So paidia, these are the last days of the year. A time to reflect on what has happened, how we have changed (or not) and make commitments to improve ourselves and our world. Another year. For some of us getting one year older becomes a struggle to keep the faith, to believe in the best of human potential and not disintegrate into a mass of hardened, disillusioned skepticism.
The big fight for those of us past the days of wine and roses is not to lose perspective of youthful exuberance, the joie d’ vivre. It’s another thing to physically get Botoxed and toned, but when the soul gets old and jaded, that in short is the bigger fight to stay young, to believe.
The truth is this can be a hard fight. Because the older you get the wiser you get. You can see through people’s facades; you’ve lived through your share of disappointments, betrayals and broken hearts. Faced with the treachery, the hypocrisy, the folly in our fellow man we put up mental fortress and retreat into ourselves—for better or for worse.
This year I had a real big struggle not to lose faith in my fellow man in a very personal way. For many years I have been attending a Russian Orthodox Church. I found sustenance there and the priest was a dynamic speaker and an overall respected human being. Until there was a fall out. The priest had been spreading lies about his past, puffing himself up higher and mightier socially than his real origins.
That would have been all good and fine. Except that he never came clean with it. He never apologized or recognized his failings to his parish. This caused a rift, a divorce you might say, causing more than half the parish to follow another priest, the second-in-command to another church. Things weren’t the same after that. So, I took the opportunity to reconsider my affiliation with the Greek Orthodox Church. After all, I am ethnically Greek, not Russian. The Greek chanting and language is beautiful.
I had distanced myself from the Greek Church because of all the power-mongering, puffiness, and hypocrisy. Most Greek churches I did not feel much spirit in; you were there to show off your status with your heavy minks and Louis Vuittons. The priests gave shallow sermons; very predictable and not soul-lifting, just Hallmark-quality messages with a few verses from the New Testament thrown in. The Philoptochos was more interested in collecting funds, not to feed the poor, who in New York City are plentiful, but to upgrade the bathrooms in the church with gleaming stainless steel fixtures and beautiful marble counters. I guess you are more sensitive to the sins of your own people as you are so up-close. They strike a chord a little too hard in yourself, maybe because you too might harbor them.
Few weeks later, after social shopping for a church, I found myself attending services at St Spyridon in Washington Heights. It was majestic; I felt the spirit. Most Sundays I would tear with the beauty of the place and the chanting. And the father, well, he was very respected and an imposing figure. He had what you can say “the spiritual balls” to call right, right and wrong, wrong. My daughter had a big Sunday school to attend. It was wonderful. Until one Sunday when I returned from a vacation to Greece, that I found Father George missing. Another jolly, grandfatherly priest was officiating. He mentioned something about Father George being sick. And then the same thing happened the Sunday after. And the Sunday after that. And then while I was posting on Facebook, I saw the news. The “I Speak Greeklish” Facebook page was running with it. The New York Post had the scoop; all the juicy details of the priest, a respected clergyman, with a wife and daughter herself married with a grandchild, in bed having orgiastic sex with a parishner. She it alleged was his spiritual daughter, a convert of Hispanic descent, married to a Greek man with three children. The “kinky” priest needed cake and other things to get it on. The tabloid had even gotten access to a “sex tape” of the two and had blasted it all over the internet.
There can be no worse feeling than how I felt that Sunday morning. That Sunday morning I stopped attending St Spyridon’s Greek Orthodox Church. I stopped attending every church that Sunday morning. It was a hard blow to even the staunchest of faithful. The sexual impropriety is one thing, but the hypocrisy. The not coming clean. It is human to err, but when a Christ-like figure (supposedly) does not confess, shows no remorse, does not ask forgiveness, like the majority of us shmucks who follow the cannons of this faith, but instead goes for years professing from the mountaintop like some larger-than-life figure, and has so much pride that he can keep a porn tape of his illicit affair in the hard drive of his office computer without fear that he could be caught, well, that’s when you want to stop believing in everything. It’s enough having to deal with the cut-throat injustice on the job, but when it occurs in the private realm, close to home, close to the heart, that’s when it hurts the most. And these were one of your own; one of the best.
We need heroes to survive as a species. We need role models and fathers and mothers, responsible figures who do the right thing and show us the way. We need Jesus. But when a Christ-look alike is caught in flagrante with knickers down doing the dirty, what is there left to believe in? How does one find redemption in the human race? Even the best of us, even the ones we put on a pedestal, are all too human. (I think that’s why JRR Tolkien had Frodo, the pure innocent fail just at the very last moment before flinging the ring into the river of Mordor; no hero is infallible.) When our very heroes betray us, it is then that we must look deep within ourselves. Because to be honest, if you peel back the layers of delusion, you will find that you too are made of the same shit as everybody else. That you can be as arrogant and proud and foolish as the worst of them.
Sure you can go on a search for the better family, the more refined marriage, the more authentic friendship, the more spiritual parish, but one way or another, you will come face to face with the reality of human shortcomings, the same hubris, the same pettiness, the same back talking, hypocrisy, slander, division and sin.
How then can you go on living with people, believing in them, let alone loving them when you know how utterly disappointing they are, how dirty, and crooked, and so utterly sinful? This is the crux of Christian love. It is the struggle to love people as despicable and frail as ourselves. That is the essence of being human. The struggle to find the icon of God within the mired mortal flesh. The hope that he or she will not let you down, even while knowing deep within, that they have already failed you. This is what Jesus had to go through by coming into the world. He loved humanity despite its folly, in spite of its stupidity and corruption. That is the real task of the human hero.
“You’ve got to look at the whole tapestry,” I keep urging myself, “and not the holes here or there. As a whole, it measures up to standards.
I recently heard an interview with Nick Yarris, a man who was put on death row for allegedly raping and killing a woman 20 years ago. He served 20 years behind jail and was unlawfully framed for a crime he did not commit. He was to be put on death row and face execution by lethal injection when the Innocence Project pushed for a warrant to have DNA testing done on him. He was pronounced completely innocent as charged. If there is a person who would most struggle to have faith in humanity and not turn into a bitter curmudgeon, it would be him. Listen to his interview and he is the opposite. He came out of his bitterness through one act of kindness: a prison guard gave him a stack of books to read in the 23 years of solitary confinement. He said, “If you wanna know the only way to get through hell, you love someone. I learned that the only thing we have between us is love and that currency is the only thing that makes us not turn bitter.”
Love. Kindness. That is the answer. That has always been the answer. To get through the valley of the shadow of death, you have to have faith in love. That people will disappointment you, you must love them anyway.
This year I will try not be stay bitter. To love. To be kind. To believe. And that will keep me forever young.
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