David Johnson, the retiring Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, shot himself on January 15th. The Boston papers were full of reflective eulogies and psychological explanations. Theologians and Philosophers squirmed to find an answer, juggling existential hyperbole with earnest bewilderment as if to convince themselves of their innocence in the matter. After all, if he was privy to the same information they were and chose death over a life much like their own, what did that mean? Did this in some way threaten their integrity as intellectual and spiritual guides — the men who knew all the questions if not the answers?
How could someone explain, in less than three paragraphs, why any man, let alone a bishop who had attained the NEW American Dream would shoot himself in the head? It didn’t make sense.
David Johnson was not merely successful. He was successful in the way that Madison Avenue has recently hyped as chic. He had managed to attain status on both a professional and spiritual level. True to Hollywood standards, he also possessed a tragic hero’s’ “fatal flaw”, which, in his case, manifested itself as an irrepressible passion in a matter pertaining to the flesh. I say “passion” because it is only passion, not merely lust, that would back David Johnson into a corner with a bullet
. In our culture, passion unbridled is even more of a sin than it was 200 years ago. It contains elements of the spiritual and implies a defiance of the Good-Old-American-Boy network which fears the aesthetic, therefore dangerous, notion that a sum can be greater than its parts. Man can be swept away by something greater than himself. John Wayne wouldn’t have let it happen and if he did, it certainly wouldn’t
happen in Boston.
Lust, on the other hand, has become an acceptable, if not imperative, cultural measure of masculine competence. Based solely on physical reactions triggered haphazardly by a thought, an idea, a sensory cue, lust, at first glance, gives off a macho—glow, but is instead spineless, emotional and blood red, like a raw steak. It is considered an appropriate vehicle for free-floating aggression, a made-for-TV-movie version of the apocalyptic terrorizing, ecstatic free-fall I imagine David Johnson experienced. Of course, I am only imagining, for I haven’t seen David Johnson in over ten years and we exchanged less than one hundred words back then. But I’ve found that words, like emotions, can exist without value. They must be shaped into significance with attention paid to the awkward pauses between the words and the mystery behind the emotions. It was David Johnson whose awkward pauses and mysterious nature helped me through a particularly painful part of my life.
I was a young wife and mother in Sarasota, Florida. My days consisted of suntan lotion, picnics, sand castles and iced tea. At night, after the baby fell asleep at my breast, my husband helped me wash the dinner dishes. But it was silent in the kitchen except for the singing locusts and crickets and it was silent in our bedroom. I supposed that was to be expected with money problems and such. I considered myself indulgent with self-pity based on unrealistic expectations.
I was confused as to why a conventional but supportive lifestyle left me wanting, but I took great joy in mothering, singing in Cabaret clubs, and cleaning the house. Trouble was, my head pulsed with a dull consistent ache and seemed stuffed with a thick blue fog. This fog partially lifted at times, just enough for me to peer through it, and recognize its return.
It was through this fog that I first heard David Johnson pausing between religious references in his sermons at St. Steven’s Episcopal Church on beautiful Siesta Key Island. My husband and his family, on and off members of the islands’ Episcopal congregation, decided to dress up and start going back to church when David Johnson came to town. We all heard that there was a very handsome, distinguished man of letters behind the pulpit who knew how to please a crowd. I was introduced to he benefits of an intelligent theologian and the primal fulfillment of religious ritual that my Unitarian past lacked. For the first time in my life I sought and found spiritual solace in a “house of worship”.
No one was more surprised than I was at my regular church attendance. Even on good beach days, I sat in a back pew, watched and sometimes listened to Father Johnson. There was apprehension in his delivery and manner that seemed to torment him. He would pause mysteriously in the midst of a sentence as though he yearned to expand on it. He would then stare out at the congregation, studying a few unsuspecting blue-haired matrons with intensity and puzzlement as though looking for a clue. Sensing futility, he would reluctantly return to the sermon-as-written. I sensed he felt he was failing us in some way. He knew that words were not the vehicles we needed to soothe our wounded psyches and that neither prayer, song, or communion could begin to absolve us of our one apparent sin: existence.
I didn’t listen much anyway, or sing or pray. I just sat motionless, half asleep, my head heavy in the thick blue fog. I tried to figure out why David Johnson had chosen the priesthood. I didn’t sense that he used his robe and collar costume as protective armor but rather survival gear that might allow him access to otherwise dangerously invisible theoretical and emotional territories. Was he a true believer? If so, in what, exactly? What was he struggling to withhold during the awkward pauses in his otherwise flawless sermons?
I knew from reading Rilke and first-hand experience with authority figures that there were no answers, only more questions, but I made an appointment for counseling, driven by the blue fog which, after a few weeks with a bible, I interpreted as a spiritually significant sign from God. A sign that only David Johnson could interpret.
On an unaccustomedly damp and overcast afternoon, I walked into the newly refurbished adobe-styled rectory. It smelled like good leather and money. I felt hopeful. A sunburned church lady, in a starchy dress the color of the inside of my head, quickly adjusted her pinched face, made irritable with unrewarded martyrdom. She smiled whitely.
He looked up at me over his bifocals for a moment and started to say something. In his accustomed manner, he paused and studied my face. He shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. He finally said, “Well…” He paused. I jumped in and finished his sentence. “I guess maybe I should just sing and see what happens.” A pause, then, “you love to sing which may mean….” The pause. He wanted to continue. I felt he wanted to, truly but he didn’t. Why not? I looked at his face. Yes, he did want to continue but — didn’t feel it was his place to do so.
So that was it. The pauses on the pulpit were moments when he concluded that it was not in his place, or anyone’s place, to insinuate that they had an answer. Answers, even attempts at answers, especially those veiled with sobrietous intentions, were oversimplifications and therefore violations of a seeker’s dignity.
He shook the snow paperweight, harder this time. The snow swirled around the caroling child again. We stared at the paperweight together until the snow settled. It took about five minutes. A stream of blazing tropical light flashed across the desk as the sun came out. The dust in the air was spinning like the snow. It seemed like we were inside a larger paperweight. He pulled a book from his shelf and began reading passages that meant nothing and weren’t meant to; just a string of words, soothing, colorful, but empty, like the sound of his voice. They wrapped around me like ribbons but then became thread-like. Threads of pain. I began to understand why I felt a sense of connection to this man who appeared so aloof and introspective. Somehow, in his own strange way, he was validating my pain instead of trying to alleviate it.
I felt his pain, but he did not suggest it. I was spared an indulgence of empathy, a mental state easily manufactured which temporarily satisfies our hunger for emotional connection. But empathy is of-the-moment, short-lived, because it is by nature, a thought based emotion. It is safe. It is passionless. What I felt that afternoon in Reverend Johnson’s office was his capacity for passion, which, in our circumstance, availed
itself as com-passion. I had somehow entered the paradoxical closet he suffered in. On one hand, a withholding – allowing me to reach towards the pauses made awkward by their naked availability, on the other hand, an offering, a surrendering, for in allowing me, or anyone else to reach towards, he could be touched. And passion is ignited not when we touch, but only when we allow ourselves to be touched by others.
I shook David Johnsons hand good-bye a decade ago and never saw him again. When I heard about his new position as Bishop of Massachusetts, I had a hard time picturing him in a passionless Puritan environment. But I wished him well and thought about him whenever I choose passion over emotion, or silence over distraction, because, ever since that Florida afternoon in the adobe rectory I stopped formatting my foggy blue brain for conventional purposes unrelated to a passion, whether it be singing, mud-wrestling or other admittedly peculiar pursuits. I let loose of the reins. Often, I forget about consequences. Sometimes they have been severe, but the blue fog in my head has faded into yellow gold, the color of my daughter’s eyes and she, too, has benefited from my connection with David Johnson.
How do you thank a man for that kind of gift? Certainly not by challenging his final decision and labeling it a tragedy. And not by participating in a psychological autopsy as though filling out the blanks on an application form admitting him into heaven.
The true tragedians are the people who insist on settling their soft bottoms around other people’s souls until they hatch, explode, or suffocate. Their own grief acts as a sturdy vessel, which they feel allows them floatation rights across someone else’s birthright. These well-intentioned emotionally alert care-takers lead active lives, manipulating their pain in warped circus mirrors or reflecting it in quiet pools of meditation and retreat. Unlike David Johnson, they choose to live on and on and on. They’re very busy. They never let the snow settle.