As you may remember, I was born in Kentucky where I was raised by a quintessential WASP family. We were members of a "frontier" religious denomination called The Disciples of Christ (The Christian Church). This splinter denomination was conceived and born in what was then the trans-Appalachian West in the mid-19th century.
The denomination's doctrines and beliefs were few and simple: centrality of the Scripture which every person interprets his/her own way, baptism by immersion (no infants), priesthood of all believers, each congregation govern itself, no political hierarchy, and weekly communion (Eucharist) partaken of by all believers who had accepted Christ as their personal savior. I accepted Christ--that is, I made my "confession of faith," when I was 12 after many hours of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School instruction.
That morning in 1948 as I sat on the mauve cushions in the front row of the starkly white sanctuary, waiting for the minister to call my name and ask me the requisite questions about my belief and intentions, I really didn't have the foggiest notion of what I was doing or what my membership in the church entailed. The plain truth is that I was doing what my parents and relatives had done before me and, therefore, expected me to do as well. And so I did it. Always the dutiful child.
I performed admirably, answering correctly while looking Rev. Tom Giltner directly in the eye, shaking his hand firmly, and then the following week joining him in the baptistry where I was dutifully immersed. I noticed no descending doves or claps of thunder. But it was apparent that my parents and close relatives were very pleased with me and I could feel their warm glow and hear their repeated words of pride as they talked to their friends while we stood together in the reception line in the Church's social hall.
Inside my 12 year old self, at that point, I understood a couple of things. First, now that I was baptized, I could take weekly communion. This was a major part of the weekly service of worship that I was required to attend. Previously I could only watch others have communion. I felt left out. Deacons served the bread and wine to the congregation, pew by pew, in polished silver salvers designed for that one purpose. The bread was actually Matzos, crackers made of unleavened flour and broken in small pieces. The "wine" was actually Welsh's Concord grape juice served in tiny half ounce glasses, the claret liquid always warm, and cloyingly sweet. These two elements comprised the communion that was partaken of every Sunday by all declared believers in the congregation. "This is my body" and "drink this in remembrance of me" were the words intoned solemnly by the elders at the communion table in front of the church, and so, once baptized, I ate and drank along with the rest, not really knowing what I was doing.
Second, I realized that being allowed able to take communion was a powerful symbol and public acknowledgement that I was now "grown up." In my 12 year old head, the recognition of being "grown up" was both good and bad. The thought suddenly engendered numbers of thoughts and numerous questions that rattled around in my brain. For example, what would happen to me now that I was "grown up?" Would I have to be "good" all the time? Would people forgive me my mistakes less than before? For years I had been told "wait until you are grown up," or "you'll understand that when you are grown up," or "once you are grown up you will have to become responsible, or act like a man, or know the difference between right and wrong... etc." This new status was scary stuff even though I desperately wanted in one way to be a grown man. Somehow I intuited that I had just entered the Big Leagues where things started to count, where good and bad deeds and thoughts would be registered in the heavenly log book on a clean new page that had been put there just for me.
Third, in my 12 year old head was the conviction that with my baptism, something spiritually significant had happened to me, or should have happened, something very like a lightening bolt striking a tree, and that adulthood as a newly-minted believer would render my life different and make my choices much easier and allow me to move ahead with my religious life with clarity and confidence. Although I searched and searched for the "difference" that baptism made in my little mind and soul, I could honestly find nothing new or radically changed. I was still the same red headed, freckle faced, four-eyed, funny, testosterone-charged little guy that I had been before walking down the slippery steps into the baptistry pool. Maybe I had messed something up. Maybe it hadn't worked. Guilt.
My search for the "difference" went on for many, many years, as did my deepening self-applied guilt for not finding or feeling that "something new," astonishing, sparkling, clarifying had occurred. Moreover, as I looked around me I saw that it wasn't just me. I saw that other people, particularly grown ups who were also members of the church, who had allegedly been hit with the same spiritual lightening bolt that I had been hit by, had apparently not changed their behaviors after the lightening strike--a deacon was caught with another man's wife, an elder who was President of a Bank aided another church member in committing fraud, one of dad's friends went bankrupt and killed himself, several couples got divorces for reasons that were only alluded to in low tones behind closed doors or in whispers covered by hands with out-turned palms.
All the while, plagued by spiritual and moral unease, I kept remembering two commandments (learned at Sunday School and at the dinner table) that I knew should be directing my internal and external lives. The first was from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount when he said, "You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt, 5:48). The second was uttered by my own father, the most nearly perfect living man I ever met, who told me, "If you do not turn out to be a better man that I am, then I have failed you as a father." Consider for a moment the impact of these two instructions on the life of a 12 year old boy who wanted desperately to "do" adulthood--to accomplish being "grown up"-- right. And understand that I knew with absolute certainty at the same time that perfection of the type being required of me was not even remotely possible in my life. I had already failed at age 12 when I shoplifted a paperback from the Walgreens and also when I indulged in thinking lascivious thoughts about one of my mother's friends. And there was lots more stuff than that, primed and loaded, and stored in the locker of my imagination ready for action. The conflict between knowing who I really was and who I was supposed to be was intense and painful.
Much of my adolescent and adult life, therefore, was spent focusing on my shortcomings, call them what you will, assigning appropriate guilt, and on carefully covering up imperfections and "sins," so that they would be invisible to the outside world. Variations on the question "what would the neighbors think if they knew?" became the moral leitmotiv for decisions I made that occasionally reined in my natural impulses--when they did. I think back with regret on the amount of mental and emotional energy that I wasted on these tasks, on worrying about the neighbors, in beating myself up for not being perfect--or sometimes not even wanting to be-- over the years.
But relief was finally in sight. In the last third of my life, I have become acquainted with the thinking and writings of Carl Jung, and many of my earlier conflicts and self-imposed guilt are in the process of being resolved. Healing is possible even for an old guy. It was in Jung's concept of the Shadow that I gained a better understanding of what it might mean--for me at least--to be "grown up." I learned that all people, not just me, "carry a shadow...a reservoir for human darkness." I also learned that "the shadow in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else." I discovered that perfection is a mental construct only, and not a realistic goal to be desired, sought, or even achieved.
The "take-away" idea from my reading of Jung, and by my personal therapy is an "a' ha" of sorts: perfection in the sense it was described to me by Jesus or Henry Johnson, Jr., on any level, is simply not possible, not even desirable. I accept that for me to be human is to have a Shadow that, outside of the control of my will, fills my thoughts, influences my motivations, encourages me to judge others and to find fault with myself, prevents me from copying those perfectionist behavioral models expounded by parents and preachers.
Now comes the very different and difficult task of forgiving myself. Easier said than done, I am finding. But in the effort, I am increasingly realizing the incredibly broad dimensions of what it means to be human, specifically what it means for me (for all of us) to be fully human. This also means that I have to accept the Shadow as an integral and loveable part of me along with everything else that contains traces of good and noble. I find this acceptance is a very hard task, but it isa necessary one if I am to move ahead with my process of individuation and maturation.
Who cares what the neighbors think?? The Shadow really knows!
A welcome to readers
As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime: