Absence of Grace

Discovering How Brutal People Can Be

When someone makes a mistake, then apologizes for it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s done. Chances are usually that I wasn’t angry to begin with, but if I was, a sincere apology does a lot to resolve my anger and any hurt feelings I may have had. I went into the ministry and into counseling (and onto social media) assuming most people were the same way.

I was wrong. Though a good apology goes a long way for some, it seems to have almost zero effect on others.

Even after 20 years of ministry, a decade on social media, and teaching and counseling for two decades, I am still often shocked and saddened with how graceless people often are.

I apologize if this sounds like I’m elevating myself above anyone else. That isn’t my intent. I don’t take any credit for the fact that I forgive easily. It’s just the way I am. I suppose I could just have easily been wired like one of those who struggle to forgive, and I have to remind myself of that constantly.

But on a psychological level, what’s going on with people who can listen to a heartfelt apology and still respond with bitterness, or as if an apology had never been offered at all? How many times must they  have been abused or betrayed? How jaded and cynical must they have grown somehow, and through what kinds of horrible circumstances? How many years must they have spent defending their own rightness and goodness, convincing themselves of their own invulnerability to mistakes, foolery, and hurtfulness to others?

In my experience, it is public personalities who absorb the brunt of this gracelessness. A person who might accept an apology from a friend or lover might find it impossible to accept from a politician, a pastor, a physician, or a school teacher.

When a public figure makes what seems like a sincere apology for something, and it seems to fall on deaf ears with so many, I must admit my first response is usually anger.

“Cut her some f**cking slack!!”

But quickly I realize I’m not really angry. I am hurt. I recall so many times this has happened to me, where my own motives have been questioned, where I humbled myself sincerely and became vulnerable and apologized profusely for something, but the other person was unmoved, even cruel to me in the face of my humiliation.

Not that I live out these episodes over and over again, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I recall these events in my own life, and how painful they were, and I hurt deeply for whoever it is being done to now.

This post was inspired by the young Olympic athlete who is being savaged for not putting her hand on her heart during the pledge.

First, so what? People get excited and make mistakes. No biggie.

Second, she humbly apologized. Accept it and let it go.

Third, what the hell is the matter with you, this is a kid, at the highest point of her entire life.

How cynical and awful (and wounded) does it reveal a person to be when they are so easily offended as to find themselves incapable of showing a little grace to a child?


How Liberals Tend to Misunderstand Compassion

In my last post I said conservatives often mistake compassion for weakness, and to the conservative mind, strength — if not everything — is extremely important. Strength, of course, has limitations of its own, which is another post. In this post I want to focus on the particular way liberals tend to misunderstand compassion.

In its simplest form, liberals tend to want to own that virtue, and to assume that if someone thinks differently about an issue than they do, it stems from a lack of compassion. This isn’t necessarily the case for several reasons.

First, as I mentioned in the Facebook post that kicked off this series (if you don’t follow me on Facebook, and you wonder what you’re missing, you can do so here), simply feeling deeply about something is not the same as compassion. Compassion is not an emotion, it is emotion in action. A liberal who feels strongly about something but takes no action has no right to call a conservative heartless for also not taking any action. Feeling something, again, as I have said, is not the point.

Second, I know people (both liberals and conservatives, by the way, as these labels are useful primarily for purposes of writing about individual positions, not summing up entire human beings) who do not give to homeless people out of what I believe is sincere concern for their welfare, lest they spend the money on booze or other things bad for them. Misguided as I believe this is, I do not doubt the intentions behind it. In this case, those who do not give are taking action (withholding money they would otherwise give) for the benefit of the other.

Third, liberals are often former conservatives. They may tend to confuse specifics of their time as a conservative in the past with the individual conservative they are dealing with presently. For example, I know when I was a conservative I listened to a lot of heartless people on talk radio and adopted many of those positions for myself. I may therefore make the mistake of ascribing heartlessness to a conservative I’m dealing with about a specific issue. In other words, it may have more to do with me than it has to do with that other person.

Fourth, and this is similar to the first, is that I think we liberals tend to see ourselves (for better or for worse) as the standard-bearers of morality. I’m just keeping it real. We have been through our own journeys to get where we are and we know we are better people than we were before. But it is important to keep in mind the difference between being a better version of yourself than you used to be, and being better than other people. I really think that’s a blind spot liberals often have. Conservatives sense that condescension and it rightly drives them up a wall.

If a given liberal really has moved forward on their journey to compassion, that is excellent of course, but we do not want to lose in humility what we may sometimes gain in compassion.

How Conservatives Tend to Misunderstand Compassion

Conservatives tend to make the mistake of believing compassion is synonymous with being a “bleeding heart.” They may think someone calling for compassion is unreasonable, or doesn’t understand reality or economics.

This is false. The word “compassion” is rooted in a Latin word that means “co-suffering,” and it’s literal meaning in English is “to love together with.”

So to exercise compassion is not in any sense to be unreasonable, but it is to enter into the sufferings of others, to consider their suffering as your own.

Compassion as a way of life, or a way of seeing the world, stems directly from the ancient Golden Rule, expressed best in our Judeo-Christian history by Jesus Christ — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

No political party can lay exclusive claim to compassion, for it is not a political term, but a religio-spiritual one. It is opposed neither to reason nor to emotion, but it transcends them both with its call to concrete action.

Let us get very practical for a moment. Compassion, applied to the Flint water crisis, would mean that as we go forward in addressing this issue, we hold solidarity with the suffering ones — the families who have been most deeply affected. We resist the urge to simply boil this down to economics on one side, or to immediately diagnose it as human evil on the other. Those are knee-jerk political reactions, but the path of compassion calls us to see things from the perspective of those who have been and are being harmed. We can evaluate it economically or judge it morally, but neither of those things requires us to stand with those who have been most deeply affected. We can do both from a distance.

But compassion asks us to co-suffer, if not in our bodies, then at least in our hearts and minds, to put ourselves in the places of the suffering people of Flint. Whatever merits careful thinking and deep feeling may have (and they both have many merits and many potential pitfalls), compassion is something else entirely.

A substantial part of the reason conservative people may mistake compassion for blessing heart liberalism is due to how liberals often misunderstand and misrepresent compassion. I’ll write about that in my next post.

Thoughts on Caretaking and Being Taken Care Of

care taking


A friend wrote to me recently about a friend of hers whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury a few years ago. Her friend was struggling with the fact that she feels like she doesn’t get to “date” her husband anymore, that she is a caretaker only, and no longer really a wife, and that he’s no longer who he used to be emotionally, physically, mentally, and in other ways.

Here is my response, edited for privacy and language.

I cannot respond to your inquiry from anyplace other than my own experience, and that’s not a great place right now. It’s pretty frickin’ dark in here. I’ll try to answer your question, and forgive me if there’s a lot of useless junk about me in my response. Maybe I’ll just try to answer it and also share a lot about what it’s like being taken care of so you can help this friend understand her husband’s experience a little more.

Just came off another MS flareup with bladder and bowel issues that were the main problem, which will ruin anybody’s attitude. I’ll leave it at that, but it’s terrible. That’s even TMI for me, and I’m the one it happened to. Five days of steroid infusions seemed to clear it up for the most part.


So having said all that, I’ll take a crack at this. Please forgive whatever shortcomings are in this response that might seem obviously due to my own mess.

I tell aspiring therapists they should never work harder than their clients, and I wonder if this wife is working a lot harder than her husband. That is a waste of time.

I also wonder if her request is even reasonable to begin with. Christy can wish all she wants that we could date again, and sometimes we can, but some days it’s all I can do to relieve myself properly, get from point A to point B without breaking something, have a productive day at work — if I can work at all — and get back to my place on the couch at day’s end. This is not always true but there are days/weeks/months when I am, quite simply broken — emotionally, sexually, spiritually, physically — take your pick. There’s no way to soft pad that.

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Current detail of MS damage

I have posted a few other times about the specific types of MS symptoms I have been dealing with the last few weeks. A new symptom popped up today, which is a constant and fairly intense flicker in my left eye. My walking has not improved in the last few days, but I have reached a level where I can often get around without my walker if I walk very slowly and carefully. It makes Christy nervous, and looks pretty pathetic, but I can do it. Feeling has not remotely returned to my feet, so as of now I have not driven in two weeks. Very large patches of muscle in my left leg are so weak that that the leg will just give out at random.

I do probably look better than most people might expect. MS is a neuromuscular disease. In other words, it is caused by damage in my brain that impedes nerve signals in my body from getting where they need to go. If people expect me to look like I have the flu, or cancer, or some other obvious illness, they will be surprised. When I use my walker, my walking is fluid and fairly graceful. My upper body is in great shape (other than my eye), so I don’t look gaunt, and I am as strong above the waist as I’ve ever been. I can dress and clean myself (thanks to the new rails in my shower), make my own food, and in many other ways fend for myself. The issue is mobility. I struggle to get places, but once I’m there I can function at least somewhat.

My spirits are mediocre.

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