Character Counts

Character is destiny.  Anyone can fake integrity for a while, but without character, it is not sustainable.  Basic building blocks must be in place to become a person of character.  Early in life you need to have been given a sense of self-worth and confidence in the safety of your existence.  You also need parents who have enough character to delay their own gratification to meet your needs. It is obvious Donald Trump did not have the building blocks necessary to become a fully functioning adult. He never had a chance. More than likely, his narcissism can be placed at the feet of his harsh and demanding father.

With Josh Hawley, it might be a different story.  In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote a scathing op-ed in which he said, “Hawley didn’t just own the libs, he gave permission to dark forces he is too childish, privileged, and self-absorbed to understand.”  Ouch.  Hawley’s mentor, the venerable Missouri Republican John Danforth, said mentoring Hawley was “the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life.”  This has not been a good week for Josh Hawley. There is nothing wrong with ambition.  I have always been a person of ambition, though I have noticed the world was far more accepting of my ambition when I was a man than it is now that I am a woman.  But ambition without character will sooner or later lead to a great fall.

Cancel culture defines a person by the worst thing he or she has ever done or said.  None of us should be defined by the worst thing we have ever done or said. We all screw up.  There were times when my own ambition was blind.  I cringe when I think of those occasions. They are never apparent in real time. Only in the rearview mirror do you see that we all have the capacity for self-absorbed, privileged, and childish behavior. I hope this is a tipping point for Hawley. Will he experience the kind of blessed and necessary defeat that forges character, or will he be more like Ted Cruz, who has already demonstrated his true and abiding nature?  Time will tell.

One of the most damaging realities about Hawley, Cruz, and many of the others who have bowed down to Trump, is that they identify as evangelical Christians. During my last 25 years in the evangelical camp, I lectured frequently across the nation on the subject of postmodernism. Evangelicals thought postmodernism was evil and that we needed to return to the modern age, as if the modern age had been with us since the time of Christ. In reality, the modern age was about 500 years old.

I was attacked for saying postmodernism is a good corrective to the modern age. One of the biggest complaints that evangelicals made against postmodernism was that it created a world in which truth was nothing but a social construct. At the extremes of postmodernism, I actually shared their concerns.  But in my lectures I said that truth has always been slippery.  There is no such thing as objective truth, because humans always bring their own bias to any observation.  But I also said that through rigorous inter-subjective discipline, we can get very, very close to something resembling objective truth. My friend Phil Kenneson at Milligan University helped me understand that in an excellent chapter he wrote for the book Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too.”

At its extremes, postmodernism has ushered in a confusing world that says all truth is social construct, what a group of people arbitrarily decide is true. I frequently get in trouble with some in the world of sociology because I do not believe gender is purely a social construct.  I believe we have a pre-disposition, before experience, to specific gendered behaviors. That is not a popular viewpoint among those who believe everything is a social construct, including gender.  I believe there is something close to objective truth. Which brings me back to the election.

What Hawley and Cruz did on Wednesday was capitulate to the notion of truth as anything but social construct.  They made their objections based on no actual facts, but only on the reality that people believe the election was stolen.  That’s all it took for them to object.  There was no examination of the veracity of those beliefs, or their source. Their source is clearly a president pedaling lies to bolster his sagging ego, and television networks like Fox and Newsmax pedaling lies for profit and power. Hawley is extremely well educated.  He should know exactly what is going on. I must assume that blind ambition has made him, well, blind.

When it comes to the nature of truth, the very evangelicals who demonized postmodernism have embraced it in the most damaging of ways.  They have embraced a president who has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims.  With Trump’s extreme narcissism, I would expect nothing different from him. It takes a lot of lies to prop up an extremely fragile ego. With media titans Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, and Christopher Ruddy, and their desire for power and profit, I would expect nothing different. With Ted Cruz’s previous behavior, I would not expect anything different. With Josh Hawley, however, I am surprised. I mean, this guy clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  A lot of damage can be done by blind ambition.

My mother’s extreme narcissism made me question the safety of the universe and question my own self-worth. My father’s love and grandmother’s devotion saved me from the worst effects of that unstable environment. Still, I am aware of my flaws. I can be too ambitious. I can be self-referential and self-serving. Thank goodness I have surrounded myself with people who will tell me the truth. I hope Josh Hawley listens to John Danforth. It is not too late for him to yoke his ambition to a higher cause than his own self-aggrandizement. We will see what happens. Character is destiny.

Uh, Well, That Was Interesting, Sorta

Okay, uh, 2020 was hard.  I was isolated, set apart, and miserable, and then Covid-19 happened.  Yeah, the other stuff had already taken place before Covid-19 burst onto the scene.  I lost a friendship and my compass, as I realized I have had more conflict with women as a woman in six years than I had with women as a man in 60 years.  I won’t write any more about that right now.  You’ll have to wait for my memoir to come out in June.  I definitely wrote about it there.

Before Covid hit full force I squeezed in one last speaking engagement.  I spoke for a conference at Rutgers University on March 7. The conference was packed with students who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.  The speakers felt otherwise. We were all antsy, and more than a bit uncomfortable with the meet and greets scheduled after each session.  One of the other speakers was the editor of the Onion.  It seemed ironic, since everything happening felt like an article in the Onion.  Another speaker was an elderly Holocaust survivor.  I felt so badly for him as students crowded around to express their admiration.  It was obvious he would have appreciated more adoration from a distance.

When I flew home from NYC the next day, a flight attendant on my flight out of Charlotte refused to fly until the crew was given cleaning wipes with over 67 percent alcohol content.  There were exactly 15 American Airlines personnel in the jetway mediating the dispute as we all sat on the crowded plane waiting to fly to Denver.  The flight was an omen of the chaos to come.  I have not flown since that CLT-DEN leg on March 8.

Within a week, all of my live speaking engagements for the remainder of the year had cancelled.  Then I was pulled from the preaching team of our church, which left me sitting at home alone trying not to catch a virus that might well kill me.  Which turned out to not be a bad thing, because I also had to write a memoir, which it turns out is about as fun as eight months of daily root canal procedures.  I do not recommend writing a memoir when you are not currently in therapy.  I kept having to schedule one-off sessions with Naomi, my New York therapist for 28 years. Dredging up your past in the middle of a pandemic while you are also in the saddest and most troubling work experience of your life (which in my case is saying a lot) is not something I would necessarily recommend.

Then after a few months I found myself a co-pastor again, working with people I adore.  That was nice, and redemptive, and the church is thriving.  Then all of these corporate conference departments realized if they didn’t use their budgets they were going to lose them, and I started doing one keynote after another after another, all from my living room.  I earned more in two months than I did in my first four years as Paula.  And about 1,200 people a week watched our worship services from John Gaddis’s front porch, including people from New Zealand and Australia and British Columbia and Mexico and Brazil and Ireland and England.  Which was all kind of cool. And then writing the book didn’t suck so much for a while, until it did again.

Writing about gender inequity (two chapters) and the unfortunate realities of evangelicals and their rejection of LGBTQ people (another two chapters) and a chapter about the differences between male and female sexuality and spirituality were all enjoyable.  Then my editor said I had to get real and talk about the things I didn’t want to talk about when it comes to my own journey from Paul to Paula and what happened at church, and suddenly writing sucked again and I wanted to give back my advance and throw out the whole book.

Then my editor reminded me that I had told her I didn’t want to write a good book.  I wanted to write a great book and if I wanted to do that, I had to get down and dirty about the stuff I didn’t want to write about and I knew she was right, and I did write about it.  I wrote for about 10 hours a day for three weeks and finished the manuscript before Christmas.  It still has to go through copy edits – but it’s mostly done, and I don’t hate it.  I’m not sure if its great or not, or if it will sell, or if the folks at Simon and Schuster will hang their heads and say, “Why did we offer that contract?” and I’ll never get a contract to write ever again, which happens way more often than you might think.  But getting nervous about that can wait for the second half of 2021.  That I was able to write at all during the pandemic is an accomplishment in and of itself, right?

Cathy and I got together on New Year’s Eve and ordered in a nice meal and talked about getting married 48 years ago when we were only 12 and 10 and how things have turned out so far.  Then she went home, and I went to bed and it was well before midnight.

All of 2020 felt like this post – disjointed and without a thread running through it, other than random chaos, which is a thread of sorts, I suppose.  And I haven’t said a word yet about the man who will still be president for another two and a half weeks, which in Trump world is time enough to start a war or two, pardon everyone who has ever been to Mar-a-Lago, and search for still more heart-stopping ways to destroy our democracy.

Here’s to 2021.  It’s gotta be better, right?