Sunday, December 19, 2021

Old Wounds - Revisited #metoo

As a child I attended a Christian church with my family. As I grew older I did question some of the specific teachings, practices and beliefs. However, overall,  I believed that being a “Good Christian” meant being a “Good Person”; being kind, loving, accepting, patient and helpful to everyone I encountered and always trying to do the right thing… Just like the examples from the Bible of how Jesus treated all the people from various walks of life that he encountered with love and acceptance. I wanted to be like that. 

I also got the distinct message, from my parents and the church in general, that the church should be like an extension of the family… and that, for the most part, we should keep things within the family. Although we should be kind to “others” we should only trust members of our own faith. I was sent to Christian schools and encouraged to socialize with and eventually date only other Christians. My parents were not shy in expressing their strong preference that someday I should marry a nice Christian man who was a member of the same faith as we were. 

However, please let me clarify, this is not a story about the pros and cons of Religion or any particular Spiritual belief system. I am not about to launch into any kind of religious discussion or debate. I only am bringing up the church and my state of questioning to establish the context in which the events I’m about to share with you occurred. 

Although certain aspects of this story may sound a lot like it is yet another “ME TOO MOVEMENT” inspired story of sexual misconduct by an adult man in a position of power upon a young woman. However it is not my intention to “cancel” anyone, tarnish anyone’s reputation or cast blame, but perhaps to learn something of value. 

I have been carful not to mention any names. I share this story in hopes that we all can strive to be more compassionate in the way we treat one another. I share this in an effort to manifest healing, not only for myself but for the countless others out there who have experienced something similar.  This is my story about my own personal experience of being deeply disappointed and hurt be someone I trusted, not once but twice. 

It all began when I was only about 18 or perhaps 19 years old. I had recently graduated from high school and I was just beginning my college life. My relationship with my high school sweetheart had come to an end. I was still feeling a bit heart broken over that breakup, but I had picked myself up, dusted myself off and was trying to navigate the dating scene once again. 

There was a man from my home church who was often in the role of leading programs for children and teens. He was a very popular charismatic camp leader who volunteered his time and energy a few weeks during the summers to bring fun activities to the kids at a church sponsored summer camp. He also led the teen Sabbath school class at my church. I believe he was in his early to mid thirties at the time. He was married to a very lovely young woman, and had two young children. 

Naturally I was happy and a bit flattered when he seemed to take me under his wing. He told me he believed I had leadership potential. He encouraged me to get more involved in planning activities for the youth division of our church. 

We did start spending a bit more time together, but it was all totally innocent; talking, mostly about planning potential youth activities. However I did confide in him once about some boyfriend troubles I was having. I thought that as an older man who had recently navigated all this dating stuff and apparently successfully managed to get through it all, got married and start a family, he might have some useful advice and wisdom to pass on to me. He did seem to be sympathetic, and told me that he thought the guy was being an idiot… which of course I appreciated.  

When one day he suggested we meet up at a restaurant, I genuinely assumed it was to discuss church youth activities. Perhaps that was very naive of me, But I was still just a young inexperienced teenager! As it turns out, he had something else in mind. 

He began the conversation by singing my praises, complimenting me, and talking about all the qualities about me that he found so appealing and attractive. He talked about how foolish the young man, that I was interested in at the time, was for not seeing how extraordinary I was, and for not treating me better. He also mentioned that he knew how to treat a woman right. When he leaned in close to me, like he was about to kiss me, I put it together that he was trying to make a case for why HE would make a better boyfriend / lover for me than any of these immature idiotic young guys I had been trying to date.

Before anything really happened I pulled away. I was genuinely startled! I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember that I said NO! I turned down his advances very abruptly… without any hesitation. I noticed that he seemed to be quite surprised… and then really angry that I had turned him down. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe it. When he asked me why I agreed to meet with him, I told him that I thought we were meeting to talk about my role in youth leadership for the church. 

He laughed at me, with one of those sarcastic laughs, like he suddenly realized I was a stupid child, or thought perhaps I was joking.  I stated a bit more forcefully this time, that I really didn’t realize that he had any romantic interest in me. I also told him that I had no interest in dating him… I pointed out that he was not only much older than me, but that he was a married man… with young children… and that I had no interest in dating a married man! 

His whole demeanor and tone suddenly changed, as if I had tricked him. He started to, very loudly, say all kinds of mean hurtful things to me, accusing me of being a TEASE! He insinuated that I was the one who started this by flirting with him. He yelled at me that I wasn’t so innocent, that I HAD to have known why he invited me to meet him at that restaurant. 

His words stung… and I felt suddenly terrified when I saw the fire in his eyes. I also felt  embarrassed and stupid for not recognizing what was happening sooner, before I had agreed to meet with him. I had a flood of emotions at the time; including deep disappointment, hurt, disgusted, anger, shame, humiliation, horror… However, thankfully I kept calm and did what I believe was the right thing to do in that moment. I got up and walked away from him. I got into my car, heart pounding in my chest and drove away. 

I never spoke to that man again. I never returned to that church either… and eventually I decided that I didn’t want to be a member of any such church. I knew I felt betrayed that a man who was supposed to be a leader in the church, that I trusted and looked up to, had tried to engage me in something that was clearly wrong by any standards, and most definitely would be considered a “sin” by God and the church!  

I didn’t fully understand why this felt so much worse than times I had turning down unwanted sexual advance from someone my own age, until perhaps years later when I recognize the power differential. All I knew at the time was that I had looked up to him for advice and guidance as an elder of the church. I thought he saw my potential and wanted to help me, to mentor me. I thought our friendship was all aboveboard. But all that was crushed in an instant, and it left me feeling so dirty, so confused and insignificant when he turned our connection into something he tried to sexualize.  

I really didn’t believe this incident of him coming on to me, was actually my fault, but some of his words did get in to my head a little bit. I wondered, had I enjoyed his attention too much? Had I laughed at his jokes a bit to often? Had I sat to close to him when we talked? Had I unknowingly flirted with him… or led him on in some way? Was any small part of this my fault? But I know full well now… no… it was not. 

I didn’t tell anyone what had happened for awhile. I told myself it was because I didn’t think it was anyone’s business. I felt like it was perhaps all a stupid embarrassing “misunderstanding”.  I would tell myself, something could have happened, but thankfully nothing really did “happen” because I handled it! No big deal. However, in the back of my mind I knew I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. If I told my story, he would deny it. I know he was well respected man in the church and I was just a teenager… and female. Even at that young age I understood that women weren’t often taken as seriously as men. 

I eventually shared my story with two people that I thought I could trust. One was a young man who I originally met through the church. He had stopped attending church long before I stopped going. However, I knew he would know who the person I was talking about was. I was encouraged because it was clear that he believed me right away, and he assured me it wasn’t my fault or me who brought this on. He told me that he knew of a couple of other young women / teenagers that this same man had made sexual advances to. One of these young women was the sister of the young man I had shared this story with. 

A couple years later I told one more person. I ran into my old high school sweetheart and we struck up a conversation. We spent quite a bit of time catching up and hanging out that day. It seemed a little like old times, and as we spoke our conversation got a bit deeper and more serious. I’m not sure how the conversation came around to this particular topic, but we seemed to be opening up to one another about many things, and for some reason I thought it would be safe to open up about this particular experience, so I shared with him what had happened to me with this man from my church. But his reaction was not what I had expected. 

I knew that he knew who this man was, but I had kind of forgotten that he really looked up to this man. He was apparently a hero of his, his favorite camp counselor from way back to the days he worked at summer camp. He seemed very surprised that someone he admired would do such a horrible thing. He expressed shock, dismay and a bit of reluctance to believe this man could have done such a thing. But in the end, I trusted that he would believe me, because I was speaking the truth. I know it’s sometimes very hard to take when our heroes fall from Grace and turn out to be less than ideal humans. But In spite of all that, I had no reason to lie to him.  I thought this guy, my old high school sweetheart, would know I was telling the truth, because we knew and loved each other once. Well, I was wrong about that.

I thought he might actually empathize with my experience because this man from church had been someone I admired once as well. I thought he might understand how devastating it was to me… that perhaps he could put himself in my place.  Because this man was someone we both once thought so highly of, and looked up to. Yet he betrayed my trust. I thought he was mentoring me to be a youth leader, and suddenly he suggested that we have an affair. But apparently my old sweetheart, just couldn’t allow himself to believe me. 

Sadly his feelings of hero worship of this man seemed stronger than his feelings of trust and empathy for his old high school flame. He got kinda quiet and I wasn’t really sure what he was thinking… He never really said anything comforting or acknowledged my pain… we just dropped the subject and went our separate ways after that. 

Many years went by and I had nearly forgotten all about it, and the fact that I had shared the details of this humiliating experience with my ex… until I went to my 30 year class reunion. Remarkably it was a great turn out, and many of our classmates were there. My high school sweetheart was among those who turned out. 

For the most part everyone was behaving nicely, at least in the beginning. We tried to steer away from political discussions, and made it through most of the weekend politely avoiding any conflict around the hot topics of the time… until one evening when everything was winding down. It was the last night before heading home and many of us were informally gathered at the home of one of our classmates. He lived fairly near our old school. 

A discussion about a Supreme Court justice candidate who had been accused of sexual misconduct came up. Someone said they thought the women who accused him of raping her back in college, was lying. I expressed my opinion that I didn’t believe she was lying, and proceeds to explain why I believed her. Then in a horrifying moment the man who was once my high school sweetheart spoke up. He said something to the effect that sometimes women lie about stuff like that, possibly for attention or some other devious motive… then he proceeded to tell MY STORY, the one I had shared with him in confidence all those years ago. However he offered it up as an example of a woman lying, making up a story about a man making unwanted sexual advances! 

I was shocked, mortified and most of all I felt betrayed. This man who I had once loved, and shared something deeply personal with, in confidence, not only shared my story without my permission, embarrassing me in front of all our classmates by telling a very private story about me, but he actually accused me of lying! All I could do was to say yes, I did tell you that story, in confidence… and everything I told you was completely true. I pointed out that I never accused this man of raping me. However I did confide in him that this man who was at the time a married man in his thirties did come on to me, an 18 or 19 year old girl, suggesting that we should have an affair!!! He just shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t believe me… However the room fell awkwardly silent for a moment. Then someone changed the subject. 

I have long since forgiven the man who once betrayed my trust with an unwanted sexual advance. I hadn’t even given him a thought in years. I probably wouldn’t have thought of it now, even with the me too movement in full swing, had it not been for my old high school sweetheart bringing it up and accusing me of being one of those hysterical women who randomly accused men of sexual misconduct just for attention. 

I don’t know why he did what he did, or what was going on in his life that led him think that behavior would be ok. But, I had moved past it. So much of life has happened since then. I let it go. I don’t have the need to carry around any pain or resentment over something that happened years ago. 

As far as I know the man who came on to me all those years ago is still married to the same woman he was married to back then. I don’t envy her. I imagine she may know he strayed at times. I sincerely hope he found peace and happiness in his soul, and in his marriage. Although I do hope he didn’t go on to traumatize any more young woman… I don’t really know if there is anything I could have done better or differently to prevent that. 

Had I told anyone else what happened to me way back then would it have changed anything? I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure it would have created a scandal in the church and upset a lot of people. I know in my heart that when this experience happened to me, I behaved with integrity. I stood up for myself. I told him NO. What he did, if he hasn’t pushed it deep down into a state of denial, he has to come to terms with. I is between him and his God now. My experience with him was in the past, and I am finished with it. He’s an old man now. If I saw him today, all I would feel towards him would be pity. 

However, I’m finding it a bit harder to forgive and forget about the betrayal of my former high school sweetheart. Strangely enough his actions hurt me more deeply than the actions of the creepy church man. I hope someday I have the opportunity to have another conversation with my old high school sweetheart to resolve this… but even if this day never comes, I do hope to come to the place where I can forgive him and let it go completely. Because I don’t need this icky feeling. 

I believe all people are capable of change and growth. We all have made mistakes. Although I do believe in holding ourselves accountable for mistakes, learning from them and making an effort, whenever possible to make things right. However I don’t think any of us should be judged to harshly for things we did many years ago. I believe in forgiveness. For ourselves as much as for the person we are forgiving.  Let’s give each other some grace and room to grow and change for the better. 

My suggestion, if anyone out there has unresolved issues with someone, and believes you may have (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt someone or treated someone wrong in some way, please make the effort to reach out and make amends. This could make a huge difference in someone’s life, and very possibly make a big difference in your own growth and healing process. Owning up to and making amends for our mistakes is a powerful and courageous thing to do. 

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