Thank God for apathy and cowardice.
When I came home from prison, one of my paramount fears and causes of anxiety was facing reality while wearing my newly-assigned (but deserved) scarlet letter. I held a strange but unfounded fear of someone shouting at me in public or spitting in my face or something. But nothing even remotely close to that has happened. In fact, just the opposite. At first, I wondered why no one seemed to care, then it was adequately explained to me by someone who put it perfectly: People are typically too obsessed with their own lives to care about the lives of those in whom they have no vested interest.
It’s funny how people will watch TV and sneer at people like me when I’m on the news, but when it comes to leaving their living rooms and encountering real people face-to-face, people are either too apathetic or too cowardly to say something; and this is assuming that they know at all. In this situation, I’ve never been so happy to be forgotten. I still feel the inclination to be the social person that I was before, but I would rather be anonymous — a face in the crowd — and I pray that anytime I go out in public, I don’t see anyone I know.
This is no way to live, and perhaps it’s partially my fault for moving back to my hometown — the town where I was arrested — my only two options are to stay and adjust or leave. But what few friends I still have are still in my hometown, and I can’t exactly afford to be choosy, and I don’t want to because the friends I have now are the friends who have stuck with me through everything, and that makes them all-the-more valuable to me and to my life. These are the people who love me, regardless of my terrible choices. These are the people who have the courage to remain friends with me, no matter how they think it would make them “look” to the outside world. These are the people with integrity.
These people are my friends.
Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve met God. I’ve come across some interesting characters in my walk through life, and there are days when maybe I think that at some point, The Man Upstairs has covertly paid me a visit. Sounds crazy, right? Is that any crazier speaking into thin air and hoping God not only hears, but answers? Is it crazy to think that God would bother to stop in and see “someone like me” when he could be spending his time hanging out with Billy Graham or Mark Hoover? I guess the answer to that question is specific to who God is to each of us.
To me, God is not a vengeful god, He is not a judgmental god, and He is not a spiteful god. To me, God is a god of the broken. God is a god of second chances, and third chances, and chances of infinity. Perhaps my perspectives are self-serving, since I have more than my fair share of things that need forgiveness, but I can’t help but believe that if God is going to create me with love, then he is going to forgive my repeated transgressions, no matter how many times I fall to my knees and beg His forgiveness. That’s the beauty of the God I worship. He cares more about repentance than He does about what I am repenting. The song “Better Than a Hallelujah” describes this perfectly for me. God loves me, not because I’m broken, but because I’m broken at His feet.
The “Religious Elite” snub at me, and that’s fine. By their standards, I am an unforgivable sinner. The funny thing I’ve learned about “church people” is that if I don’t fit into their very narrow definition of what a Christian is supposed to be, then I am automatically a hell-bound lost cause. They are so self-important that they set unattainable standards for their own lives, then pretend that they meet (or exceed) them and others do not. Self-important people are mad at grace. These people hate that God could love and forgive me just as much as them. Simply, these people hate me. And I’m fine with that.
I can see their perspective. I really can. They spend their entire lives trying to live right, look right, speak right, be right, and yet, here I am, a criminal who has been publicly and professionally humiliated and ostracized, and I get the same brand of God’s grace that they get. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? But that’s the beauty of God. He’s cool like that. I honestly believe that God doesn’t obsess about the little things in our lives (like how often we go to church or whether or not we use profanity or when we enjoy a little too much chocolate), instead, God cares where our heart is, and how much we want God to be in it.
Nothing I can do will change how much God loves me. And nothing I can do will change the way church people despise me. Lucky for me, one of those means everything and the other means nothing. Regardless, I will continue to keep my low public profile, wearing sunglasses and hats and whatever else can keep anyone I once knew from giving me a glance and saying, “I know that guy.”
At the gym the other day, I ran into a guy I coached years ago. He’s in his twenties now, but he still looks the same. I was getting a post-workout rest when he walked in and stopped, giving me an awkward “Hi.” I’ve never had anything against him — in fact, he’s a really good guy — but I didn’t want to have to talk to him, simply because I knew it would probably be awkward for him. I wanted to politely let him know that he didn’t need to talk to me, that he didn’t need to feel obligated to offer any salutation. I obviously wouldn’t have meant that in a rude way, I would have just wanted him to know that the social contract that binds two former acquaintances and requires us to converse with social pleasantries wasn’t necessary. This I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I upheld my end of the social contract and exchanged a “Hello” and a “How are you,” then resumed my workout. He went about his way as well, and that was that. I haven’t seen him since. I wanted to tell him what was really on my mind, but the fact of the matter is, I needed to be social and I needed to be nice. Speaking my mind was not an option, even if it would have been aimed at keeping someone else from feeling socially awkward.
I hope that if I ever meet God, I can be honest, and speak my mind, and abide the social contract. Although, I doubt I could ever make God feel awkward. He knows everything about me, and face-to-face, he would never blush.
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” -Mark Twain
Walking out of prison was a powerful thing. December 5, 2014 was cool and gloomy and brisk and glorious. My wife and I both shed tears of joy when she hugged me on the outer-border of Winfield Correctional Facility. The long drive down the winding road away from the prison seemed surreal, as though I was breaking some sort of rule. But as we left the prison property, then made it to the outskirts of Winfield, then to the Kansas Turnpike heading for Wichita, the reality seemed to solidify under my feet — even at 75 miles per hour. My wife and I stopped at the turnpike rest stop outside of Wichita and went into the gas station, just because I could. I took my $50 cash “gate money” that the prison had given me, walked over to the gas station refrigerator, pulled out a Gatorade, walked up to the counter, paid for it, took my change, and walked out the door – just because I could.
That was my first act as a free man, and it needed to be done, just so that I could see for myself that the world hadn’t changed. But it had. My world had changed. Because the whole time I was in that store, I looked at everyone with the thought, “Do they know who I am?” Logically, of course they didn’t. Emotionally, I wore a giant Scarlet Letter. Thanks to America’s 24-hour news cycle, no one remembered me. No one remembered seeing me on the news, sitting at that courtroom table in my blue shirt and tie, awaiting the fateful ruling that would take me away from my family for two years, one month, and three days. No one remembered my depressing mug shot or my humiliating walk through the courtroom, away from my family and into Hell. In retrospect, most of the people in that rest stop were likely not from anywhere near Wichita (considering we were standing on the turnpike), but logic and emotion rarely coincide in situations such as this. Regardless, it was my baptism into the reality of my life: To those who knew me, I had become a villain. I wear the black hat.
I would have been deserving of the ridicule, the insults, and the dirty looks that I expected from anyone who remembered me for one reason or another. And even in an impersonal store full of strangers, I felt like I wore my tattered reputation and history on my chest like a poorly-printed slogan t-shirt. After paying for the Gatorade, I found myself walking with a bit of swiftness toward the door and to the car.
I got in the car — on the driver’s side — with my wife at my side, and wondered if, after over two years, I remembered how to drive. I pulled out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and merged into traffic seamlessly as though I hadn’t missed a day. It wasn’t “like riding a bike,” it was just the simple act of driving a car. And it felt glorious.
So as we barreled toward my hometown of Wichita, Kansas at 75 miles per hour, I wondered what new world I would be going home to, I wondered what would my new life would be, I wondered if people would believe that I wasn’t the same person who’d been led away in handcuffs two years earlier. There was no way to “show” anyone who I had become; all I could do was hope to live a testimony to my new-found values and identity.
I left the free world two years earlier thinking that I was just a regular guy who screwed up. I re-entered the free world knowing that I was a recovering addict whose life had become unmanageable, and the choices I’d made as a result of being a sex addict had resulted in my banishment from society. But over those two years, I grew to understand that I did indeed have a problem, which was the first step in addressing it.
The new world — the free world — hadn’t changed all that much. But the way in which I saw the world — and my life — could not have been more different. That was one of my greatest blessings.
We kept driving.