Sunday, August 12, 2007
The Dark Side of Charisma
I once heard a speaker talking about what it was like to go through the aging process. He said that he looked into the mirror one day, and he was startled to see his father looking back at him. What he really meant, of course, was that he had aged in such a way that he looked very similar to the way his father had looked when he was a child.
I must confess that I had a hard time relating to what the speaker was saying. Unless one counts the fact that both of us were fairly tall men, I never looked much like my father. If you look at the two photos shown above, I think you'll see what I mean.
The first photo (which I colorized digitally) was taken when my father, Dr. Don Pettigrew, was in his early 30's, or perhaps a little bit earlier than that. (It was taken from a group picture which also depicted me, my mother and my brother. My brother was literally a baby in the photo at the time.) The photo was taken right around the time when my father was elected as the president of the Missouri Optometric Association. That was quite an achievement for a man of his age.
The second photo (which was originally in full color, before I converted it to sepia) depicts me, the way I looked about a year after moving to Boston in late 1979. I was about 24 when the photo was taken. As you can see, I still dressed in a manner which reflected my background in the Jesus Movement. I wasn't ever a true hippie, since I never used illegal drugs or had extramarital sex or did a lot of the other things for which hippies were known. But it should go without saying that there were still some conservative Christians who saw me as a bit of a rebel, just because of how I dressed. In a sense, I was. I was rebelling against the idea that people should be judged according to their external appearance. I knew that God and Jesus judged men and women according to the contents of their hearts, and I felt that our judgments of others should therefore reflect similar priorities.
Another, less spiritual factor was that I thought that the hippie styles popular in those days were pretty cool, even though I didn't much admire the hippies insofar as certain aspects of their lifestyles were concerned.
Also, there were several Christians in my life who had been good friends and role models to me. Dressing as they dressed was my way of identifying with them and expressing my appreciation for the friendship they extended to me, at a time in my life when I really needed friends.
I also think, in hindsight, that there was another factor involved. Dressing in a manner which was quite different from my father's manner of dress was one way in which I could put some emotional distance between me and my father.
If you'd known how I felt about my dad when I was younger, you never would have anticipated that I'd want to rebel against him in any way whatsoever. At one time, I greatly admired my father, in spite of his flaws. When he was serving as the lay minister for Oakland United Methodist Church in Springfield, Missouri, I distinctly remember sitting on the front pew every Sunday, soaking in his words and thinking that I was fortunate indeed to have such a wonderful and insightful father.
When I was in grade school, I remember that Dad used to keep some of his old Army gear out in our garage, including a helmet and a green army jacket and a small green knapsack. He gave me a few toy guns when I was a kid. This was back in the days prior to laws which required that toy guns be made to look like they were obviously toys, so there were no red plastic tips at the ends of their barrels. Those toy guns looked pretty realistic until one inspected them closely. I was quite a sight to see, all decked out in my army "uniform" and doing my best to live up to the image I had of my father. After school, I would sometimes take all of this stuff over to the neighbors' houses, where I would play war games with the neighbors' children. Bang, bang, you're dead. That kind of thing.
All of this was rather ironic, given the fact that my father never did any actual combat duty. After going through boot camp (which provided him with some humorous stories to tell to us), he worked as a secretary in a military office here in the United States, until his enlistment was up. As far as I know, he never rose past the rank of corporal.
American soldiers first got involved in Vietnam in 1959, so I can scarcely remember a time, as a child, when America was not at war. But even though I remember hearing daily casualty reports on the evening news, it didn't make much of a dent on me in the early sixties. It was just something which I took for granted. I had known that America's role in the Second World War had been quite heroic, so I assumed that the same was true of all wars. That was the impression one got when watching the news on television. None of the members of my immediate family had to serve in Vietnam, so it didn't personally impact me or my family the way that it impacted numerous other families.
However, by the end of the sixties, the media was beginning to question American involvement in Vietnam. Articles and explicitly violent photos in magazines such as Life and Look made me realize that there was more to the military than cool looking uniforms and guns. A lot of lives were being destroyed, and the "domino theory" which had initially been cited as a justification for our participation in that war seemed less and less persuasive with each passing day. It seemed as if we didn't really have any clear objectives in being there, other than to kill as many people as possible so that our body count would exceed theirs. That seemed immoral to me, particularly since it seemed to contradict Jesus' statements about how Christians should treat our enemies. Specifically, Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecuted us. When I heard Americans referring to the Viet Cong as "gooks", I didn't hear a lot of love there, Christian or otherwise. For all of their obvious flaws, I still saw the hippies' emphasis on peace and love as an admirable thing.
Yet, unlike a lot of people my age, I didn't rebel indiscriminately against everything my parents had once stood for. Instead of going in search of answers by exploring Eastern religions and drugs, I turned to Christ. I found that there was more to the gospels than what I had been taught by my parents, despite the fact that my father had served for two consecutive three-year terms as a Methodist lay minister at a couple of small country churches in the Springfield, Missouri area.
My dad had always been a somewhat charismatic man. By charismatic, I mean that he was a natural leader. Or at least that was the case when he was surrounded by the simpleminded country people who attended the churches where he preached during his years as a Methodist lay minister. Granted, my perspective might have been somewhat skewed by the fact that he was my father, but it seemed to me that whenever my father was in a room, most of the people in that room just naturally gravitated to him and fell under his spell. He didn't just belong to the Missouri Optometric Association. He was its president. He didn't just belong to the PTA. He was the president of the local PTA. He didn't just serve on the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights. He was the Chairman of that group. The list went on and on.
Some of my father's charisma was related to the fact that he was an articulate public speaker, but a lot of it also pertained to the fact that he was a physically handsome man. My mother used to brag about the fact that she'd been fortunate to marry such a handsome man. Growing up, I remember that I was often reminded of my father when I saw leading men on TV and in the movies. Men such as Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, and a number of others seemed to have that "tall, dark and handsome" quality which my father exuded. (I sometimes see similar qualities in modern actors, such as George Clooney.)
For a long time, we were all very proud of the fact that my father was a handsome, successful, charismatic man. And then we learned about his adulterous affair with a woman he'd met in his optometric office. Suddenly we began to see those traits in an entirely different light.
I came to believe that my father had fallen to temptation because the temptation was so readily available to him. In short, my mother wasn't the only woman who fell under his spell. Unlike my mother, who saw my father's personal flaws on a regular basis because she actually had to live with him, the women my father met in his optometric office only saw the side of him that he wanted them to see. Naturally, he was able to turn to such women for flattery and for false comfort, even though he and my mother were constantly fighting with one another at home.
After my parents' divorce, the rancor between my mother and my father was palpable. For his part, my father spent a lot of time accusing my mother of turning me against him. I found that supremely insulting. My negative opinion of my father was based less on what my mother told me than on what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.
The word "charisma" originally referred to a divinely endowed ability to boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ and bring souls into the Kingdom of God. There's something more than a little ironic in the fact that the word is now used to describe personal traits which are often used by ungodly men for the pursuit of their own selfish objectives.
In some ways, I've been far less charismatic than my father. And in some ways, I've been far more charismatic than he ever was.
Am I as gifted as my father was when it comes to making a big impression on others I meet? Absolutely not. If anything, I am his exact opposite in that respect. Dad never really valued honesty or transparency all that much, so he was great at tickling people's ears and telling them what they wanted to hear. That was one of the secrets to his particular brand of charisma. It also led him to betray his own family.
I, on the other hand, tend to be honest to a fault. Occasionally, I do bite my tongue and refrain from telling people what I think of them, but there are limits to my willingness to do so. Why? Because even though I do care what people think of me, I care what God thinks of me even more. I am painfully and poignantly aware that I will someday be held accountable for everything that passes out of my mouth, so I try to live a life of integrity. I'd be lying if I said that I did this perfectly. In spite of my efforts to be a moral person, I do still blow it from time to time, which is why I'm so incredibly grateful for God's mercy and grace. But at least I'm making the effort to be a righteous person.
When I say that there's a sense in which I am more charismatic than my father ever was, I'm referring to the fact that I opened my mind to new ideas pertaining to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, during the Jesus movement in the early 70's. Little did I know that this would be such a source of conflict and tension between me and my father! As a former Methodist lay minister, I thought he'd be pleased that I had an intense interest in the things of the Lord. But that was before I came to realize that he was actually moving in the opposite direction, spiritually speaking. I wanted to get closer to God. Dad wanted to be "liberated" from conventional morality and from the God who, in his view, was responsible for imposing such morality on him.
Sometimes, when I compare my life with my father's life, I confess that I am tempted to envy him. His life was not completely devoid of financial struggles, but his struggles were nothing compared with those I've experienced during the past several decades. If I had followed his example more closely, perhaps I could have been spared some of those struggles.
But then I think about how my father's life ended. At the time of his death in 1999, he still owned his own home, as well as a couple of duplex apartments which brought him a modest income even though he hadn't worked as an optometrist in a number of years. But you wouldn't be tempted to envy him if you had ever visited him in his home.
I remember visiting him during the last year I saw him before moving to Chicago in 1991. He was a pathetic, wretched, embarrassing mess of a man. His second wife had left him long ago, after figuring out that his outward appearances had indeed been deceiving. His alcoholism had caused him to lose his optometric practice, and many of his days were spent curled up on his couch in a drunken stupor. Often, his house reeked of urine. After leaving him, his second wife told us stories about finding him drunk, lying in bed with his face in his own vomit.
I particularly remember a painful episode in which I paid a surprise visit to him at his home. He was barely able to rouse himself from the couch, and he was so drunk that he couldn't put his own pants on.
For a number of years, my father had severe recurring back pains as the result of a fight with one of his second wife's two sons. Understandably, that young man did not appreciate it when my father came up from behind and started choking him.
I wasn't there on that occasion, but I could remember times when my father had physically abused me. So I found it hard to have much sympathy for him. I knew that he had brought that back pain on himself.
Yet, as little as he deserved my sympathy and respect, I knew that God wanted me to love my father. So even though there was a time when I could have easily repaid him for all of the pain he had caused to me, I chose not to do so. I tried to speak the truth to him, and when he would not receive the truth, I turned and walked away rather than yielding to the temptation to seek vengeance.
When I think about the charisma which my father exhibited when he was younger, I find myself thinking that the key to that charisma was that my father was a great actor. If he had employed his talents in the dramatic arts, I might have even found reason to admire him.
Instead, he chose to live an inauthentic life. The only people who regularly saw my father as he truly was were those, such as me and my mother and my brother, who were forced to live with him on a daily basis. And even then, he was very selective about what he shared with us. It was only in later years that my father broke down and cried in front of me. (To be more accurate, he broke down and cried during a phone conversation with me, when I was still living in Boston.) Unfortunately, they were not tears of godly repentance, so far as I could tell. He was sorrowful about the price he had paid for his betrayal of my mother, but he never seemed to make the connection between his pain and his own stupid choices. Right up until the end, he went right on defending those choices.
At one point, a few years before he died, I made an angry phone call to my father. I told him I hated his guts. I called him a name no man should ever call his father.
To this day, I have feelings of ambivalence about that incident.
It is wrong to hate another person. It is wrong to ignore the biblical command to honor one's parents. I have asked God for his forgiveness, and I believe that God has forgiven me. I also wrote to Dad to ask his forgiveness, but I have no idea whether or not he ever forgave me, because I never heard from him again.
Despite my awareness of the fact that I was wrong to make that phone call, there is a part of me that still feels as if my father had it coming. I had gotten tired of struggling to love my father in spite of the hateful ways he'd treated me, my mother and my brother. I felt that he needed to know just how deeply he had hurt all of us with his self-centered acts. I had tried for many years to show great forbearance to my father, and it didn't seem to have made the slightest difference. He had remained obstinately indifferent to his need to repent.
When the hospital called me in 1999 to tell me that he'd died, I wasn't very surprised. If anything surprised me, it was the fact that he managed to live as long as he live while continually flouting common sense with regard to how one ought to treat one's body. When a man is as seriously addicted to alcohol as my father was, one never knows when one will receive a phone call announcing tragic news.
At my father's funeral, I wept openly with no shame. It was not on account of having just lost my father that I wept. Rather, it was on account of having lost him many years ago. It was on account of the fact that I knew, when he died, that the reconciliation for which I had longed for many years would never take place on this earth.
I wept for another reason, too. I wept when I remembered what a wonderful man he had once been. He had never been perfect, but he had once been worthy of my admiration and affection, until he decided that he was tired of trying to be a righteous man.
Like Frank Sinatra, who had once been one of his heroes, my father did things "his way", when he should have done things God's way. He was seduced by the fact that he possessed the wrong kind of charisma into forgetting that God is not impressed by such things.
One may be able to fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but one cannot fool the Creator any of the time.
I may never be recognized as a leader, the way my father often was, but that is unimportant. What is important is for me to run the race until the very end, faithfully following and serving the Lord to the best of my admittedly limited ability, so that I can hear the words, "Well done, thy good and faithful servant." Pleasing my heavenly father is what matters to me most.
Still, I must admit that there are times when I also long for reconciliation with the earthly father I lost to sin so many years ago. In spite of all of the bad things he did, I still love him. I always will. Even though I never saw evidence to support the idea that such a thing took place, I pray that he repented of his sins in his final days. Nothing would make me more happy than to see his shining face in Heaven and to know that he had finally found the peace he never seemed to find in this life.