AFFIRMING THE PAST
One of my youth fellowship girls became a famous porn star.
She was a teen-ager, in the same class as one of my daughters, when I pastored the church in her small suburb town. She did not come to worship, nor did anyone else in her family, but she liked the sponsors of our youth fellowship, whom she knew as teachers in her school, so she came to the youth fellowship. Also, she came to me when she got into trouble.
Actually, I went to her. She ran away, and after a while ended up at an uncle’s house. They called me to come talk to her. They said she wouldn’t talk to anyone else.
I know now that teenage girls often run away because they are sexually abused. I know now that many, probably most, porn actors were sexually abused as children. It was thirty-five years ago, though, when Lisa ran away, and I knew little about why girls ran away or became porn actors. Not many other people did then, either.
She was willing to talk to me, just the two of us in the back room of her uncle’s house, while various family members hovered about in the rest of the house. She talked, but not really. I knew she was holding something back, but we could not get to it. I had the feeling that she was waiting for me to ask the right question, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
I tried to listen to her, and get her to talk about what was important to her. She told me she was interested in acting. I have always been interested in drama, too, and I have done a little acting. I said maybe the youth fellowship could form a drama group, and she could be in it. She said she thought that would be great.
I tried to form a group, without success. No one else in youth fellowship was interested in a drama group.
As soon as she graduated from high school, Lisa went to California and got into a drama group, one quite different from what we would have had in youth fellowship. She was very successful, in terms of porn acting accolades. She died in her early thirties of AIDS.
I know that I did not “fail” her. My contacts with her were marginal. I did the best I could, with limited resources. Many other people had much more influence on her, for good or for ill. But I still regret not being able to form that drama group. I still wonder if her life might have turned out differently if she’d been able to act in church instead of in front of a cheap camera.
Dealing with regret is a major issue for older people. We have been through a lot, and failed in at least some of it. We have done things we should not have done and not done things we should have done.
Occasionally I hear someone reflecting on his or her life and saying, “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
If you have no regrets and would not change a thing, what in the world is wrong with you? You’re just a damned fool! You have not learned a thing! Where is the so-called wisdom of age if you couldn’t do it better the second time?
Erik Erikson says that old age is the stage of final integrity vs despair. We cannot change what has been. If we cannot affirm the lives we have lived, despair is our only option.
Affirming your life, however, is very different from having no regrets. I do not think you can affirm your life if you have no regrets. The only way you can have no regrets is by denying your past. You did do some things wrong, and if you are not sorry about that, you are simply denying reality. Or you are an old sociopath. And everybody knows there’s no sociopath like an old sociopath. [Okay, the actual saying is: “There’s no fool like an old fool.” But it means the same thing.]
Affirmation of the past means accepting reality. I heard the story of a man who was new in town. He visited from church to church, but none of them seemed quite right. One Sunday he arrived at a church a little late and got in just as they were intoning the prayer of confession: We have done those things we ought not to have done, and not done those things we should have done. He breathed a sigh of relief and said, “My kind of people at last!”
I have plenty of regrets. I hurt feelings. I took wrong positions. I was cowardly and kept silent when I should have stood up for the truth and justice. I neglected people I should have cared for. I said a lot of stupid things. I told jokes when I should have kept my mouth shut. I did not form a youth fellowship drama group. If I could, I would change many things. Still, I affirm who I have been, warts and all, regrets and all, because I know God forgives me, and so I can forgive myself.
Paul Tillich said that forgiveness doesn’t change the facts, but it changes the meaning of the facts.
To affirm the past, we must accept forgiveness for our mistakes. First we have to admit that we made mistakes.
John Robert McFarland
“Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of doubt.” Rollo May