Modern Pharisees

I wrote the bulk of this article before the passing of Fred Phelps, the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church founder. It obviously became infinitely more topical with his death. To be clear: I am not speaking from a Christian perspective, as I personally am not a Christian. I am speaking from the perspective of anyone who loves their fellow man, Christian or otherwise.

Homophobes and bigots are modern Pharisees.

Let me explain this.

In my search for greater and greater divine and spiritual love, I have found it useful to read the words of all the great sages.

In Matthew 15:14, Jesus tells his disciples, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch”. The Pharisees, the blind leaders of the blind, are those concerned about purity, following arbitrary rules, over God’s love. They exile those who err rather than trying to redeem them.

I thought this was such a harsh concept.

And then I began to take a second look at many of today’s preachers. Like the recently deceased Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, purveyors of hatred.

And I saw men professing a higher love, a divine love, preaching hate. Preaching their personal enrichment. Blaspheming by claiming that they knew that their deity had sent punishment for homosexuality.

And I saw what Jesus meant. They were people giving false witness. They weren’t worthy of even touching any holy book worthy of the name, let alone preaching from it. I wish that they would recoil from the crucifix or the lotus like a vampire, so we could know them when we saw them.

A friend of mine asked me to help a high school student discuss issues of transgenderism. Hear the arguments on both sides. I, of course, am pro-LGBTQ, for reasons that will become amply clear. However, I have experience trying to empathize with everyone. I am therefore a good devil’s advocate. So I wrote a small guide, trying to take on the voice of a conservative.

Here are some of my choice comments.

“Certainly, the community does not need to tolerate behavior it sees as immoral publically. That includes being in public spaces like streets and shopping areas, being openly transgender when serving customers or working in government service, having to tolerate immoral activity at their schools such as Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs, etc. As long as they do not infringe upon Constitutionally protected rights, there is no moral, legal or philosophical issue”.

“A curriculum that some may decry as homophobic is not illegal nor immoral. The majority of the community wishes to teach certain values, which is part of the legitimate, compelling state function of public schooling. Those who are sympathetic to LGBTQ people can teach at home their different values. But the community as a whole is not obligated to respect it.”

This is perhaps the most reasonable way I could defend homophobic policies at schools.

In order to speak from this perspective, I had to embody a person. This is the kind of conservative, whether young and spit-filled or a little older and wiser, who will mention what the Constitution says as if it were an absolute guide to all of life, as if we had no obligation to exceed our promises. They will mention Tinker v. Des Moines and Lawrence v. Texas. They will think about what they are purely mechanically obligated to defend.

This kind of person is not a bad person. They’re not even necessarily bigoted. They may personally like transgender people. They may have gay and lesbian friends, and wish them the best.

But as I spoke from this person’s perspective…

I felt my love shrink just a little bit.

I felt my understanding of the divine shrink just a little bit.

And when I came back to myself, I realized that, politics aside, I would never proactively want to deny anyone I loved a different perspective. I wouldn’t want my schools to deny an outlet for the voice of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight ally people.

To want that is to be closed-minded. To want that is to be small-minded. It is to circumscribe our love. It is to not be willing to put aside our momentary disgusts and private fears in order to make sure that others can feel safe, empowered and free.

When we believe in anything, whether it is God, freedom, love, hope, or even rationality and science, totally…

It transforms us. It elevates us.

So those men and women that preach hatred, that try to keep gays out of sports, that want to prevent those different from them whose sexual organs touch in ways they do not arbitrarily prefer from being able to enjoy a full life together, those people whose belief in their own beautiful marriage is so weak that they need to make sure that no one else can possibly be different…

And, similarly, those people so scared of those with a different color of skin that they want them searched at airports even though it will so obviously not make them any safer and will actually delay their lives, who would follow a black child and shoot him in that fear…

They are Pharisees.

They are not transformed by any kind of love, God’s or otherwise. They do not care about something positive and good enough to focus on that instead of hatred and fear.

Whether it is fear, anger, guilt, shame, or any other emotion that has not been mastered and allowed to flow away, they are being kept by a feeling from truly loving their neighbor.

But there is a hidden truth to Jesus’ statement.

He begins this seemingly very harsh judgment by saying, “Let them alone”.

Forgive them.

Don’t hate them.

Don’t fall to their level.

Because, as I will say over and over again: Having a poisonous and hateful mind is the worst hell imaginable.

We must actually feel sorry for them, and reach out that much harder to free them from the prison of their hate. Because, as Jesus again stated in Luke 6:31, “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” As the Buddha said in Udanavarga 5:18, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”.

If we were trapped in a prison of hate and fear, and wished to feel a greater love, we would in our better moments with our better angels want to have someone else aid them.

How horrible it must be for all of those trapped in that hatred to be actually as distant as possible from the God they give false witness to.

And with Mr. Phelps’ passing, I have seen so many of my friends and acquaintances and fellow travelers who know better and who have good hearts be glad for his death. Yes, Fred Phelps was a hatemonger. But we have a choice as a species: Do we let the passing of a man filled with hatred be viewed as a wonderful event, or do we view it as a tragedy? Because, if we allow ourselves to dismiss the humanity of someone who has passed on, we diminish ourselves. In contrast, if we choose to view Mr. Phelps’ passing with hatred in his heart as a failure of those of us who have more love to give, we will hold ourselves accountable to spreading the love that the great moral teachers from Jesus to Dr. King spoke of.

We can never let ourselves make the same mistake that Mr. Phelps did. We can never let ourselves dismiss the humanity of a single person, no matter how much we may hate their actions or disagree with their ideology, or we will be complicit in the barbarism we see everywhere from Crimea to Africa.


Soul Surgeon: Chapter 1

Marianne Pavlopoulou had a problem.
It wasn’t that she was in a coma, though she was. The doctors said it was an eight on the Glasgow coma scale. “Just barely in a coma”, they had told her mother, Valeria, once. Just barely beyond the human world. Just barely not able to live her life. “She should recover fully. She should be able to remember everything that happened”, they said with a practiced and professional ease about someone who was now lying in the penumbra of the valley of death.

It wasn’t that she had been shot in the head. Specifically, with a .38 caliber bullet.

It wasn’t that she had lost almost four pints of blood after being shot in the head. (Or, more accurately, shot around the head; the bullet hadn’t gone into the skull).

It wasn’t even that her boyfriend of three years, who everyone swore was a nice Greek boy by the name of Constantin Petimezaz (“Peas in a pod”, her friend Susan had called the couple), was the one who had shot her in the head.

It was that somewhere inside of her, her soul had been damaged. Rent. Split. The language of soulstuff is beyond human words. It’s beyond any kind of geometry, beyond scintillas of color or points of space. But it can be damaged, or perhaps more accurately bent. Like a triangle that has been stretched so far it is barely recognizable as a triangle, just three very closely adjacent lines, a soul can’t be broken but it can be distorted or altered. Plato might say that, just as a chair remains a chair even if it is virtually impossible to sit in, so too does a soul remain the way it is when it’s in pain. And that was all Marianne was in. Pain.

A mother can tell when her child has been damaged in a way beyond words and beyond anything that one can touch or smell or see. She can tell in this dim way even when her child cannot speak, cannot blink, cannot move her lips to eat. But Valeria Pavlopoulou only knew that the damage was there, that her daughter was in agony on the inside beyond the nerves and axons. The doctors would say that involuntary twitches and murmurs are to be expected, but Valeria knew. They were not murmurs, they were moans. They were not twitches, they were winces.

Yet neither Valeria nor any mother could see what kind of damage Marianne had suffered. Like a teacup that had just fallen in a noisy room, Valeria could see that something had happened but still could not understand what.

But Adelbert Vo Geist knew.

The faint beeps and quiet of the array of machines hooked into Marianne, keeping her alive like an aperture of a device, an engine or a transmission, were all that filled the room audibly. Valeria’s breath was inside of her as if it had been trapped with iron. The Greek woman, only in her early fifties (she had given birth to Marianne when she was young), held onto her patent leather bag that more resembled a moving trunk. Her skin was not so much tanned as sun-blasted; her hair was not so much white (despite her black dye) as drained of life. She had the curves and lips of a woman who once was a looker, but thirty years of business and work and children had made her seem more like a grandmother than a person with another generation and a half’s worth of life in her.

The November light and heat in the bay outside was practically summer for many of those who were used to colder climates. The waning midday sun shone in at an angle, and outside people wore shorts and flip-flops as it was seventy-seven degrees Fahrenheit and wasn’t projected to cool off for two more weeks. But inside this hospital room, the light seemed to be as faint and distant as another galaxy. It was as if the proximity to death in the room was a vortex, obliterating the best efforts of Sol’s light.
The light shone on a woman for whom strength and beauty seemed to intermingle harmoniously instead of conflict. Marianne was fit, even in her hospital bed. She had a physique that only the kind of woman who would make otherwise skeptical Marine commanders advocate for her to be allowed into a Special Forces program, any Special Forces program, as an exception could possess. Her hair curled like a woman on the side of a vase from ancient Crete or Athens, but the curls were a sunset red, quite distinct from her father and her mother. Her long, elegant nose tapered to a button. Through her hospital gown, a tattoo of an anchor with an assault rifle running diagonally through it and bold letters reading “SEMPER FI – NEVER DIE” could be seen on her upper shoulder.

In a hospital, it is incredible how noise and silence can coexist. Salmon colored walls contrasted in a way that was just a cat’s whisker from being hideous with were once hot pink plastic curtains. The curtains were from the seventies, and it was clear that at some point yellow flowers had managed just to avoid complementing the color that had years ago (and many dying and dead patients ago) been so vibrant. The curtains had never been beautiful, but at least once they had life. Marianne may once have been beautiful, but something was fading within her too. The bed was made with clean white sheets. But everything, from the décor to the laundry, had the long-lingering smell of cigarette smoke and the scent of life’s fading (for calling it the scent of death is not accurate; death has no smell, and no existence)

Adelbert Vo Geist had a reputation for being friendly. This was despite him sometimes being rude, sometimes being curt, sometimes being brutally honest, and sometimes verging on cruel. This reputation had been gained because the way Adelbert (he preferred going by “Lee”, after his grandfather, but this name had refused with tenacity to stick compared to “Bert” or “ADB” or “Adelle” by those determined to be mocking) related to people could not generously be called anything else. And yet “friendly” so undercut what he did.

His face was completely calm. Standing five foot ten, seventy inches, the number of elders that Moses assembled and the number of souls who went to Egypt, Adelbert was somewhat taller than the average Vietnamese-American male and slightly shorter than the average German male. He was athletic but by no means imposing. When Valeria had visited him at the Vietnamese bar and restaurant below his one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, she almost could not find him in the décor. But somehow, standing in this room, looking over her daughter, Adelbert filled the space with an utter totality. He was clean-cut, his black silken hair neatly trimmed and slightly coiffed upwards, his nails neatly cut. His black San Jose Sharks hoodie and faded denim jeans, cleaned and pressed, made him look like a stereotype of an Asian-American street kid, but he had too much attention to detail and cleanliness to make that stereotype last long for the attentive observer. He wore basketball shoes that had clearly been scuffed and cleaned many times over years. He had no prominent or noteworthy scars, no tattoos, no birthmarks or moles that were visible. His skin was dark yet somehow still had that distinct faint yellow tinge so unique to those of Asian descent. His cheekbones were high but his jaw low and strong, Germanic in appearance, almost regal. His face showed clear dimple lines from when he smiled, a toothy and clean smile.

And then he extended his hand. The practiced ease should have made his gesture creepy. The look on his face, the way that his head cocked to the side with that slight angle of concern, should have made the motion seem outright dangerous. Valeria stood for a second out of sheer reflex. But her instincts calmed instantly when she saw his face. His eyes, black like polished pebbles, looked with an intensity she had never seen.

Adelbert’s hand stroked Marianne’s face. Across six boyfriends, eleven flings, and two prom dates, Valeria had never seen a man whose entire body bellowed a singular care for Marianne the same way that Adelbert’s body did.

“She will live. She will come to”, Adelbert stated after a second of eternity.

Valeria tried to clear her throat. Nothing came. She tried again. Her windpipe seemed to flap and choke. Finally, she took a breath instead of exhaling one and coughed slightly. Adelbert turned to the mother. All of the doctors had spoken in terms of hopes, of probabilities. Adelbert was certain.

“Oh, thank you”.

Adelbert shook his head gravely, as a corrective. “Don’t. She wishes she had died. Her body is making her live. She just does not feel she can pass on yet. Your daughter as you knew her will never come back to you”.

Adelbert turned to leave the room. He had clients. He had appointments. He had sliced carrots and vinegar-marinated chiles to make.

Valeria stood up. She screamed in a whisper at Adelbert. “That’s all?! That’s all you have to say?!”

Adelbert turned to Valeria. In the process of him turning around and her approaching him, they were practically face and face. Adelbert stood head and shoulders over Valeria, but yet they still felt the others’ breath on their cheeks, smelled what the other had had for lunch (and what they had eaten to cover it up; a spicy peppermint gum for Valeria, pickled ginger for Adelbert). “I told you I would look to see if I can help. I can’t. I can’t make someone change without damaging both of us. She’s made a decision. When she wakes up, they’ll tell you it’s the brain damage. It is, and it is not. Her condition will improve with physical therapy, and psychological therapy, and drugs. But she will not come back to you, and she will not be happy”. Adelbert choked, forcing out these words. Every time this happened, the delaying choke in the throat, the seconds ticking before he expressed his regards, he always was aware that he looked insincere; it was never his intention, and yet that is how it came off to the other. His eyes darted very slightly down, losing the eye contact he had made with Valeria. Goddamit, his internal dialog shouted. Do it different this time. Look her in the eyes! But the gap was too large, the millimeters too painful. “I’m sorry”, he said, looking away.

Valeria replied, “She made the wrong decision!” When she got stressed (as she most assuredly was now), her Greek-American accent began to come out. The “chs” began to have a swish sound to them, like an elderly Jewish man about to say “Feh!”. “You can’t even look me in the eyes when you say you’re sorry! Be a man!”

Adelbert bent his middle finger and shoved the knuckle against the bridge of his nose, to calm himself. What could he tell her about why it was so hard to look Valeria in the eyes as he pronounced a sentence of living hell to Marianne? That every time he told someone that he was sorry, he meant it? That when he looked into their soul, and he saw that his art could only do so much, the pain that he saw in them reflected in precise parallel his own? That when he told anyone that he could not help their loved one, he saw the hope receding inside of their deepest recesses, beyond body language, beyond tears, beyond angry gestures? That this is why he had kept himself distant from others, why he worked as a cook and not a head chef at Dinner Now Vietnamese Bar and Restaurant instead of on Wall Street, because being in a crowd of anonymous humanity for him was as personal as having ten people screaming that they were miserable into his ear? He said none of these things. Instead, he merely continued, his body language detaching away from the situation. “I can’t say that her decision is wrong. The decisions people make… they’re what they are. They are the outcome of the soul. I don’t argue with that, I don’t berate them until they change it. That can do damage you and I don’t even have the language to discuss”.

Say something else!, his internal dialog continued. Come on, this is a grieving mother!

Any comfort you give her won’t last. It is an illusion, said a voice in his mind that was not precisely his own.

Words… they don’t do it, the truest part of him, or at least the part of him most active at this point, spoke.

But then he had an idea. An insight. Something in his neural network clicked, giving him an idea.

In that moment that according to any clock did not happen, Adelbert finished what he was saying to Valeria. “I wish you both the best of luck”. He said it to her eyes, and unbeknownst to him, he even said it with a faintest smile. If the warmth of a person to another were thermodynamic, he’d have just started a fire.

Valeria was comforted temporarily, as Adelbert knew she would be. It wouldn’t last, as he knew. The sensation of the gravity of her situation with her daughter would return maybe an hour after he left, making Valeria feel crushed, slowly and perpetually being ground into dust by the spiteful thumb of God. (Valeria believed in God as a good Greek Orthodox woman should, despite never having seen a soul or an angel; Adelbert didn’t know, even as his entire life was now based on souls and the stark reality of their existence, and all the implications that followed).

But then she said something that he hadn’t guessed she would. He knew that she was defiant underneath her polite and business-like exterior; he knew that she had faith in her daughter; but he hadn’t seen this coming.

“You don’t know my daughter”, Valeria replied. “She’ll make a different decision. Please. I will pay you anything. We have money. We’ve cut my daughter off in recent years, my husband wanted her to make her own way, but I’ll do what I have to. I’ll calm him down”.

Adelbert sat down. He said nothing. His brow furrowed as he tried to find any way to the communicate to this mother what he could see.

Finally, he saw a plate sitting on the combination nightstand-drawer near the bed. Scanning further, some magazines had been left on the counter lining the wall, intended for family members to be able to sit turned away from their loved ones and eat if they so felt. He stood up and moved to the plate. He held it up with his right hand, as his dominant left hand moved to curl up the magazine into a tight circle. With the practiced dexterity of a martial artist, he put the plate on top of the magazine. His hands curved and moved, his fingers barely touching the plate, and yet it seemed to stay afloat.

Valeria looked at him with confusion. “What are you doing…”

Then Adelbert removed his fingers from the plate.

The plate wobbled from side to side, supported by the rigid paper in the magazine, in turn supported by the staples binding it. But the plate’s weight was too much. It fell to the side and crashed. That singular moment of ceramic shattering into pieces as it struck the ground seemed to echo down the entire corridor, through each room of the hospital, outside, through the natural and urban hills and valleys of the San Francisco Bay, and come back.

Adelbert said, with no additional explanatory gestures, “Speaking for your daughter”.

This is why working with the loved ones of his clients was so difficult. The clients always understood. He always could show them what was going on in their soul, and they knew it. Adelbert had so far seen fifty-three clients. He averaged a little more than eight and a lot more than nine clients a year, and had been seeing people for almost six and a half years now. And with each of those fifty-three clients, he had spoken a different language, a totally different secret tongue unique to only them. A few years later, a local news story would interview one of his earliest clients, Mr. Brandon Tan. Brandon would say, “It was kind of freaky, like we was twins”. But loved ones would never understand that secret language. They had hopes, and assumptions, and preconceptions, an incomplete if noble idea of the client.

Valeria’s hopes were crushing the eyes of her soul, keeping them locked tight. Valeria still couldn’t see what Adelbert meant. Because inside the deepest essence of Marianne, what made her uniquely and utterly her and totally and vastly different from anyone else born at the same time or in the same culture or with the same name, something had been stripped away. The foundations inside of her which kept her happy and stabilized may never have been strong, but Marianne was. But the only thing left now was one single pillar keeping the whole edifice up: That strength, that defiance Marianne had inherited from her mother. But life is not worth living by defiance alone, and Adelbert knew that as much as Marianne was angry, as much as Marianne wanted to get better if only to shove it in that bastard’s Constantin’s face, as hard as Marianne was trying to make it back to the world for the sake of her mother and her father and her friends, Marianne could never rebuild that foundation. Her life would no longer be one any person would want to live. Like the plate on its inadequate paper stand, her soul would wobble and break.

Valeria saw none of this and merely asked, plaintively, “What do you mean?” She didn’t understand what this stranger wanted her to know.

He sighed. “I told you you wouldn’t understand”.