but not the suitcase he retrieved from the thieves, because that belongs to his boss. Giving them the money allows him to let them leave alive. The question of why this lethal man would do such a thing leads to a the following monologue, delivered as only Sam Jackson could:
“There’s a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you.” Now… I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ass. You’d be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”
That was what my friend on Hollywood Boulevard was trying to be.
And in that instance, my need to be “right” and “smart” made me not only weak but evil too, tyrannizing him with tools gleaned from wiser men, to the purpose of salving my ego.
By letting him be the shepherd, I became one myself.
Odd how that happens. By understanding his story, I changed my own.