Love What Survives

The past several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Brock Turner. (If you need a refresher on who he is, look here.) My interest in his case has to do with suffering: who gets to claim the space of the cross? When Turner’s father wrote that he no longer enjoyed ribeye steaks the way he once had, the internet erupted in scorn: surely his suffering is nothing compared to that of the woman (I’ll call her Emily Doe) he sexually assaulted while she was unconscious behind a frat house dumpster. “Poor baby,” went the ridicule: Turner’s suffering was weighed against the cross and found wanting. [fn1]

Emily Doe, meanwhile, was the heroine of the feminist internet for the statement she read at Turner’s sentencing, in which she thoroughly and eloquently castigated him for failing to perceive her as a human being and treat her accordingly. She made her own suffering publicly visible in a way that the trial could not, and she did so in a potent attempt to reclaim her dignity from the abjection of that night. She was claiming the space of the cross for herself, as a way of validating her own experience, but also of calling the person who crucified her to account.

What’s interesting here, though, is that Emily Doe takes Turner’s suffering seriously, commiting the very heresy for which the internet mocked his father: “See one thing we have in common is that we were both unable to get up in the morning.” Or, further: “Nobody wins. We have all been devastated, we have all been trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering.” Further still, she takes an explicit interest in Turner’s redemption: “I hope you will become a better more honest person who can properly use this story to prevent another story like this from ever happening again. I fully support your journey to healing, to rebuilding your life, because that is the only way you’ll begin to help others.”

Whereas Turner’s father was trying to argue that he had already suffered enough and therefore should only get probation, lest he never recover from the trauma of this incident, Doe also wants him to live a meaningful and productive life, but she believes that his path to that end requires that he face the horror he committed. So she, from her perch on the cross, invites him to look and live.

I’ve come to believe that Doe had a higher estimation of Turner than his own father did: Turner’s father asked the judge to go easy, because his son was fragile, but Doe believed that Turner could survive an encounter with the full horror of his actions. Beyond that, she believed that the only life worth living for him lay on the other side of that encounter. Remarkably, she loved him enough to give him the fierce critique that he so justly deserved.

It’s easy to look at the horror in the world and believe that we’re all damned, that humanity just plain sucks, and that there is no escaping our propensity for being awful and cruel to each other. Evidence for this position is so abundant that I can’t fault anyone for taking it up.

Even so, my faith is in what survives, what’s left over after death and darkness have done their worst. There are so many people I love on whom death and darkness have done a real number, plus an encore or two (or three or four). And yet I see so much grace at work in them, in part because they have managed to find words of comfort and kindness for others even as they were sinking in the mire of their own private hells. Something survives, and I think that even if the darkness gets you and you die, that grace is not extinguished. A kind word or small act of love lives on in someone else: I cannot believe that all of the goodness in the world can die out, and as long as it’s there, something of you lives on in it. So no, we aren’t all damned. We are all beautiful and alive, in spite of everything (and I mean EVERYTHING).

And I think that all we can do in this godawful world is to love what survives in other people however we can. I’m learning that this often requires a touch so gentle as to be almost imperceptible, because what survives in us is hardy, but it also tends to be wounded almost to the quick and terribly, terribly afraid. I don’t yet know how to be that tender: I strain to imagine it, but I sense its possibility. I get this kind of love wrong all the time—in part because it’s almost impossible to get right—but I trust that love is there whether I live up to it or not. Love is what survives, finally. And what survives in us is that which love will never let go, because it cannot and still be love.

Part of me believes that even Satan (if such a being exists) will be saved this way, because God’s love is tender enough and patient enough to stay present for as long as it takes. I suppose that metaphysically I believe that Being itself cannot resist love indefinitely, that on some level Being needs to be loved and will eventually answer its nature. I mean, isn’t that what Herbert’s poetry is all about, in the end? “My child.” [fn2]

Love doesn’t magically solve anything. Death and darkness go on doing their thing, unabated and utterly unchecked. But something survives. My favorite thing about Tracy’s book was its tenderness toward David, its refusal to reduce him to his addictions and the hurt they caused, its insistence on reminding readers that there really was something lovable about this man who caused so much harm and pain. He was more than the demons that killed him, and Tracy’s love for that more is so clear and good.

We love in others (and in ourselves) that which death cannot kill. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a man I’d never met before and will likely never see again. A mutual friend introduced us, and we talked for the twenty minutes we had. He grew up in Provo, and when he came out as gay, his family kicked him out of the house, so he’s been living as a street person for some time. At one point I said to him that love can be the hardest thing. He looked at me and said something like, “No. Love is the easiest thing. We want to do it: it’s our nature. We just have to let ourselves.”

I think that he was right: love isn’t the hardest thing. No, the hardest thing is letting ourselves love and be loved, which paradoxically means relaxing our hands from the myriad ways that we cling to the hope of love, as though it would fail without our efforts to prop it up. We want it and we hunger for it, but we’re so terribly scared. We have to learn to love what survives in others, but also in ourselves, which can be very difficult in the face of an intimate acquaintance with the abyss between our good intentions and our actual capacity to do the right thing.

Can we love our own failure enough to discover that some living thing endures amidst its ashes? Can we love the haggard but persistent creature that emerges, barely, from that smoking ruin? Can we discern her cousins in the people around us? Perhaps then we might find in our own hearts some small way of being tender enough to meet the fear in others and in ourselves, to say “It’s okay; I’m here” gently enough and long enough for the fear and hurt and anger to melt away, until what survives is at long last willing to risk looking us in the eyes. Then, maybe then, we might know and be known, finally and mercifully free of all the deaths, both grand and petty, that once stood between us.

Circling back to Doe and Turner, the #metoo campaign seems to me to be all about what survives. The women sharing their stories, like Doe, are affirming that the varied forms of sexualized personal destruction directed at them have not, finally, succeeded, as if to say, “After all that you have done to us, we’re still here: people demanding to be seen as such.” [fn3] The question now is whether we men believe that we can survive sincerely hearing what women are saying. Do we have the courage to find the new life that lies on the other side of our collective failure? Can we lay aside our instinctive defensiveness and embrace our failure, knowing that only if we take that failure to heart will we learn that it never really defined us?

I will admit that my faith on this point is shaky at best; nevertheless, I go on in faith. After all, Jesus embraced the cross, and with it the failure of the hopes that people had vested in him. (Familiarity has diminished the scandal of a crucified God.) For me, the message of the cross is this: stop crucifying people. If we want the world that Jesus promised us, we have to stop doing to others what we all did to him. He absorbed our doing it to him, because he loves us enough to believe that the ferocious witness he could give from the cross—there was no other way—might change our hearts. And then he rose again, so that we could see the new life on the other side of this encounter with ourselves as crucifiers.

I believe that we can find this new life, but we can only find it together. Shall we walk on?

Notes

[fn1] To see the letter from Turner’s father, go to p. 48 here.

[fn2] I’m thinking in particular of “The Collar.”

[fn3] Men and boys have, of course, also experienced sexual abuse and violence. There’s room to acknowledge their experience while also recognizing the disproportionate way that these things happen to women. LGBTQ folks also face a lot of it, and we should take their stories seriously, too. As for #notallmen, look: I’m a decent guy, too, and I’ve always tried to treat women with respect. Even so, I can recognize my own complicity in the problems that women I love are describing. I was always one of the good ones, and I still have need of repentance. If you really are that good, why be defensive about it? Surely there’s always room to learn to love better. God knows that’s the case for me.

Comments

  1. Neal Kramer says:

    “Love doesn’t magically solve anything.” The deep pain of true remorse and the fear of punishment or discovery it produces is a refiner’s fire. No magic here. No slap on the wrist. Profound reshaping and burning away the self-imposed suffering of the wicked hoping to be cleansed in the blood of the Lamb. Thanks, Jason.

  2. Jason,

    Thank you for being a good ally. An exemplary one, really. Allyship is hard. It means that when the people you seek to ally yourself with speak about their lived experience, their experience trumps yours. End of story. This is a hard thing for many, many men to accept. Humility and male-ness don’t always walk hand in-hand, and in a culture like ours, this can be especially true. But thank you, thank you for being vulnerable, for allowing that you’re not perfect, for owning there are things about the female experience you don’t understand or may have wrong, and thank you for listening.

    Sometimes being a woman is exhausting. Men make often make it so. Thank you for not being one of those men today.

    Thank you for trying to be not one of those men ever. It makes women like me who read your words feel a little less crazy.

  3. Thanks, Jason. Very nicely expressed.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Beautiful stuff, Jason.

  5. A wonderful essay, Jason.

    So no, we aren’t all damned. We are all beautiful and alive, in spite of everything (and I mean EVERYTHING).

    I agree with the second sentence. I think the “everything” you call for us to love, or rather to be open to loving and being loved by–“Can we love our own failure enough to discover that some living thing endures amidst its ashes?”; that’s a wonderful invocation of Isaiah 61:3 there–includes our damnation. I suppose we could get into a terminological argument about how various theological concepts are to be defined, and in all likelihood we, as usual, don’t really disagree, but for my own self-understanding, I stick with damnation. Simul justus et peccator, damned by sin and justified by grace, simultaneously.

  6. Beautifully put, Jason. Thanks for posting this.

    I agree, Russell, that we are all damned, and it is that damnation that makes salvation meaningful. And I think that’s really what Jason is saying about idea that grace in its fullness is only found on the other side of the cross. Instead of justifying ourselves and denying our damnation–minimizing our sin, we have to accept it in all its horror. And it’s then that grace comes most powerfully, as a thing unlooked for–a thing that we may have hoped for, but knew that by all right, justice, and nature, we couldn’t deserve. But then God surprises us by giving it to us anyway.

  7. Very good points nicely stated. We need continuing book of Mormon research.

  8. “No, the hardest thing is letting ourselves love and be loved, which paradoxically means relaxing our hands from the myriad ways that we cling to the hope of love, as though it would fail without our efforts to prop it up. We want it and we hunger for it, but we’re so terribly scared. We have to learn to love what survives in others, but also in ourselves, which can be very difficult in the face of an intimate acquaintance with the abyss between our good intentions and our actual capacity to do the right thing.”

    This absolutely floored me today with the power of the truth. Thank you for a marvelous, beautiful post.

  9. I found this post very powerful in a number of ways. First, when the assault case was in the news I remember being very discouraged by the deep unfairness of the rhetoric surrounding Brock Turner and the woman he raped, but you’ve managed to help me reinterpret the situation, and to see Emily Doe being able to see clearly, speak truly, and make meaning. Next, I’m not sure how you did it, but I found myself thinking as I read, “maybe this is something I can get a grip on–maybe this is how I begin to make some changes that I didn’t know how to approach.” In other words, you give me hope that I can move forward. Profoundest thanks.

  10. I love you my friend.

  11. Absolutely beautiful, powerful use of crucifixion, and Christ’s invitation to take up the cross. In particular the message “stop crucifying people”. The is the deep, painful call of redemption.

  12. Thank you Jason. True and moving ideas here.

  13. This reminds me of why I’m a Christian. Thank you.

  14. This is gorgeous. I just got around to it. Thank you, JK.

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