by Torey Lightcap
The truth, they say, will out.
A few nights ago I was in a dimly-lit eatery in Denver International Airport, lingering over a panini and watching people watch their phones. The people at the bar were lingering over ESPN with the same artificial interest you see around almost every TV at almost every bar. Virtually all the human beings in the room had their backs to me, and everyone felt distant - the whole environment a constructed reality, distantly held.
The government shutdown had been all over my friends’ Facebook feeds for better than a day, and this had me feeling a little spiky to boot. The cavalier attitude with which some were treating the subject was truly shocking. Trying not to feel too self-righteously indignant, I wondered what it would be like to wake up and to find oneself labeled Nonessential.
Gradually, as the food on the plate and the beer in the glass disappeared into me, two disparate streams of thought began to flow into one another. The first was that I get a little testy about working extra hours whenever someone on a plane innocently asks me that sixty-four-thousand dollar question, “So what do you do?” Over the past nine years I have enjoyed enriching conversations in the answering of that question on airplanes, and equally have been able to learn about other people’s lives and loves. God, and the hidden truth of our lives in Christ, has often been at the center of such conversations. But tonight I was just tired. Tired and grumpy.
The other stream of thought was that crazy shutdown and the hubristic intransigence that had given rise to it. There had to be better ways of dealing with conflict than shuttering government services for what looked to me to be nothing more than a childish political revenge scheme.
By the time I had signed for my check and walked off, I made a decision to lie about something. I decided that if asked what I do, I would lie and say that I was “a nonessential government employee.” This, I reasoned, would have the double benefit of bringing both awareness of a much larger issue and and keeping me from hearing an hour-long confession I was not prepared to hear.
All the way to the boarding area, standing around waiting, and finally in my assigned seat, I tried to expand the size of the lie to cover any questions my seatmates might have. I anticipated such questions, remembering that “Once you tell a lie, you need ten more lies to cover the lie.” How far out did this net have to stretch?
I’m not proud of it, but this is what I came up with: if prompted, I would say I was a civilian teacher on contract to the Pentagon and worked with most branches of the Armed Forces. I worked nine months out of the year as a teacher, spent an additional month conducting research, and then laid out the other two months. My fields of specialization were mob psychology and deprogramming(!). The deprogramming thing had been receding ever since 9/11 because of administrative policies of non-negotiation, which meant that I was spending increasing time teaching the intricacies of mob psychology and crowd supression. (To spice it up, I might say that I worked hard at promoting the more humane approaches of this often tricky craft, and that I wondered if this somehow set me apart from my colleagues.) I made up terms that seemed conceivable (to me) coming out of the mouth of such a person, and I thought about what kinds of things scholarly journals would say about these areas of work. I thought about what it would be like to spend hours and hours watching recordings of satellite imagery and drone footage, and then listening to top military brass hash them out. And anything beyond any of that -- anything I could not easily imagine a response for -- I would just say that my security clearance didn’t permit me to say. Above all, in tone I was to be pragmatic yet hopeful about the government shutdown because that’s who I really am (hopefully pragmatic), and anything else was going to just sound blatantly phony.
It didn’t feel -- well, it didn’t feel all that good to find within myself the capacity to do this mental legwork just to make and spread and cover over a lie. But I was committed.
You know how these conversations go. “So what took you there?” or “Business or personal?” or whatever. You can see the question coming. I got the business-or-personal? one, swallowed, and hedged. I was playing chicken with myself and losing.
“Bit of both,” I said truthfully. “I was with a cohort of friends who are all involved in roughly the same work I do.”
The double-bind! Not only had I made the next question inevitable (“Oh really? So what do you do?”), I had also opened up a new aspect not accounted for in my planning. Quick: How many people could there possibly be who teach depogramming and/or mob psychology in the Armed Forces? Five? Could there be five? Because there were five of us on the trip. Oh, but that’s real life. That’s immaterial. I never said a number; there could have been three or ten or twenty of us.
There was, however, no next question. Just a weird quiet. “What takes you to Omaha?” I asked.
“I’m from the area north of there. I have a very close cousin who died the other day. The funeral is on Friday.”
Turned out north of Omaha meant close to where I live. I was sorry to hear about her cousin. Was it sudden? I’m sorry. Cancer? That’s terrible. What was your cousin like? Small, engaging talk about important things. Who I really am in my vocation as a priest received a small mention, but it was coming out of my mouth without the need to protect or explain it.
And just like that -- as carefully as it had been born, as thoughtfully as it had been knitted, as pragmatically as it may have been needed -- the lie expired. Whatever I actually had to offer this conversation was good enough; the lie, now dead, would have been an insult to someone’s humanity in a moment of vulnerability. Worse, it would have come disguised as an object lesson, delivered with impolitic ego.
Empathy and compassion are like microwaves that zap our exterior stories and lies into submission. When we hear of another’s pain -- when it’s not a constructed reality but a real-live pain with a name and an address -- the opportunity arises within us in less than a heartbeat to be aware of another, to be human, to answer pain not with smothering platitudes or even theological precision, but with listening care. Just care. Just being-present-to, and letting everything else rest for a minute. For all our “skill,” our “tools,” and sometimes in spite of them, there’s no substitute.
And (especially in the Midwest) that minute can be a fast one. To the rest of the world it’s just a couple of people being decent towards each other. No hugging, no tears. No big epiphanies.
I had boarded the plane outfitted with a hubristic lie about being nonessential. For the briefest of hours, I met someone, whose name I don’t even know, who reminded me about what it meant to become “essential” when called upon to be that, to be whatever that meant. The truth had gotten out, and it proved, as it always does, to be entirely sufficient in and of itself.
Then it was on to baggage claim.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.