Détente, n: The easing of strained relations
It’s my friend Pascal’s word. I guess it’s really anybody’s word, but he was the first in my circle to use it in the context I’m writing about.
Where is the tension? What relations are strained? So many. I’ll start on the inside and work my way out.
There’s a battle within me. I want to believe, but I can’t intellectually justify it. The tension is so great that I’m discovering that it’s the one thing I can’t really even talk about with my usual eloquence. I can’t figure out the denouement of my own story.
When I try to tell it, I start with the background story of why my faith matters to me in the first place. I went through times when it was the only reason I had enough hope to keep living. My faith told me that God could bring beauty from ashes and restore the years the locusts had eaten, so I kept going. Perhaps at least my story could encourage someone else. What is my story?
Despite his strong religious conviction, my dad was in and out of prison for years at a time for drug abuse and physical abuse—he drugged my mom. My mom was often too depressed to function as a mother. Between my dad’s addiction and my mom’s depression, no one noticed that the church that should have protected me hurt me deeply instead, in the form of the all-too-common, too-little-addressed tragedy of sexual abuse. My family still doesn’t know. All four of my half-brothers hated my dad and left home in their teens—I have only heard from one of them since. I was left to deal with the debris that remained after my family imploded and my church failed, and I reached out to the Father of the fatherless, the Friend who is closer than a brother, the One who provides a door of hope in the Valley of Achor.
I filled journals with prayers. I filled lonely hours crying out to God after my sister was asleep in her room. Sometimes I literally prayed on my knees, and sometimes the weight of my circumstances was too heavy—then I prayed flat on my face. And I felt peace. I can’t explain how—I never saw Jesus. He never held me. He never spoke. But the calm in the storm was undeniable.
Eventually, the storm was over. My dad emerged from prison for the last time, a broken man. He and my mom dated again and ultimately decided to stay married—my mother was faithful to him for better or worse, even though most of their almost twenty-nine years together have been the latter. My dad, who wore the scarlet letter that starts the words addiction and abuse now wears the letter A for atonement. Everyone who knows him knows the story of how God saved him from himself. He scoffs at any skeptic—just look at his life. How could you doubt? He was always a stubborn man—you can’t win arguments with my father, even if you are right. And now that his beliefs are so deeply rooted in what he calls a miracle, I would never dare to share my doubt with him. My dad has been free from addiction and faithful to my mom for almost ten years. And what about my secret burden? I found healing through prayer, scripture, forgiveness, and the safety of my husband’s arms. So much tragedy redeemed. Doesn’t that mean anything to me?
Oh, it does. That’s why I’m at war with myself. Have I forgotten the change in my dad? Have I forgotten the provision and protection that I attributed to the Father of the fatherless? Do I not remember the companionship of the Friend who is closer than a brother? What about the door of hope that showed me a way out every time I fantasized about ending my own life as I walked through a valley of trouble? I have not forgotten. I remember. But I also know that I was weak and thirsty and desperate. Picture the desert traveler—prone to hallucination. My mind tells me it’s impossible. I can’t trust my own heart, my own perceptions. Haven’t others felt the same peace from other gods? Haven’t others perceived things from God that were completely imagined? It would be ridiculous to think that my subjective feelings reflect reality for the world. I’m prideful if I think that only my God could be true. So why this desire—why can’t I just let it go? Is this how he calls us? Is he the one not letting me go? This is the battle I fight with myself every day. The doubter in me mocks the believer. The believer begs the doubter for silence.
The next ripple out from the center is my husband Russell. I have recently shared our story, so I won’t go into detail here. Has our marriage been strained? Yes. Have I even been hostile? Yes. Will I ever leave? I will not. I have wanted to at times. I’m not sure what it would solve. He doubted first, but I might have gotten there on my own (see The Artist, where I describe my own awakening into doubt). It was easier for me to acknowledge my doubt since I knew he was traversing the path with me—but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have doubted without him. It just means that I would have done it alone. What benefit would there be in leaving now? Would my doubt disappear? I think it would stay—and I fear what I would lose too much to ever risk it. I guess our definitive détente happened on our anniversary right after the new year, and you can read about it in Days of Auld Lang Syne. The more I think about our marriage vows, the more I realize that the promise we made to each other was not that we would never change—he didn’t break a vow when he turned from faith. We never promised that we would stay the same—we simply promised that we would stay. And I will.
Another band in the expanding circle belongs to my family. They cannot know the state of my heart—they would hate me if they did. They speak of non-believers in a way that makes me tremble. It would break their hearts to know of my doubt, and I love them too much to hurt them like that. I could never tell my dad that I don’t believe in the God who changed his heart. I can tear down arguments, but I can’t tear down stories. They mean too much to me. There can never be a détente with my family as long as they do not perceive the tension.
And finally I come to you. All of you. My outer circle. Strained relations? Sometimes—of course, you see it. A quick perusal of comments on other faith-related blogs will show you brutal hostility. I have been fortunate here to be left out of that. I do see it at church, of all places, where only a few know of my doubt. The unsuspecting others speak against disbelief with disdain, not knowing that one they would consider an enemy walks among them. This blog is my détente. It is a safe zone, a place where hostility can be lifted as we share honestly together. An incredible example of détente in blog-form is my brother-blog, Russell & Pascal, where my husband (an atheist) and our Christ-following friend Pascal write with gentleness and respect and welcome you to do the same.
A wonderful détente happened last night at Pascal’s house. Pascal, Mrs. Pascal, and the oldest of the little Pascals welcomed me, Russell, some of our atheist and Christian friends, and a few blog readers (strangers until last night) to their table for food and fellowship. We all had different stories. They all matter to me. We listened and learned and loved. I shared my story and I struggled with my inability to wrap it up in a nice bow—to give it a conclusion. So many reasons to believe because of what I’ve witnessed in my dad’s life and experienced in my own—yet I find myself doubting my own perceptions. Still so many reasons that I can’t believe—but am I being faithful to my commitment to doubt my doubt? I’m completely lost.
I need that détente. The survivors, no matter their final positions, can encourage the desert wanderers who can’t tell if they’re chasing reality or a mirage. The fellow strugglers can stand together, friends even if we disagree. The young and faithful one can be warned of what may come, and he can come to this safe harbor if everything solid in his life starts to sway. No hostility. This is how it’s supposed to be. This is what I want for my children. This is what I want for the world.
This is all I wanted when I reached out to Pascal a little over two years ago and asked him to walk with my family through doubt. He was a teacher; I had once been his student. He was approachable; I needed help. I introduced him to Russell, and they began to meet at a breakfast table. Almost one year ago, they started meeting even more frequently at a virtual table—Russell & Pascal. Last night, a group of ten met at a physical table born of the virtual table and shared our stories with gentleness and respect. Pascal may never persuade Russell and me. As our group of ten grows, we may never reach a unanimous vote—and the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to. It’s a safe place to believe and a safe place to doubt. It’s exactly what I hoped for when I gathered the courage to share my doubt with Pascal, a strong believer. Détente.
Seek détente along with me. Seek relief of the tension between your head and heart, of the hostility between you and those around you. There’s a seat for you at the table—this one if you are far away, and the physical one if you are near. Find your Russell. Find your Pascal. Find your Zoe and Ruth and JJ and Howie and Toad and Mike and Rafols and CC—and find your détente.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by author Rick Harris. Source linked to photo)