A while ago, a man I considered to be quite wise at the time said to me “People change, but not that much.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that, probably because the person who said it was actually our pastor. Maybe he was a bit jaded. Maybe it was time for a new job. In any case, I didn’t believe him. I think people can change, in fact, I know they can. Maybe we need to invite our old pastor around to our place house for dinner one of these days. He needs to see what God has done at my house.
Last Tuesday night, my husband Ben and I had guests for dinner. Fourteen people sat around our table and ate my lamb roast, including the two of us. A minor miracle occurred that night, but I think only I, and perhaps our children, really noticed it. What happened was that Ben was present for the meal the whole time. Of course, you’d have to know what it was like before to understand how this is different. Before, we didn’t invite folks over to our house for dinner. There was no point. If people came to visit, Ben would say hello, then remain present for about one minute and forty-five seconds after that before disappearing. I don’t know how he managed to convince himself that nobody notices when the host goes MIA, but then I’m not sure he ever considered his absences conspicuous to others. The fact is, regardless of if we had two people over, or twenty, Ben would always be a no show at his own dinner party.
You see, as far as social situations were concerned, Ben was a supreme master of the duck and weave. His avoidance of people and acute need to be alone was different from those occasions where he was simply busy, like in the shed fixing something, washing the car or going for a walk to get the newspapers. Our family had a pet name for it– skulking. Where’s dad? Skulking. Oh. I think the way Ben saw it, he was only out of the room for a few minutes. The problem was that he was only out of the room for a few minutes, twenty or more times a day – for about twenty years.
When Ben was skulking, he wasn’t just out of the room, on a special mission, or even busy. He wasn’t writing a thesis or building an ark in the back yard. He was hiding. From us. From everyone. And it hurt. When the person you’re married to can’t hang out with his wife and his kids and your friends and both your parents for any length of time without having to leave and be alone for a while, it’s difficult not to be offended. For a long time I thought it was my fault. Ben’s anti-social behaviour confirmed my own deep suspicion that I was just too much. I came to the sad conclusion my personality was so overwhelming that it made other people unable to function normally in society anymore. So I did what many women do when they blame themselves for their husbands’ faults – I covered for him. And when that grew tiresome – because explaining to guests that your husband has something very important to do out in the back yard while you are all sitting in his living room does grow tiresome – I just stopped inviting people over anymore.
While the hiding was a problem, it was never the problem, and while it wasn’t me that broke Ben, Ben was broken just the same. I understand now that when people are broken like Ben was and they feel they ought to be able to fix what’s wrong and put it all right but they just can’t, they do whatever it takes to feel safe. Often, they do what Ben did and they hide, in all kinds of places, and use all kinds of things to hide behind. Some people don’t physically hide like Ben did, but they are hiding all right. They hide behind their work, their possessions and positions, their success, and they even hide behind failure.
Far better men than Ben have been hiders. Adam, the very first man on the planet, was a hider. As skulkers go, in my opinion, Adam wasn’t particularly good at it. I can say this because I’ve lived with a real pro. Adam gave in way too early for starters – he was only in those bushes for ten minutes, tops. I hate to brag, but Ben had far more stamina that that. And what’s with Adam taking an accomplice along for the skulk? Pros never take an accomplice. Any crime they committed may be a shared experience, but shame is always a solo venture. I suspect Adam was really only playing possum – I think Adam kind of wanted to be found.
While long-term hiding requires a lot of staying power, it can get kind of boring. While Ben was hiding, he found that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol really helped to keep his hands busy. These also conveniently helped him to forget exactly how many hours a day he was actually spending skulking. I had my suspicions Ben skulked at work too, because whenever I rang to talk to him, nobody could ever find him. But I think it was the day I opened up some boxes under the house and hundreds of empty beer bottles fell out I realised I might have underestimated exactly how much of his life both his skulking, and the habits that kept him occupied while he was doing it, were consuming.
I didn’t understand for a long time exactly what Ben was so ashamed of, even after I worked out Ben was hiding. Ben is not and never has been a really bad man. He hasn’t been in any trouble with the police, or been unfaithful in our marriage. He is a gentle, patient father and has a quiet disposition. Ben’s wrongdoings are certainly no worse than any other simple mans, springing as they do from the common natural weaknesses and shortcomings of all human beings. But I’ve come to understand that shame is not logical. It’s not circumstantial. Shame is not even natural. Shame wasn’t there at the beginning, when God created people. I mean they walked around without clothes for goodness sake. Shame was learned. Shame was a mutation. Shame was human invention, and it filled the place where something else used to be.
I imagine the first garden, its two occupants living in complete intimacy with each other and their creator. So guileless was the communion between the two humans they had nothing but their different skins to separate them. But then they did something they were told not to do by someone that loved them. Afterwards, the first thing they did was to go and make clothes to put on top of their skin. Don’t look at me. Then, forgetting that He had always been able to see them, they realised that not only could they be seen by each other, the creator could see them too. When they heard the creator coming, they hid behind some bushes. What’s happened to us? they asked themselves, we never worried about being seen before.
The thing is, when the creator found out what they did, He didn’t demand they take off their clothes again, in fact, he turned around and made them both some better ones.
Ben – my sweet, gentle Ben – was not a bad person, but something inside him didn’t want to be seen. He thinks it started when he was very young. For the longest time Ben believed that God was a violent, iron-fisted Father, quick to anger and slow to forgive, particularly a very naughty boy like he was. After many years of just trying to stay out of God’s way, he found a way to hide that worked, and after a while he forgot what it was ever like to walk in the light.
When I became ill with cancer in 2003, Ben floundered with feelings of helplessness and depression, without any way to draw on the grace, strength and comfort from God or me he so desperately needed. He thought God was up there waggling his head, telling him to harden up and get a backbone. Ashamed of his inability to protect his family from harm, and from the consequences of his weakness in its aftermath, he pulled even further inside himself. If God had come calling “where are you?” Ben couldn’t have heard Him, because he was ensconced under the house with a cigarette and a six-pack of beer, medicating his despair.
After a few more years, things really fell to pieces. He lost his business, leaving us tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We had to leave town so Ben could get a new job. He became more disenfranchised from our children, the elder three of whom were now in their teens. The resentment between the two of us grew and festered between like a tumour. The last skerrick of Bens’ belief in himself disintegrated the same time as his desire to stay married to me. Desperate to save his life, I sent Ben away. By now, I was the only one of us with enough self-esteem left to survive being seen as the bad guy that broke up our marriage. Thank God, at that time a place in a Christian rehabilitation centre came up before Ben totally disintegrated.
In rehab, Ben learned to stay both literally and emotionally in the room with his shame, now compounded by the collapse of our family and the loss of everything he had and had been. All of the structures and devices he had created to keep himself safe were broken and useless. In that place of absolute vulnerability, Ben found his father God running towards him with His arms outstretched.
Finally, my boy, I’ve found you.
Since then, I have seen my husband rise up from a long sleep of self-hate and humiliation and sit up to God’s banqueting table. He is making a right pig of himself, I can tell you. The compassion I see in my husbands’ eyes these days, as he tells me about his wish to help the people God brings across his path, makes me fall back in wonder. How God can take a man who emptied himself out in self-disgust and fill him again with such goodness and compassion is beyond my comprehension.
Change is possible, I know it. I’ve seen shame, fear and guilt stunt a human soul into a crooked shadow of its former self, and then I saw that same human being raised up from the dead. Shame is fruitless, pointless in fact, particularly the shame we inflict upon each other. It’s only mercy that brings the withered ones stumbling forth for healing. The enemy wants us bound in the dark, wrapped in the rags of our self-loathing, but God wants us free in the light where He and the entire world can see us for who we really are.
I want to tell you, if you love someone that is dead while they live, don’t give up hope. People can change – more than you can even dream of. I thought Ben was gone forever, but I was wrong. He came back. Now I know Ben doesn’t like it when I brag about him, but I just can’t help myself. I doubt that anyone present for dinner on Tuesday night would have any real idea why I was gazing at Ben in wonder as he carved the lamb and cracked the jokes. There, I thought to myself, thanks to the grace of God, goes my husband – the most amazing man I have ever known.
An excerpt from my new book God, You Can Take My Mental Illness, Just Not the Part Where You Speak To Me, now out on Amazon for Kindle.
 Genesis 3:8 – 10