My blogs tend to be rather formulaic. I start with some experience in my life as I mother-from-the-home, and then I stretch that experience into an analogy that may or may not work for those reading. I don’t get to choose which experience spurs my pondering and writing. So sometimes the analogy falls very short of the subject it pricks in my brain. In this blog, please be aware of the following:
1) I didn’t have a set of animals to choose from in this analogy. I chose a snake because that’s what life sent me. 2) The snake has historically been given the human quality of being deceptive. I am not using a snake in my analogy with that intention. 3) I have heard a term relating the male anatomy to a snake. That also has nothing to do with the use of this creature here. Finally, analogies and metaphors are limited in their ability to convey a more complex idea. You just can’t beat a dead horse while sleeping dogs lie and think you’re going to get blood from a turnip. Sometimes following an analogy to its certain breakdown just won’t get you anywhere. So take what resonates with you and discard what does not, and try not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Oh, and hang in there, this one is a long ride.
“You knew what I was when you picked me up.” You may have heard that warning from a Native American legend about the boy who believed the words of a deadly snake. He paid for his misplaced trust with his life.
We knew when we moved into our neighborhood that rattle snake encounters were a real possibility. Our friend just up the road had been bitten seven times by a rattler when he stepped out on his back porch for a moment after dark. The serpent was peacefully coiled on warm concrete, minding its own business, when some galoot squashed the poor creature somewhere near its 287th vertebra (actually this galoot tried to teach me swing dance in high school, so he’s no galoot, but I certainly am).
I have been on the alert ever since moving here, with good reason. Several rattle snakes are caught, run over, or spotted by neighbors each summer. The pictures posted on Facebook only add to my conviction that someday one of my unsuspecting children will be attacked by this venomous beast.
In May 2015, I saw a suspicious-looking snake as I drove down my street. I whipped back around to get a better look. It was a bullsnake. Its head had been crushed by a car, and the rest of it lay lifeless and cold in the rain. I didn’t want it to continue getting flattened, so I took a bucket and shovel and gave it a proper disposal in the nearby foothills. I didn’t go so far as to bury it or hold a vigil or read words over the too-soon stilled figure, lamenting that it had been misunderstood and, therefore, targeted for death. I just dumped it in the brush where scavengers could aid in its decomposition.
I had heard a rumor from a friend, which had then been confirmed in the chatter on the neighborhood Facebook page, that bullsnakes had crossbred with rattlers, and now they were just as dangerous as the rattle snake. I had not actually explored that rumor. When it came to protecting my family, I would err on the side of asking questions later. With a small leap in my brand of logic, I decided that if the two snake varieties looked that similar, then bullsnakes could have become poisonous. I had been educated by Marty Stouffer’s Wild America as a child, but my main interest was mammals, so I’d forgotten that some snakes give live birth, and some lay eggs.
It is, in fact, impossible for rattle snakes and bullsnakes to crossbreed.
During June 2015, I came face to face with my perceived nemesis. While closing windows and blinds in an attempt to keep the house cool by using my energy and not the grid’s, I looked out through an upstairs window and saw a snake with suspicious markings serpentining across the street. It was headed directly into my front yard. I bolted down the stairs and into the garage where I managed to throw on knee-high rain boots and elbow length work gloves. I then grabbed a pitchfork, narrowly missed hitting my head on the garage door as it lifted up, and courageously faced the snake head-on as I swept my pitchfork in its path.
It saw me coming, shot to my left, passed me, and in scarcely two seconds, disappeared under my porch. In that time, I gathered that it was only a bullsnake, but my certainty that I was defending my home against a vicious enemy remained solid, for had I not heard that it was now cut from the same cloth as a rattler?
Brandishing a pitchfork (yes, I was literally holding a pitchfork), I poked at the hole under the concrete, my adrenaline pumping as I considered my next move.
I then wondered where my children were and whether I had left doors ajar that led to the street. I began to retrace my steps and saw that my neighbors were watching me in bemused consternation.
As I explained my get-up to them, it occurred to me: Until that moment, I never knew I even had a contingency plan for defending my home against a snake attack. But my friends supported the notion that bullsnakes were likely the spawn of deadly rattler-bullsnake hybrids, so I didn’t feel completely ridiculous going after a nearly defenseless creature. I just had to hope that it would find the premises unsuitable and move on, in case it really was dangerous.
The irony of my foolish reaction was not lost on me when I heard on NPR the next day that gay marriage was now legal throughout the United States.
I had read a paper advocating that next in line for legitimizing their sexuality were pedophiles, and in the constant war of words out there, it is sometimes easier to attack first and find answers later. In my fear of this slippery slope, I had lumped the gay rights movement with the downfall of all sexual decency. I didn’t know I had done that. If I had thought about it, I would have seen all of the evidence to the contrary in the homosexually-oriented people I know, have worked with, or have met. I would have rejected the notion of the LGBT community endangering my family. But fear doesn’t look for reason; it looks for confirmation. And when I looked for that confirmation, I found it, while disregarding a much larger picture.
How many times have I taken a stand for my family against a perceived threat while turning a blind eye to the plight of my gay brothers and sisters? How long had I discarded the evidence of targeted hatred so that I could reserve “love one another, as I have loved you” for only those who agreed with my views (John 13:34)? When did I allow fear to create a fight-flight-or-freeze algorithm that left the door wide open for actual poison–in the form of fear, anger, and hate–to reach my family?
I had learned repeatedly in my calm moments while researching rattle snake encounters that I should contact animal control or wildlife services and let them determine the degree of danger and what steps to take. I had also learned what to do in case something terrible had happened to me or my child. But that wasn’t enough for this mother. No, I had to prevent harm. I had to eliminate danger. I was poised, pitchfork in hand, to see all unknown entities as sinister threats. I was going to make the experts obsolete.
When I pulled on my armor and grabbed my weapon, ready to make battle with an unknown entity, I tossed aside all the fundamentally sound counsel I had received and elevated myself to the level of “expert.” I had let pride send me on a fool’s errand.
And in the process, I could have harmed an innocent creature, whose only mistake was being born with a set of features that set off an alarm in my “reptilian brain,” as my cousin once called the source of the disgusted feelings opponents may have to the idea of homosexuality. (And I can appreciate that response as I distinctly recall feeling confused and shocked when I learned about homosexuality in health classes at ages 12 and 13.)
The gut reactions we have wired into us are for survival in case of perceived danger, but when we jump three feet in the air because of some odd thing we see out of the corner of our eye, our higher cognitive abilities can say, “That is a child pulling a rope through the living room,” or “That is a tan-colored hose coiled up in the yard,” so that the fear subsides, and the startled reaction becomes almost embarrassing. We can learn to overcome knee-jerk reactions when we consider how some reactions are unwarranted and hurtful.
Misguided reactions can be replaced with proactive responses. Instead of focusing on how someone differs from me, I can focus on how his or her deepest needs are probably a lot like mine. It also helps to have some humility and remember that when we judge others unfairly, we are only condemning ourselves (see Matthew 7:1-5).
I belong to a church in which we follow commandments that came to us from God through prophets. That sounds absurd to a lot of people, even dangerous. And for those of us trying to live by these defined boundaries, we soon realize that our attempts to live all the commandments all of the time may be similar to the hypocrisy we may encounter while driving. Perhaps you have at times felt justified to speed a little, tailgate occasionally, or burn through a stale yellow light because you are doing so well with other traffic laws. You may even get angry when someone endangers you (and possibly your family) by bending those very same laws. When we point the finger (especially the middle one) at another’s errors, the anger we feel might be in response to the suppressed knowledge that we are at least as guilty of those same errors as the other party is. We are condemning in another what we see in ourselves.
In the Bible, Jesus says simply,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
How is the second commandment “like unto” the first? Is it a distant second in order of priority, or is it just a different degree of difficulty? It is one thing to love someone we cannot–for the time being and with our limited senses–see, hear, touch, measure, or empirically analyze. For some, the idea of God is completely inaccessible for this reason, making it seem impossible to know or love him.
But it is another thing entirely to love a person whose appearance, words, physical presence, personal preferences, and effects on our environment are entirely accessible to our senses. Loving another person isn’t just blithely saying, “I love you.” It is a living, tolerating, forgiving, boundary-defining cadence of missteps highlighted occasionally by moments of understanding. For some, that seems impossible to do. And being asked to do this with the heart, soul, and mind, is indeed a tall order. Especially when we have no formal commitment to that person. We just happen to share the same planet.
When I am asked to love my neighbor as myself, does that mean I insist that my neighbor live as I do? Am I to ask others to respect my privacy, my relationships, my family, and then get offended when another’s privacy, relationships, and family are managed differently than mine?
No. I love my neighbor (who is anyone outside myself, as Jesus also taught) in the way that I would hope others would show their love for me. I am respectful. I learn about my neighbor and respond with kindness, vulnerability, inclusion, and a slowness to come to any firm conclusions about him or her. I give my neighbor room to be my neighbor instead of my enemy. And I do this in the firm hope that my neighbor will do the same for me.
Part of loving another person requires some boundaries, and I have found that only certain people are allowed to help me guide and discipline my children. Basically, if you assume good intent, I probably won’t mind if you correct my child or chastise their wrong behavior. But if you treat them like they are demons bent on ruining your life, your authority over my children ends right there. I have earned the right to correct and discipline my children because I love them endlessly.
If you think in the few moments you’ve been around them that they’re wretched little monsters, you clearly don’t know them and have no idea what “wretched little monsters” really act like. I know. And I know who they really are. I get to judge whether they need discipline, a drink of water, a snack, or a nap. Probably all four if they want to keep mom from becoming the wretched monster that emerges when she needs a time-out from them.
Anyway, when it comes to differences between me and my neighbors, how many times have I learned that I am to leave judgment to God? And I don’t mean in the “you’re gonna get it” sense, the way a childhood playmate of mine once told her little brother to behave, or else “Dad’s gonna use the buckle end of the belt on you this time.”
I mean in the sense that final judgment of a person comes from the only expert on that person, Jesus Christ. He is our Savior because he took upon himself all of our sins, our mistakes, our pains, our weaknesses, and he gained context for every choice and every reaction we ever have in life, even the context we are not aware of.
Without that context, most of us would look like a wretched monster to a jury of our peers. And what peer has the ability to see someone else’s situation 100% clearly anyway? I love this conclusion from a science-fiction novel my dad encouraged me to read my freshman year in high school when my academic and social challenges felt brutal.
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy…then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. (Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game)
I think of someone else who taught about loving our enemies.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
I believe the purpose of loving our enemies is to help us distinguish who is truly our enemy, for we are all children of God, and therefore recipients of his love and capable of living in his way. Most wars are fought by groups who, if they put aside differing philosophies and hate-inspiring grievances, would find that they are more alike than not. Our common enemy is found when we are willing to set down weapons and search our hearts.
Defending our families from immediate harm is a right we would all hope for, but first learning how to distinguish the enemy from a potential ally is vital to a peaceful, productive, and diverse society. It is difficult to accomplish worthwhile change in the midst of war, whether with words and accusations or with artillery and bombs.
In the church I belong to, we have very human leaders, whom we consider assigned to that position and given authority in a process that makes it a divine call. Sometimes the leader of a congregation is asked to judge a member in terms of his or her commitment to live according to the commandments of God. If a member makes very serious choices that go against certain commandments, this leader is asked to sort through a lot of context, scriptural teachings, hard-won personal inspiration, and counsel from other pertinent leaders; and then in a formal dialogue with an individual regarding his or her choices, the accountability may lead to a loss of some of the basic privileges that members have. It’s analogous to a “time-out” for a child who knowingly breaks an important rule, such as “no hitting.” Of course, there is always a path for returning to a full commitment to follow Christ and his teachings, just as a parent would not send his or her child to time-out intending for it to be a permanent condition (though I would sympathize with the parent who occasionally considers the idea).
The process of being accountable for choices is meant to extend both justice and mercy, but not all leaders handle situations ideally, and certainly not all members who go through a “disciplinary counsel” will see the mercy and justice involved. To provide some consistency, a church handbook of instructions has been developed. It is there for church leaders, who face myriad situations, to have some general guidance regarding these situations while factoring in unique circumstances and the leader’s inspiration from God on the matter. The handbook is meant to change based on the changing needs of church members within a variety of legal, cultural, and political settings. It is not written in terms of absolute or final judgment, and it is a best effort, not perfection itself.
When the new direction regarding baptism of children whose main household is parented by a lesbian or gay couple was leaked to the press last November, I felt like that bullsnake who was being confused with the actual enemy. What was meant to facilitate the handling of very specific situations within a religious organization was being used to lump me and my faith with homophobes and bigots.
But I needed that taste of the bitter cup.
It hurts to be misjudged. It hurts to have honestly shared feelings considered an attack by those who misunderstand. Fortunately, that moment helped build compassion in me, not only for that harmless snake, but for all the people every day who are misjudged on so many levels, and with so many devastating consequences.
So while the story of a deceptive snake may warn us against disregarding the wisdom of the ages, people are not snakes. We operate on more than just instinct and reflex. We can hopefully learn from misunderstanding, seek for common ground, and then rebuild lost trust when our mistakes hurt one another. That is what loving one another is about. And that is what living in fear keeps us from doing.
Postscript–I have really appreciated the words of a general leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, on judging others. I wanted to say “amen!” throughout this talk, even though in my religious tradition we reverently wait until the end to say it just once. Also, I drew inspiration from the encouragement of Elder Ronald A. Rasband that we support and promote fairness. Though he was addressing university students, I took to heart these words: “I stand with the leaders of the Lord’s Church when I say that we need your generation’s natural understanding of compassion, respect, and fairness. We need your optimism and your determination to work through these complex social issues.” This is my feeble attempt to do just that.