February 9th, 2011 / 4:07 pm

“I wish my soul were larger than it is.”

Someone asked me today whether I would be sad if I published (x) book and it alienated people from my community of origin, lost me their affection, etc. (I was raised a Southern Baptist, attended an extreme fundamentalist Christian school where many of the faculty were educated at places like Bob Jones University for the fourteen years preceding college, broke from those places to become an associate pastor in a more moderate tradition briefly after college, worked briefly in religious publishing, finally gave all of it up entirely, and I haven’t believed in god for almost ten years now.)  I said that the only time I hear from most people from that time is when I publish something they don’t like & then they reach out “in love” to express displeasure and offer correction. Those who really love me, I said, have been in my life all along, regardless of whether or not they disagreed with me. My friend said he was in a similar place in life as me, but that it wasn’t worth it for him to lose the affection of those who have been in his life since he was a child, especially members of his family. He said he feared other consequences, too — loss of opportunity at work, possibly the loss of his job, possibly even the loss of his wife and children. He said he had resigned himself to live a double life for the rest of his life, or at least until he was financially secure and his children were grown. So he would be one person in the private place where he lived with his thoughts and in the private life he kept secret from those closest to him, and another person in the public place where he lived most of his life and in his own home, around his family. Part of this idea is repugnant to me — it’s a lifelong lie he’s decided to live, right? But I also understand his choice. I fear that one day my parents will no longer speak with me because of my choices, and already I feel the loss of friendships that were once dear and important to me.

The book I’ll publish that will probably cause me a greater disruption of those relationships is a nonfiction account of the life of my childhood pastor who came out as a gay man and lost pretty much everything. The more I learn about his story, the more I identify, strongly, with what I’m learning is a condition common to gay people of all stripes. I think our culture is changing to become generally more accepting, but the pronouncement of a simple truth — I am attracted to people of the same sex and desire sexual relationships with them as a condition of my happiness — has cost gay people, especially those of the generation preceding mine, so much that many have chosen to live a similar double life. I can’t condemn them for it. However repugnant you might find the attitudes you find among your community of origin, it’s the only one you’ll ever have, and you’ll always crave the acceptance of those whose acceptance you craved early in life.

A hallmark of the kind of adult maturity to which I aspire is the acceptance of these kinds of difficult things, and a cultivation of a way of being in the world that allows them to exist in tension without undoing any chance at happiness. I wish for friends as dear as I once imagined my old friends held me. I wish, too, for a way to reconcile with old friends I’ve lost. I can see a future ahead that is full of contradictions and uglinesses, but also good relationships, comings-to-understandings, newfound pathways to decency. I want to believe these things are possible and then work to make them possible. In the words of the narrator of Andrew Hudgins’s “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought”: “I wish my soul were larger than it is.” Maybe it can be.

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