Haunted by My Past
May 21, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Some days I’m haunted by my past. Mostly in ways I don’t appreciate. Decisions I wish I could decide differently. Roads not taken. And others taken unwisely. Resolves I wish I’d maintained.
Not that I don’t like the life I have (or the wife or the kids or the grandkids!). But having largely fallen through the cracks of anything that might be called a career—in a society that values people (men especially) by the income or status associated with a career—there are more days than I care to acknowledge when those values that disvalue me get inside my own head.
I feel like Mr. Holland, with no Opus in sight. (In the 1996 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Glenn Holland is an aspiring composer whose long hours and dedication as a teacher so delay his progress on the symphony he’s writing that, even as he nears completion, he despairs of ever getting it performed. On the day he retires his wife has managed to secretly share the musical score with a host of former students who surprise him by re-assembling in the high school auditorium and playing the premiere of his symphony. But, of course, his “real” opus is all the lives he touched along the way.)
I was an aspiring teacher when the film came out. In grad school at Notre Dame, training for a career in academia, I imagined myself doing both things: leaving my mark on the field of theology and ethics and shaping the minds and lives of a generation of students. But that career never happened. A patchwork of teaching jobs, yes. But no career. No mark. And, ultimately, no teaching.
No wonder that some days sixty has an anxious edge to it.
But there are days I’m haunted by a different past. Monday was one such occasion. I received an email auto-notification that I had a new patron (somebody pledging monthly support for my writing via Patreon). I didn’t recognize the name, so I sent a short note of welcome and thanks and asked a couple simple questions about how they’d found their way to my writing and why they were keen to support it.
Turns out they were a former student of mine. From fourteen years ago, which only mildly lessens the embarrassment of not recognizing their name. They recounted a handful of significant insights they’d learned in my classroom more than a decade ago. The absolute and utter graciousness of God; the deep humanity and scandalous boundary-breaking of Jesus; and an affirmation of sexual wholeness across a range of diverse expression. Learning that helped reset the shape their life.
But more than this, they recalled an instance in which I offered a concrete unexpected kindness in a semester that had been emotionally brutal for them. It was so unexpected and so concrete that it stood out as a moment that was transformative for the soul. And now they were happy to be in a place to pay it forward now. (Truth be told—that semester was emotionally brutal for me as well. I was plummeting into a hellish court battle over my presence in my daughter’s life—and that fall I was getting slaughtered.)
And yet—this is the past that haunted me on Monday. Moving through my work that semester, too many days in a daze drenched with heartache, I managed a level of kindness that touched this student’s soul, even when I was too bone-weary to notice. I suppose that’s character: when the grace and compassion you teach become manifest in mundane acts that don’t even register for you but which are in fact redemptive for others.
I don’t say that to brag. The anxious edge of navigating my competing senses of value and vocation at age sixty doesn’t allow for that. But to be reminded—and so out of the blue—that even at one of my own low points, I managed to live up to my inward convictions, well, that’s a grace I could stand to be haunted by now and then. Not to make my life easier, but to help me lean well—and with compassion and grace—into tomorrow.
So, you know who you are. From the depths of my soul: thanks.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.