Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

Dealing with Death and Despair

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Writing tributes has become one of those things that I’ve done.  It feels right as a way that I can give back to those who have positively contributed to my life.  It is said, “a person dies twice: once when they draw their last breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.”  So, by writing, I feel like I’m extending the legacy of those whom have lived as an example and deserve to be remembered.

My thoughts were to do the same for my cousin Uriah.  To honor him as someone who was there for me, as the brother who selflessly cared for his special needs siblings, as the young man mature beyond his years looking to contribute to society in a positive way, as a listening ear and true friend during some of my darkest days, as someone who never complained about being dealt a very nasty card and had every right to the question God.

A picture from Moyer Christmas a few years ago

So far I’ve collapsed under the weight of the task.  There is simply no way to put into words or adequately describe the loss of a close friend.  The other tributes I’ve written were for those who had basically lived a full life and, more importantly, cases where I could take a step back from the subject to capture their character.  I’m simply not skilled enough as writer to give a summary of someone who meant so much to me.

But, still, since his death is something that occupies my mind and since grieving is a process that most have experienced, I’ll write about my own experiences with him and the feelings that I’m currently sorting out.  I’ve decided to talk about death and despair.  And not with anything glowy to offer as an alternative either.  And yet also not as someone who is defeated or ready to succumb to hopelessness.  Yes, I’m battling with some depression, but down does not mean defeated.

Anyhow, the blog from here will be in two parts.  First the events of the past couple of years from my own perspective.  Then, after that, going back a little further for some additional stories about my interactions with Uriah and why this has brought back some of the identity related questions and traumas that has been the overall theme of Irregular Ideation.  It is relationships that define and show the depths of what a person is.  Hopefully by sharing from my own eyes it will be easier to understand what manner of man Uriah was.

The Strange Lump On Uriah’s Ankle

After finishing up at Bloomsburg University, Uriah decided to enlist.  I’m not sure why exactly, he was always up to a challenge, the National Guard was a way to serve his country and give back, and it was always something to put on the resume.  I’ve always flirted with the idea, despite being raised in a conservative Mennonite culture that preached against military service, the structure appealed to me.  But, unlike me, Uriah followed through.

A rare picture of Uriah without a smile.

He excelled in basic training.  He was motivated and willing to put in the work to be at the top of his class.  One testament to this tenacious spirit was that a painful lump developed on his ankle.  Uriah, unlike a ‘normal’ person, decided to continue with his training rather quit to get immediate medical attention.  He reasoned that it was better this than to repeat basic and simply endured.  I’m doubtful this made much difference as far as the final outcome, but it did mean that he was active duty military during the fight and received the very best care possible.

It was when he came home, over the winter, to visit family and get this lump checked out that I first heard about it.  I decided to visit over this time and it was definitely concerning.  Still, I was optimistic, I had had a lump removed from my shoulder area before, my sister had a tumor in her abdomen removed, and there was no reason to despair about this.  We would wait on the results of the biopsy and pray for the best in the meantime.

We would soon find out that this tumor was malignant and when chemo didn’t do enough, the choice was given: Allow the to cancer spread or amputate.  Uriah elected to do the unimaginable for most young and active people.  He had his leg removed below the knee.  This was hard enough for me.  I couldn’t possibly imagine having to make this kind of decision.  To go from runner, weight lifter, and athlete, to having to learn how to walk again!

Some nifty attachments
Me trying to be positive, like Uriah

But Uriah, for lack of a better expression, took this huge setback in stride and committed to physical therapy.  It felt very fortunate too that he was in the military, Walter Reed is a prosthetics leader and he very proudly showed me the attachments available that would eventually enable him to run again.  Besides this, he also had the wonderful Shanae in his life, and knowing my lifelong struggles in the romance department, this was something significant for me.  Lumps, and loss of limbs, life goes on.

The Terrible News, Moments Bittersweet

A little over a year ago, and about a year after losing his leg, soon after Uriah’s new normal began to slip from my daily prayers, came the awful news: The cancer was back, this time it was in his lungs and the prognosis was not good.  My heart sank.  And tears flowed.  Uriah would not be with us for much longer and there was very little that could be some about it.

Still, I would not allow this dark cloud plunge me into despair.  If we couldn’t save Uriah then we would give him a most glorious send off imaginable.  My imagination ran wild with ideas, a day that would be unforgettable, with my brother flying him and faking an emergency landing in a nearby city where us cousins would be waiting to whisk him away in a waiting limo, maybe a mock car chase with him in the passenger seat of my Shelby, with police in on the fun in pursuit around the closed airport, me yelling “we only live once!”

Alas, that was never meant to be.  Uriah needed medical treatment more than a memorable adventure, the pandemic shutdowns followed soon thereafter (briefly changing the mood from: “Oh no, Uriah’s going to die” to “Oh no, we’re all gonna die!) and then his marriage to Shanae.  That last item being a far better send off than this bachelor and a bunch of crazy cousins could provide.

A handsome couple

The last year with Uriah served to highlight his bravery even against these impossible odds.  Uriah, even with late stage lung cancer, refused to stop living his life and made time to be with those who loved him most.  On multiple occasions, when the restaurants were still open, we dined out together.  Me and him or joined by friends and cousins.  These are some of the most beautiful and cherished moments of a very stressful and emotionally draining year.

However, of those moments, one shines above the rest.  Uriah, probably only because he was Uriah, asked me if he could come visit my church sometime.  Of course, I was thrilled by this, that he would think of this, and soon the arrangements were made.  Nobody seeing him that day would have guessed he was terminally ill.  He looked as strong and vital as ever.  The highlights when Father Seraphim, who I had ambushed together with Uriah, agreed to anoint him and pray for healing.  I also had the opportunity to take Uriah on one more ride in the Shelby on the way home.

In the week that followed the anointing something amazing happened.  A text message from Uriah with the first good news since his lung cancer and prognosis were revealed.  The tumors had shrunk!  Could it be possible?

But this relief would only be temporary and the next time I would see my cousin he was no longer looking so invulnerable.

Over Thanksgiving Uriah, his condition already deteriorated, became infected with the Covid-19 virus.  He was not doing bad from what I had been told.  Unfortunately, after walking into the hospital, he was soon put on a ventilator and his loved ones told he would likely never be taken off of it.  Still, my courageous friend had yet one more trick up his sleeve.  He ended up, at some point, ripping the ventilator out and was breathing well enough on his own.  It was fantastic.  I prayed he would be able to go home and he was going home.

My optimism remained until my last meeting with him.  I figured as long as he was fighting I would keep hoping for that miracle. 

I had not been able to see him for months, partially due to my own bout with Covid-19, and also because he was under the care of his parents and Shanae.  I may have missed the opportunity to see him entirely had it not been for my cousin David declaring that he didn’t think Uriah wanted visitors.  I thought to myself, “we’ll see about that,” and I sent a text message soon thereafter.  Uriah told me he wanted to see me and directed me to Shanae, I asked if David and another friend Derek could accompany me.  We planned for the next Saturday.

I had known, with the cancer spreading throughout his body and now unable to walk because of diminished lung capacity, that Uriah wouldn’t be an image of health.  Still, actually seeing him was a little jarring, he looked rough, and I realized that, even if the lastest longshot treatment option would work out, there was irreparable damage.  It was a struggle for him to breath.  But he still ate a slice or two of the pizza that I had brought.  It was their wedding anniversary and an honor to be able to be there despite the circumstances.

Four friends in better times

When David and Derek said their goodbyes, they offered a fist bump.  But it did not seem appropriate.  I offered a hand shake, I wanted to clasp his hand and look him in the eyes.  My last words to him were to tell him how proud I was of him.  It was only a few days later that I received a phone call during the day from David.  Uriah had passed away that morning.   We had done we could, he fought like a true warrior, never complaining or falling to despair.  He died short of his twenty-fifth birthday.

The Time Uriah Asked Me For Advice

I am a good bit older than Uriah.  I can’t remember exactly how and when our relationship took off.  But he had his own unique version of the Moyer cousin humor and a rare determination.  I recall him out running, as teenager, with bricks in the backpack he was wearing.  He wanted to be the best at what he did and put the work in too.  He was a decent athlete, played basketball and soccer, and I knew he was becoming a man when I could no longer take him in a wrestling match.

When Uriah enrolled in Bloomsburg University, I had very little doubt in his abilities.  He was extremely intelligent, someone mature beyond his years, and thus it came as a bit of a surprise when he reached out to me asking for advice.  We met at Weaver’s for some pizza and ice cream.  And when there he expressed his doubts.  He was thinking about dropping out and wanted to get my opinion.

Of course, as one who has long struggled with feelings of having buried my talents, having quit college before obtaining a degree, to open I urged, “don’t be like your loser cousin!”  I went on to explain the lifelong benefits of a degree, my own regrets, and encouraged him to continue on pursuing his dreams.  

Uriah would go on, finish that first year, and continue through the next year.  He was on the Dean’s list, evidently a good student, and would graduate with his criminal justice degree.  It was something that made me immensely proud, especially that I had a small part in his success, and it seemed as if even the sky wasn’t the limit for him.  He had done the thing that I failed to do.  Not only that, but he had met Shanae while on campus and there was a budding romance between them.

Taken from Uriah’s Facebook page

As I look back my feelings are mixed.  On one hand, my advice came with an assumption that he would live a long life, that his degree would open career opportunities.  Uriah never did get that far, he never had an actual career, so what was the point of all that hard-work and discipline?  My nihilism creeps in.  As the book of Ecclesiastes begins: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  But, on the other hand, and as if to throw a wrench in my despair, had Uriah quit he would not have Shanae to accompany him during the last two years.

The Friend That I Didn’t Want

I’m a very idealistic person and loyal too.  I remember my plans, as a child, to eventually live with my brother Kyle.  I mean, we were peas in a pod, we understood each other, why would we ever go our separate ways, right?  But, eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that my siblings, including Kyle, are very motivated people and were destined to have their own lives away from me.  Our childhood together a passing phase and not permanent.  It’s tough, yet necessary for progress.

However, having learned this, I was not prepared for what happened when a close friend, a wingman for many years, got married.  I’m not sure what happened, but right after his wedding he basically disappeared.  And, after the first efforts to reconnect failed, I decided that he simply didn’t need the relationship anymore and had moved on.  To this day his wife is the only person who has shown any interest in maintaining a connection and it truly is baffling to me.  Is this normal behavior?  Should I be concerned?

Anyhow, this friendship of over a decade that vanished overnight left me wondering what friendship really is?  It also made me wary of making such an investment ever again.  If someone like this other friend could completely abandon our relationship, effectively ghost me, was it truly worth becoming connected at this level again?   I almost felt lonelier having lost a friend, my romantic life wasn’t helping that, and when someone else started to emerge as a friend (Uriah) I wrote the following in a journal:

Uriah is a faithful something.  I suppose he is a friend, although I don’t know if I want any friends really, not after [omitted].  I feel antisocial, I am sick of people and yet would not fare well alone.  Last weekend proof of that.

I was dealing with many things at the time, in rehab and off of work because of a knee injury, and still reeling from the loss of a friendship.  Once bitten, twice shy, right?  I was reluctant to allow someone else to become close.  I felt better to be in control, to keep some safe distance between myself and other people.  

Nevertheless, a stronger bond did continue to develop between Uriah and myself, he was capable of intelligent discussion, completely trustworthy, and never judged me.  My ideations, given the feelings of betrayal, were extremely dark and it was safe to express them with him.  He helped me to not take them, or even myself, too seriously and provided a bit of a reprieve.  And when I holed up he persisted.  There were times we sat quietly together.  I knew that he cared.

When I left the Mennonite church many of the people that I spent years with made no attempt to connect.  There were so many relationships pursued and never reciprocated.  Or, when there was relationship it was forced, a part of their religious duty and not real.  Uriah was always genuine, like I try to be, and was never going to be a fairweather friend like so many others.  That’s what makes it so especially hard to lose him in a manner completely unexpected.  

He’s the friend that I didn’t want because losing friends is too painful.  In the weeks following his death my desire was to withdrawal, avoid intimate relationships, and protect against future disappointment.  Of course, avoiding pain and risk is not a way to live and in the intervening weeks I’ve started to force myself to reengage.  I can’t bring Uriah back, he’s gone.  But there’s no point in joining him in the grave.

The Questions That Cannot Be Answered

The hardest part of Uriah’s death is where it leaves his parents.  Ed and Judy are two of the hardest working and most dedicated parents I know.  And for reasons we’ll never know three of their four children suffered terrible seizures.  Renita Gail, I carried out to the cemetery on a cold day many years ago.  Uriah’s two remaining siblings, Aleah and Isaiah, have not developed beyond a certain point and require constant care.

My wonderful aunt Judy

It goes without saying that there were many hopes that evaporated with the passing of Uriah.  He was the strong and healthy son, someone more than willing to help with Aleah and Isaiah, and now he’s gone.  It is unfair.  There is no way to understand why misfortune visits some.  Perhaps that is why the book of Job was written?  To put to end this notion that people get what they deserve only good things happen to good people?

There is nothing I can offer that will come close replacing a young man who was my better in so many ways.  It would be silly to even try, he was one of a kind, tall and handsome.  He got the intelligence and work ethic from both of his parents.  He had the compassionate heart of his mother and quirky humor of his father.  He was their legacy, the one who was supposed to carry the Derstine name and support them in their old age.  

Uncle Ed with Uriah

Being a pallbearer for Uriah was a great honor.  However, carrying that casket up that icy hill, like I had with Renita many years before, came with the burden of the many unanswerable questions.  I won’t even attempt to answer.  But maybe if I have another son, I’ll name him Uriah Edward and tell him someday about my cousin, my aunt and uncle.  I have not heard one complaint from them Uriah’s parents.  They feel the loss more than anyone else and yet their resolve to trust God is encouraging to those of us with our many questions.

A very cold day

Dealing with death isn’t easy, especially not when it is someone so undeserving and special.  I’ve been battling against depression and despair over the past few weeks, despite having a year to prepare, and I suppose it would be strange to feel nothing in such circumstances?  But I don’t plan to linger here.  I acknowledge the feelings, I lost a friend, a rare kind of individual.  There will never be another Uriah.  There are no easy answers.  But I will try to carry the legacy of Uriah as far as I am able.

Uriah E. Derstine

March 15, 1996 — February 4th, 2021

Memory eternal!