Huh?!…. When Really Nice People Do Really Horrible Things (For Cathi)

My friend Cathi Chapin-Bishop, as wise and compassionate and fiery a person as I have ever known, is struggling with deep things today that many people deal with personally every day. She has dealt with it professionally for years on a daily basis, and left the profession of psychotherapy. Today, she’s also dealing with it personally. It seems, from her Facebook posts that someone she knew professionally as a minister allegedly  committed child sexual abuse at some point in his life and she is having trouble reconciling the two things — friend/minister/decent guy (I assume it’s a guy)/professional decent guy and evil/taker of spirits and lives/not-at-all-decent-guy/serious abuser of God’s name in his professional capacity.  I thought I’d say something about the situation to see if I could help her make some more sense of it, while I, too, wrestle with the issue.

I am in a position where I deal with the same things — decent people who have done really horrible things — both in psychotherapy and in ministry (I serve on a Committee on Ministry where we have dealt with pastoral misconduct as well as being a psychotherapist).  In addition, I work with addicts on a near daily basis so I hear about the stupidest and most vile behaviors on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes they are committed by the same person and sometimes the same person is on both sides of the coin — perpetrator of stupidness and victim of evil. In fact, those are the greatest number of my cases, I think, by far.  Person X is the victim of the most evil, insidious, devious, planned and disgusting behaviors and now can’t seem to get out of their own way, “snatching”, as Lincoln said, “another defeat from the jaws of victory” in any number of ways in their lives.

The number of women (and men) I know who have been sexually abused, physically abused, emotionally abused, domestically violated, legally harassed, and addicted by some evil scumbag (yes, that’s how I see themgrows everyday as I continue in my chosen fields.  They sit in my office and tell me stories that no one would believe and — for years — no one has, and they think something’s wrong with them. They are some of my favorite people in the world. It’s my job to tell them that, no, they’re not crazy.  No, things are as bad as they seem, and even though there frequently is no justice, they are still good people. And they are.  I tell them that they, statistically, they make life better for the rest of us.  For every twenty things that happen to them, there are twenty people out in society that don’t have to put up with that kind of grief.  All things being equal, though, I’d rather society shared the “wealth” so that no one had to walk around with their lives.  Actually, I’d rather there weren’t so much “wealth” of trauma at all, but this is what we’re given.

Do these people do incredibly stupid things often? You bet they do. They sleep around without birth control, they can pick a loser out of a crowd at a 1,000 feet away (and then date them), they fall back “off the wagon”, they spend their hard earned not-enough cash on easily available, extremely expensive, poisonous evil and they get called things like “drunks” and “druggies”, “whores” and “borderlines”,” thieves” if they steal to pay back their dealer and so much more. And — by any objective matter — they are those things.  But I swear to you, those people are not evil. They do things that — to the untrained eye — seem evil, but there is no maliciousness behind them.

A friend of mine this week differentiated between a woman who stole diapers and formula for her child (because the baby was hungry and wet) and a man who steals enough to drive a Mercedes. Both are thieves, truth be told. Both may go to jail, but will probably get a slap on the wrist by the court system. Both have good and bad in their personalities — nowhere near the dichotomy of Cathi’s friend, but it’s still there.  And yet, my friend knows that one of them is evil, while one of them does wrong things.  While I have police friends and ministry colleagues who swear there  is no hope for people who do wrong things, I tend to disagree.  I differentiate based on the only things that help me make sense of it all — trajectory, love of image, and grace.

When I served a church in Bridgeport, a couple asked if I would marry them, even though they’d “lived in sin” for some years prior (their term, not mine). I explained to them that — by anyone’s standards — they were going in the right direction and that it didn’t seem right to stop their “progress” by refusing to marry them.  I still use that standard. If a person is trying to get better, that’s totally different than someone who doesn’t care about anyone and isn’t even trying to get better.  I still expect progress after a they have the idea of what’s going to work but wanting to get better’s a great start.

The next thing I see is what I call “love of image” as a way to differentiate the evil from the not-quite-right-yet.  Evil people care far more about their image than they do about their reality. It doesn’t matter that they deal drugs or weapons of death or that they molest children — they look good. Doing scummy things and intently looking good is one of the signs of evil I see frequently. For these people, there is a sense of entitlement, a sense of self-love, a caring about thingsespecially reputation — far more than about people. People like that just creep me out.

Given the choice of the high living drug dealer or the low-living addict, I’d choose the addicted person every time. There are people who go into ministry for the adulation, for the entitlement and the privilege, for the feeling of intellectual superiority while they “save” their flocks  from minor sins. Those people are not — in the final say — ministers. They are egotists with a job that says “minister” on the door.  Real ministers have consciences, real ministers have guilt over things they’ve done, real ministers want to be better, even if they just aren’t right now.  They are human beings capable of absolute lunacy as much as the next person and whatever it was they did seemed like a good idea at the time. These people are humans whose jobs require them to put the “minister” sign on the door, but they think, “if those people only knew how messed up I was, they could fire me now”.  There but for the grace of God go they. God calls them and they don’t know why.

At the other end of the spectrum is the person whom God didn’t call, but secretly or not-so-secretly thinks God should have called them, so they could have all the worship due them.  In their mind, they are doing God a favor by acting the way that they do. There without the grace of God go they, but you’d better not tell them that. Here are people that get into it because of the family name,  or because of some genetic predisposition to narcissism, or because — gosh darn it, they look good in a suit. Needless to say, this is not a reason to go into ministry (or anything else for that matter). The minute a baby spits up on them during a baptism or someone calls because their loved one died at 3 in the morning or someone argues over theology or their salary and there’s hell to pay.  Ministry is such an odd profession — it requires such different rules than other jobs, such twisting and turning with boundaries in order to stay professional,  questions of friendship, being “in community” but not “of the community”, questions of appearance, style, taste, etc…. If you expect to constantly receive attention and support, you will be greatly disappointed. Remember that the model of ministry we use originally was killed by the very group he was trying to save and you can see how far distant from narcissism the job is.

And yet, the distance from “I’m set apart” to “the rules don’t apply to me” isn’t very far at all. Plus, because the image part of ministry is so important to people, it’s not hard to see how people could be fooled by the image of  a pastoral narcissist. The distinct nature of the job, the importance of public image, and a perceived connection to the Ultimate Power in the Universe makes ministry a breeding ground for narcissism.

On the other hand, Freud and Jung might have been onto something when they talked about people being afraid of parts of themselves and projecting it onto others or warping it into being super nice. The people who are most afraid of their “Shadow” (the Jungian concept of the part we don’t want to see in ourselves) — the people with the most evil to hide — end up looking The Very Best in their actions or in their clothes because that’s where they’d rather spend their energy.  We all have good and bad in us, it’s part of our nature. It makes me worry about the Perfect Pastor who leads The Perfect Church of The Perfect People because perfect people don’t go to church. They don’t need to have a pastor at all, let alone a perfect one.  And a perfect pastor isn’t going to understand the kinds of people who actually come to church because he or she won’t understand the problems they’ve never had. So, the perfect looking, perfect sounding, perfect acting, always-able-and-never-having-a bad-day pastor is a myth. If you see one or — more to the point, are told by said pastor/priest/imam/guru that you are — beware that there’s something wrong in the scenario.

While especially true of ministers, it is true of all kinds of people. The abusive spouse or intimate partner, for instance, is well known to vacillate from sickeningly sweet to mean, violent, and all around nasty. Salesmen, actors, investors, unemployed garbagemen can all have some deep dark side.  Heck, even Gandhi got angry and semi-violent with his wife (at least in the movie).  But Gandhi wasn’t concerned with image. He was concerned with being his best self and living out his own expectations of himself.  People who are first concerned with how things appear really worry me. People who worry about how things actually are, are great human beings. Cathi knows this all too well from her days as a psychotherapist and, I suspect, other places. The tricky part is people who actually manage their own image while appearing not to.  Those people are beyond narcissists and all the way into psychopathic. No one goes far in the psychotherapy world without running into them as clients or family/friends/lovers of clients.

So there’s the first two parts of the scale of good and evil people: 1) are they headed in the right direction and 2) Are they interested in hiding their humanity from others? Worse yet, are they good at it?

The third part that keeps me going is grace. Given that any person who comes to see me (any person at all, really) has a bad side and has chosen to deal with it, can they be forgiven? I know a man who seems to have done horrible things to his daughter — but only once, by all accounts. Can he be forgiven by his daughter? I have no idea. Would he love to be forgiven by her? Yes. Can I forgive him? Actually, yes. I can forgive him because I think, given the person’s own humility, God can forgive him. I know the legal system says “once a perp, always a perp”. I know that many psychologists and many clergy consultants think the same way, but I have to believe in grace and growth and forgiveness if I am to have any hope for humanity. If there’s no growth, no change, no possibility for them, then there’s no reason to do my jobeither of my jobs (therapist or minister).  And if I have to believe in growth and change as possibilities, I have to consider the possibility that this person — the one in front of me — is the one who can change and will.  Sometimes I’m wrong, but most often — whatever the deed is — I’m right.  How far change is possible and whether trust can be re-established enough to guarantee the safety of the people around them is another question.  But if grace exists, I have to consider that it might be possible in my client or the pastor in front of me.

Does any of this mean that my heart doesn’t get sickened from some of the things I hear at work or see on the news? Not at all.  As I hope I have shown here, evil is still evil, and people can do great and irreparable harm to others with it.  But people who want the truth and follow it wherever it goes, people who try their best, and people who seek real grace, even though the world may not want to give it, people who choose not to endanger others keep me going. That, and a lot of sleep, some anti-depressants, and a God who doesn’t leave me alone through it all. With these tools, I can make it through.

Cathi, that’s all I’ve got. I hope you — and anybody else in a similar situation — are able to hurt less when all is said and done.




[BTW, for those of you that know her as “Cat” and wonder why I call her “Cathi”, it’s an old habit from our days in High School. But beyond that “Cat” sounds too short to me. The “t” sound seems too aggressive while the “th” flows more — like she does. Under no circumstances should you assume that she’s one of those “girls” who makes a smiley-face or a heart as the dot over her “i”, though.  She’s not now and she never was.]  : )






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