Dad made me memorize a bible verse when I was 8 or 9. Matthew 5:16. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Mom left when I was seven. My father raised my sister and me on his own. Read about my childhood in my book Determined Weeds. It was unstable.
One of Dad's parenting strategies was to take Christie and me to the movies. It was the 80's. John Candy, Steve Martin, Tom Cruise, that sort of thing. This was a good way for our little, unstable family of three to kill time without killing each other. I remember driving to the movie theatre in Mound, Minnesota one night. I sat in the backseat of one of Dad's Ford Thunderbirds. Dad had a Ford Thunderbird phase. My sister was in the front seat. Dad was, among other things, zealous. He was compelled to teach us Matthew 5:16 one evening. So he did.
The gist of the verse is simple. Our souls should be right. They should be a light. Regardless of what we say or do, our souls always give us away. People are smart. They know whether we are light or darkness. And so if our souls are darkness, even if we say or do lightening things, people know what we really are. B.S. is B.S. I say this to my students all the time when I give out writing assignments. I know whether or not they really invested in the work. I can sniff out artificial writing.
Light and dark are terms laden with all sorts of ideology. I get that. But I also think there's ways to know whether people - I'll use an idea from improv here - affirm or negate. Affirming feels healthy. Negating? Not so much. Destruction. I'm not saying people can't disagree with each other. I'm saying that people either build or destroy when they are with each other. And destruction never feels right to me. Darkness.
Anyway, I was and remain a shy introvert. You'd never guess this if you saw me on stage at an improv show, giving a talk, or teaching a class, but I'd just as soon be by myself. Reading books. Writing rambling blogs. You get it. So, as a child, the verse Dad had us memorize horrified me. Let me light shine? C'mon, man. I don't want people looking at me.
But I know something of whether or not I am light or darkness. I've been darkness in so many of my interactions with people. With the world. I can't deny it. Destruction has seeped out of me at the expense of others. And, even if people hurt me first, I've learned that it only hurts more when I retaliate in even the slightest of the ways. This doesn't mean I have agree with everything everybody tells me. It also doesn't mean I have to give in and roll over when I feel wronged. But I'm capable of being affirmational to others. And, at 38, I want to be better at that. It feels childish to rage and lash out. It feels wise to affirm, understand, and move on. Light.
This memory of memorizing Matthew 5:16 returned to me last week. Dad and his wife Kathy came to visit. Houseguest are always work, but it is a rare treat for me to spend time with Dad. The boys only get to see their grandfather on rare occasions. And of course we're older now. Dad is 71. I'm 38. There's less time on this plane to be together, fro sure. So I appreciated having my father around, entangled in my life. Dad's zealousness has only increased with age. So he prayed for my little family before he left. The words to Matthew 5:16 came out in the prayer, and I found myself returning to childhood. Returning to a deeper question. Am I light or am I darkness? I found myself tearing up as Dad finished praying, as I hugged him and said goodbye, not knowing if or when I'd see him out here again. God knows he looks good for 71, but what are we ever guaranteed?
Light and darkness make me think of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Or of Richard Wright's memoir "Black Boy." Whether we are religious or not, we have a choice about what we are in relation to the creation, in relation to each other, even in relation to ourselves. I'm ashamed of all the times I've settled for darkness. For destruction. That's what the book I recently finished drafting (and am currently shopping) is about. Building instead of destroying. I use stories from school to think through this idea. Ultimately, I want to be better.
I'll keep working it out, I guess. What else can we do?