“I don’t regret much about my life.” So I write in The Love That Matters. And it’s true. Even given all that has happened, all that has gone wrong and all of the seemingly foolish choices I have made (or “lifetime of poor decision-making”), I regret very little.
But I do regret a few things. And here they are.
1) I regret not having children. Someone may have noticed, at some point, that I don’t mention children anywhere. And that’s because Jennifer and I don’t have any.
I will go to my grave with this regret.
There’s the material aspect. Jennifer and I were never as financially secure as I would have liked. The job with BridgeNews was a great job, the best I’ve ever had so far, but the company folded a little more than two years after I went to work there. I just never felt financially secure enough, though there was a point where we both threw caution to the wind (Bridge was effectively done by the summer of 2001) and decided to try anyway. And I promised Jennifer that, if the job in Saudi Arabia worked out (2003), we’d try again.
So, to a certain extent, you can blame God on this. Circumstances never lined up right, and some basic things — conception — never happened.
But there’s more. Because for a long time, my fear was intense. I was afraid — no, I was terrified — that I would become my father, at turns violent and indifferent. Jennifer wanted to try not long after I went to work with Bridge, and at that point (1999), I wasn’t up to it. I simply wasn’t. What changed between 1999 and 2001, well, I’m not sure. Jennifer could have taken this decision into her own hands if she’d wanted to, but she told me this wasn’t something she was going to do unilaterally. I would have accepted it had she done so.
There is something else that both Jennifer and I were afraid of. We’d both had awful school experiences, me in the state public schools, she in parochial schools. Experiences that left us terrified of authority and largely unable to trust. The notion that we would subject a child (or children) of ours to the schools, that we would make ourselves vulnerable to the state in ways that only parents are (because someone is always judging you, and the power the state wields over adults in determining who are improper parents is immense and very capricious), was a dark shadow looming over the prospect of parenthood. I could not, and did not, assume that a child of mine might have a better, or even different, experience of school. How could I have?
I can barely stand up for or protect myself. How would I have protected a child? Or advocate on her or his behalf? Especially with all that power arrayed against me? This filled my nightmares for a time. Parenting is something you learn by doing, so I’ve been told by those who done and learned. I’ve never been given a lot of grace by the powers that be, whoever they are, and so fear of doing the kinds of things that bring you the unwanted attention of those who take offense at your mere being, at your unruly presence in their well-ordered world, and treat you accordingly is actually a smart decision.
Mostly, I’ve never been allowed to make mistakes. How would I learn if I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes?
(I always operated under the assumption I would meet these people in the ELCA, and they would cause me no end of grief. “What are you doing in my church?”, echoing those sergeants who always seemed to own the Army. So, it’s just as well they tossed me out.)
We also didn’t really live in any kind of community of support. I loved the Muslims of Columbus, and bless them, some of my brothers were gentle (but firm) in encouraging me to start a proper family. I was never entirely sure how supportive that community would and could be. (And there was the whole matter of raising a Muslim child in America, which would have further complicated any relationship we had with the state and with schools. No, that wasn’t trouble I looked forward to.)
Honestly, I wish I’d been the kind of person who could have become someone’s father at 19 or 29. Or even 40. I would like to have been someone who was not so afraid. But I wasn’t. There was no way I could have been.
And so … I live with an ache in my soul that drives me to desperate tears sometimes. I have reached a point in my life where I very much want to be a parent, to be someone’s daddy. And it is too late. It will not happen. And I have to live with that.
For the rest of of my life, I have to live with that.
Which is too bad. Because I’ve also reached a point where I’m really comfortable with children. I always treat the kids I meet with kindness, I say hello and take them seriously as people. Because my mother taught me some really good things. And because I know, from experience, that I may be the only person that day who does.
I cannot be cynical or bitter with kids. I can’t even try. Working with children and young people, mostly as a pastor, has opened a sense of hope that I never thought I had. It’s as if I’m saying: “The world didn’t work for me, and it still doesn’t, not really. But I want it to work for you. And I think it can. I want you to be the kind of person who can make the world work. For yourself, and for others.” I don’t know where this comes from, this very real hope, but I’m glad it found me.
Some young people have wandered into my life. And this has helped. It a 10-year-old autistic Russian boy named Georgi whom Jennifer and I took care of for a couple of weeks in 2009 and 2010 that really made me aware that I could do this. (Granted, a couple of weeks is meaningless, but given where I had started, this was quite an accomplishment.)
And there’s Michaela. She is the daughter I truly wish I’d had. She’s smart, hardworking, cheerful, faithful, stunningly beautiful and incredibly outgoing. She takes God seriously and takes her faith in God seriously. (She’s Catholic.) We met at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center in the summer of 2012 (the only really good thing that came out of that summer). She was one of five students at the Lutheran high school in Bratislava who came over that year to help at camp. I rifled through my mind to remember what little Czech I could, and she was impressed enough with it to adopt me. She’s back in Slovakia now, and I have to say, I really love being a kind-of “daddy” for her. (Her father died last year.) But the hardest part of this relationship is not that she’s so far away, but that she was 18 when we met — just old enough to walk into my life and then walk right back out again. Which is fine. I’m happy to mentor her as I can, especially in her studies. But it doesn’t quite fill the “being daddy” need I have.
A good friend from seminary has predicted that someday, someone will leave a baby on our doorstep. (Dear God: Please, not tomorrow. Jennifer and I cannot even take care of ourselves right now. Love, Charles & Jennifer.) That the young people who need Jennifer and me to care for them — and it took me a long time to figure out that what I really like doing is caring for people, I just didn’t grow up among people where that was valued, and so I didn’t learn until late how to do that — will find us. (Bill Turner taught me a way of caring, and I will carry that forever, and pass it on when I can.) That’s half the reason I wrote the book, so that someone out there , an anxious and desperate young person who fears that suffering is all there will ever be, will know there’s something to hope in.
So, I will trust God in this matter, and that, like Abraham, I will have more descendants than the stars of the sky or the sand on the shore. I have no idea how that will happen. But I trust in God.
2) I regret how I treated Lauren. (That’s not her real name.) I don’t regret that I’m not with Lauren, as sweet and wonderful and fun to be with as she was. I think of her quite fondly now, and its’s odd just how much she and Jennifer have in common. In fact, I don’t think I really understood Lauren until I met Jennifer.
But I do regret how I treated her. That I was a little cruel and callous toward her. That I used her. Now, because I didn’t have a high school romance, maybe my couple of months with Lauren had to do all that work. I don’t know.
I dislike using people. And being used. It was something about journalism, especially in Washginton, D.C., that really bothered me. Maybe this exposes me for the idiot I truly am, but there’s a purity I like to my relationships. It’s not that I don’t want them tainted by self-interest — I think it’s perfectly acceptable to get to know someone because you think they’re interesting (this is, I think, what drew Michaela to me) — but I don’t like it when people are a means to an end. People are an end in and of themselves. Or should be.
And because I couldn’t love Lauren the way I believed she needed to be loved, I feel some guilt (a lot, actually) and regret for using her. For my pleasure.
This haunted me for a while. But not long ago, I found her, and she told me she’s had a fairly good life — including having children. So, this doesn’t haunt me so much anymore. But it’s still a regret.
3) I regret the way I left the Army. If I could go back and talk to the 19-year-old me wallowing in loneliness and self-pity in his barracks room on Ft. Clayton, I’d tell him to hang in there and find some strength to finish out his term of enlistment. I’d also helped him find that strength, since no one else was going to.
I’m not particularly proud of how that ended. It doesn’t help, I suppose, were I to say that the idea of leaving that way the psychiatrist’s idea, and not mine. I could have said no. But to do so would have taken a strength and faith I did not have at 19. And simply was never going to have.
But I don’t regret this because it has imposed some limits on any choices I might make. I’m fully willing to live with the consequences of what I’ve done. (Though I should note that until I told these things to the church, no one actually ever made me pay a price for them, and that’s something the church needs to at least think about a bit.) I regret it because I believe what I did was dishonorable. Because I’m not proud of it. Because I would like to have been someone different at 19, someone who could have finished a four-year enlistment in the U.S. military.
4) I regret what I did to end my first internship. Whatever problems I have with how both LSTC and the ELCA dealt with me — and I have many — I understand that the fault here was still mine. Because I hurt someone who cared about me. I disappointed and betrayed an entire community who trusted me and had some faith in me.
Again, though, the regret is less about the consequences I’ve had to live with as a result (because, bad as it sounds, an awful lot of good has come from it), but rather the wish that I could have been a different person. Someone who would not have acted the way I did. It would have been nice to have been someone who knew he could be loved and cared for.
* * *
Note here what I don’t regret. I don’t regret any of the things I have believed, any of the things I aspired to do, any of the communities I have belonged to, any of the jobs I’ve had or the places I’ve gone to. I’m grateful there are things I didn’t do — like go to Bosnia — but I don’t have any regrets about that in either direction. I don’t regret not going, and I don’t regret wanting to go. This isn’t so much about what I’ve done. This is mostly about who I was, and who — from where I am right now — I wish I could have been.