Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Harsh Light of Day

See Part 1: A Fire in the Desert

My grandfather was a force to be reckoned with. He saw himself as a light in the desert at night, trying to show people the way. There is no doubt that wherever he went, he left an impression - but not everyone got the same impression. People have always told me that "perception is reality," but what do you do when the harsh light of day shows that your perception does not match reality? What do you trust?

Grandpa always trusted his perception - even if it was at the expense of what others called reality. I was enthralled by the power of his storytelling, but I quickly learned not to repeat or echo back the parts of the stories that I found most entertaining, because I had a tendency to pick up on those colorful bits of embellishment that he added for emphasis - things that weren't exactly factual, but made the story feel true - and that would earn me a rebuke from Grandma (for lying about what Grandpa had said) or from Grandpa (for missing the point of what he was trying to tell me).

His engaging tall tales about growing up in the South and his ever-evolving stories about his exploits serving in the Navy during World War II were, if not factually precise, intended as morality plays. His more immediate stories of bringing Salvation to random strangers he met during his day-to-day wanderings were, if not verifiable, meant to show the wickedness and unreliability of the world. And of course, when he told a story from the Bible, that was unquestionable - even if his version didn't exactly match the infallible text. The thread running through all of it was Jesus; every story, every tale, every anecdote was, at its core, about how much better the World would be if it would just listen to Jesus (as related by Grandpa, of course).

Sometime in the dim, early reaches of my memory, Grandpa had an nasty fall. He was working as a building inspector in downtown Phoenix and fell off of a building he had been climbing. His knees were destroyed, and he spent a great deal of the rest of his life in and out of the VA hospital for various surgeries to repair or replace his joints. It happened that one of his visits occurred during my junior year of high school and coincided with a new knee replacement at the hospital where my girlfriend's neighbor worked as a nurse.

As was expected, when Grandpa came home from the hospital he began to regale us excitedly about what a blessing it had been for him to be the instrument of the Lord in that place; how he had prayed with all of the nurses and Saved them all - reinforcing his perception that there was a Higher Purpose to his suffering, and that Jesus was using his pain to win souls.

But when I asked my girlfriend's neighbor, the nurse, about Grandpa's story, she told a slightly different version. "Oh, yeah," she said, "I remember Mr. Clark. He wouldn't let us change his bedpan or give him any meds until we prayed with him. I accepted Jesus eight times, just so I could finish my rounds."

Clearly, perception differed from reality in the harsh light of day.

As a youngster, I took Grandpa at face value and in every literal way possible. Being young, I didn't question much of what I was told by trusted sources, like Grandpa. The other adults in my life all reinforced what he taught me, though in hindsight, there were a lot of signs that I didn't pick up on that should have told me how disturbed they were by some of his attitudes about things like race and politics. But for the sake of Jesus, they never openly contradicted what he said and I came to perceive a reality where everything was rooted in a concept of Jesus that matched Grandpa's perception.

I took my perception of reality to school with me, and this is where the conflict arose.

My classmates bore the brunt of my evangelical fervor. Most tried to ignore me, but some of them would engage in heated arguments about evolution, the evils of pop culture, religion, politics, or whatever came up. I argued with atheist kids, with Mormons (the Southern Baptist's natural enemy), or with "normal" kids who just found my constant judgment to be annoying. When my behavior became so disruptive that my parents felt moved to transfer me (and my sister) to a private Christian school, we all expected things to get better simply by removing me from influences of the Rest of the World. But even though the atheist kids were no longer there, I still found fault in the various "non-denominational" Christians who surrounded me.

To my mind, their failure as Christians to live up to my expectations was even worse than the failure of non-Christians to perceive my version of reality, and I felt it was my duty to shine a light on their darkness. It was that sense of duty combined with my perception of their failure to fit with my concept of the rules that drove me, at times, to violent protest.

Several years ago, my son exhibited similar behavioral problems. He has since been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Looking back, I have to wonder if my struggles to relate in these social situations were due to a condition of my own. As hard as it is today to explain autism, it would have been impossible to diagnose when I was a kid, let alone treat as a medical condition. Whatever was driving me - undiagnosed Asperger's or just religious zealotry - even the administrators at our Christian school and the leaders in our church couldn't put up with that kind of excessive behavior. I was outraged that they didn't take my side - after all, I perceived that I was fighting the Good Fight. For a long time, I followed Grandpa's pattern of blaming the backsliders and hypocrites for conspiring against me - but in the harsh light of day, I was forced to recognize that just because I perceived certain things to be true, no one else was obligated to see things my way.

Eventually, I came to understand that no one's perception controlled what was real. However hard I believed, however deeply I needed to believe it, the world stubbornly refused to change to fit my perception. And somewhere in there I shifted from being someone who took the stories and tried to fit the facts to support them to being someone who asked questions and followed the evidence until the facts made sense.

I started trying to perceive reality as it was - not the way a lonely kid who grew up in the desert wanted it to be, and not the way a kid who looked up to his Grandfather was told to see it. And once I started holding my own perceptions accountable, I was on a collision course with Grandpa's.

There was never a single incident or argument that I could point to as The Moment when things turned. I couldn't bring myself to openly contradict him. Even though I still loved dinosaurs and space, and his claims about those things were clearly wrong, I felt like I was supposed to just let him say what he wanted about those things and let it go. If I even hinted at contradicting his version of reality, I would earn a lecture about respecting my elders.

I think it was music that sparked the real rift.

I have always loved music. To me, music was a language that didn't depend on meaning. I gave it meaning. It brought me joy, but that joy always came from inside me - and in that sense, the music that I loved was a part of me. I attributed the joy to Jesus - as a young evangelical kid is taught to do - and I remember showing Grandpa the music I was into; mainly pieces of the budding evangelical tribal culture of the 1980s.

I had a number of LPs and cassettes by people like the Gaithers and the Continental Singers. The Continentals had a touring production of their musical about Joseph called The Dreamer, which was supposed to correct the "errors" of the more popular (and secular!) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. A school friend introduced me to guys like Steve Taylor and Carman, who mocked the secular world while they parodied the pop music of the time. I remember expecting Grandpa to be proud of me for sticking it to the World, and for staying true to Jesus while embracing something that made me feel as alive as music did.  

Instead, I got a lecture about how Satan used the secret messages of those African tribal drums to infect good, honest Christian culture. I was shocked, though having seen some of his rants about "hippies" - sparked by TV ads for the annual Easter showing of Jesus Christ Superstar on the local independent station - I should not have been. This was different from his attack on dinosaurs and astronauts. Those were just childhood dreams, but music was more visceral. When he attacked the music, Grandpa was attacking an essential piece of my heart. It was as deeply personal as if he were criticizing me for having hazel eyes and made even less sense to me than attacking me for having hair that was slightly longer than he thought appropriate.

This was too much for me. This was really the first time that I recognized that everything anyone did or said, no matter how well intentioned they were, could be twisted into some theoretical schism with Jesus's Word (as understood by Grandpa) or some plot by Satan to distract us from that Word. It had nothing to do with reality; it was a wrestling match between perceptions, and I realized that it was a game that nobody won. Ever.

That was really when I dug in and began to trust my own judgment over his.

I don't remember the rest of that discussion about music, but I remember standing up for myself.  I remember throwing Matthew 7:1-3 at him, which didn't go over well. And after that, even though I had been saved in the church and even though I believed just as hard as he did, I was now a backslider in his perception, and I needed to be Saved... properly.

The comments were ever-present. He never came out swinging, but Grandpa had a talent for saying things that were framed innocently while being designed to be provocative.  I could either ignore them (and he made it clear that this meant tacitly agreeing with him) or challenge them (which was the fight he wanted). I had to learn to let go, and find my own way.

By the time I enlisted in the Air Force, I had taken the first steps toward leaving the evangelical tribal culture behind. I had learned to take Grandpa's stories - including things that he didn't think of as "stories" - in the spirit intended. He saw his actions as an expression of love; he wanted me to go to heaven and to be happy. Early on, I think he saw the possibility that I might become a preacher myself, and carry on his quest to save the World (even if the World just wanted to get the bedpans changed and go home). Later, I think he just wanted to steer me away from what he perceived as dangers - whether they were actually dangerous or not.

When he found out I was joining the military, he was proud, and he pulled me aside to tell me about his experiences. He warned me of the "traps" he had fallen into as a serviceman in the U.S. merchant marines; his cocaine and heroin habits (which I had never heard him mention before) on top of his drinking and smoking (which I had). He told me how he had been singing in a night club on shore leave in Italy, and had been approached by a U.S. Army Major who wanted to recruit him to sing in his USO band - but that Major, one Glenn Miller, had disappeared in Africa before the transfer papers went through. Needless to say, the details he told me didn't add up with official accounts, but I understood by then that they were true enough for stories, and that he was really telling me he loved me.

Grandpa passed away in 2002, about a year after I returned to Arizona from serving overseas in the Air Force with my young family. I had known his health was declining for a while, so as soon as we returned to the States, we visited Grandma and Grandpa in their RV, which was hooked up on the San Carlos Apache Reservation outside of Peridot, AZ. I had told my wife about him, naturally, and she was almost terrified to meet him. She knew he had strong opinions about tattoos and how a wife should behave, and she didn't want to be resented by anyone in my family. But when they finally met, Grandpa was overwhelmingly sweet. He complimented her tattoo, and dandled the baby on his knee (which had recently been replaced again) while recounting his adventures on a Liberty ship taking lend-lease materiel to Murmansk through a German submarine convoy in 1941.

We had a wonderful (if short and hot) visit. Kate was relieved that Grandpa hadn't criticized her or tried to Save her - but she wondered why he kept calling her "Karen." The explanation for the name slips and the apparent change of character was horrible and simple: Alzheimer's. He had been suffering from the slow decline of Alzheimer's related dementia for years.

It is a horrific thing that a disease like this can alter your perceptions without you knowing it. The more we learn about the human brain, the more we understand that it is a delicate marvel and how easily it can be deceived. We have evolved to look for patterns, which can either be a problem solving blessing, or can mislead us with phenomena like pareidolia. We learn more all the time about how memory works (or doesn't) and how unreliable we are as eyewitnesses. There are so many reasons why, in the harsh light of day, I had to reject Grandpa's perceptions - but Alzheimer's magnified the problem because there is no way of knowing how many years it worked in him, chewing away at his memories and altering his perceptions. I have no way of knowing how much of his life was driven by a disease.

Perception is reality. It's only your reality, though. It's the only reality you ever know, even though you can never trust it. You must question everything, test it against evidence that doesn't depend on your perception, and be willing to alter your perception to match actual reality. When it comes to others, be patient; we aren't always in control of what we can see. I think we are all trying to do the best we can, and we cling to whatever we think we can trust. Try not to waste your precious time together being angry that we aren't seeing the same things the same way.

While it's impossible to know how much the disease had to do with altering his basic character, I choose to see the sweet man we said goodbye to as the real Grandpa. I choose to perceive him in the best possible light - warts and all, flaws proudly on display.

After all, a fire in the desert may cast shadows at night that disappear in the harsh light of day; but without it, the night can get very cold.

1 comment:

Tad Callin said...

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream...

A Midsummer Night's Dream