Compassion and Reflection

By Jim Schact

The last year and a half have been a time for reflection.  I was hoping that after ten years of trying to get the house and my finances in a position where I could functionally consider myself to be separated that it would be a time for an actual social life, but I sold my house in December of 2019 as Covid-19 was incubating, and by March we were in lockdown.  I thought the Powers-That-Be were engaging in literal overkill if they didn’t want me to have a social life.

So I was forced to answer the question: “OK, what do I do now?”  I was 66 years old and lived and done things that showed who I was.  At that point I was and am not interested in trying to do things that haven’t worked, to make the same mistakes over again or to work at trying to do things I don’t really want.

Looking back with compassion I saw that however much I wanted to be someone else, to not be my parent’s child, there was no escape.  I am the grandson of orphaned abused small town strict American Baptist Sophie Schacht.  I am the son of two people – Robert Hugo Schacht and Alice Virginia Munger – that would do most anything to have a family, get out of Racine and get an education.  I am their fifth child when the hunger for education resulted in their pretty much forgetting about parenting.  I came into a family split down the middle between the religious and the not, with Sophie on the Right, Mom a liberal Baptist social justice Congregational, brother Bob Episcopalian, brother Chuck who was, well, Chuck (Janet knows), sister Anita Catholic; while Dad believed in Knowledge and Reason and brother Dick was a firm Atheist. To be joined later by basically atheist daughter Jean.  So, what could I do since I loved them all?  Be everything; and nothing.  I could neither accept a Heaven that would not allow Dick in it, nor could I completely reject anything my beloved Anita believed.  I concluded believing there was not a God as much a belief system as a belief in God, and that I don’t know whether the absence I feel since the 2016 election says something about God or me.  So I continue to sit in the middle, to listen, to not know.  And to go to Mass with Anita when I visit her.  To plan to start celebrating Chanukah with Jesse.  To continue to listen to trees and rivers and the land even though I know I am not Native American.  What I am spiritually is the living out of my childhood, rejecting Fundamentalism but trying to incorporate everything else. 

Seeing how much my childhood has formed me despite all the therapy and efforts to not be like them, I react to other’s judgments of people and groups in the past.  I believe it is a fact that every person is formed and limited by our experiences and time, and that it is both inhuman and inhumane to judge anyone outside of that context.  The issue of Indian Schools has been a prod to me, and I have reacted to the harsh judgment of many to what happened a hundred years ago or more.  I react to the judgment that feels to me like those of Grandma Sophie.  I react to those judgments because it sounds like my painful judgments of myself when I ask myself why I married her.  They didn’t know any more than I did.

People in the past are dead.  My parents are dead.  They can’t change now.  I don’t have to, and can’t, interact with them anymore so I don’t need my defenses.  I can understand them, and have more chance to forgive them, because their time is over.  I can look back and try to understand them because I am too damn mad to understand or forgive people I see as trying to destroy people and things I love now.  And if I see with dead people how their childhood affected their lives like mine affected my life maybe I can understand my foes today a bit.  And maybe some people today are like those in the past and if I understand a bit, and forgive a bit, those people in the past maybe I can understand and forgive others more today.  If we can’t understand and forgive dead people that can’t vote or do anything else to harm us today, what chance to we have to forgive live ones that can?

Part of the un-straddle-able fence involves the heart of traditional Christianity, the belief that people are going to Hell unless saved by Jesus Christ.  Different churches say that we are saved by Grace or Faith or Good Works.  Grandma Sophie gave me Hell.  Under this belief system the worst things you could say to someone were “God damn you!” and “Go to Hell!”  In this belief system it was sad but necessary that unbaptized babies went to Hell, cruelty and war were justified, and yes Indian Schools were justified if they saved children from everlasting fire.  And in this belief system many not only believed in Hell, but that there were only a certain number of places available in heaven for the elect.  My United Church of Christ minister sister-in-law was one of those.  She planned her own funeral a few years ago and made it clear that she believed that despite her adultery and the fact that she made clear that neither her mother nor her sister was welcome at her funeral, she knew her ticket to heaven was punched, that she was of the Elect.  What was going to happen to others including the atheists in the family was not a concern.  She was in.

I was born on the other side, but over time I rejected it.  Mostly.  I am not sure if you can ever completely get over the fear of Hell once it is shown to you.  I can’t remember Hell and/or Damnation ever being mentioned in Meeting.  That is one of the many reasons I am still here.  Everything looks different on this side.  What is the point of being an evangelical if you aren’t saving anyone?  Many I believe would not consider us Christian since the only hell we believe in is full of Confederate and Nazi flags, Fox news, forest fires, refugees, and global warming.  The only time I have heard anyone say either GDY or GTH is when a certain woman gets really mad at me because I don’t do what she wants.  Other than that, the very idea seems to be gone from large numbers of people’s consciousness. So many of us assume those ideas are gone.  But I don’t believe they are.   

My reflections make clear how limited I am by my life experience.  I believe compassion requires that with ourselves and other we do not condemn people for not doing things that for us or them simply were not possible.  I believe that the dead give us the gift of being done so we have the chance to understand and forgive them, and maybe in doing so open understanding of the living.  Moreover, they show us how change works so maybe we can learn from them and grow.