Last week, my best friend passed away. We knew each other for about nine years. We played golf together, drank wine together, traveled together, and spent countless hours chatting about life. I know that he felt he benefitted from knowing me. He saw the very best in me. And, in the nine years I knew him, he had the most profound impact on me that anyone ever has. What follows is a very long tribute to his influence in my life. These are the lessons I learned from JC Browne:
1. Stop trying to be normal. I was born one-handed, and I spent most of my life angry about that. Angry at how I was treated, angry that I couldn’t just blend in, angry at people making a big deal about it. At times, my anger served me well, and was justified. Angry was not all I was, but it was always there. Most people who knew would not have known I harbored this anger. When JC and I developed a close friendship, I felt comfortable expressing it to him, and he listened and he heard. One day, he asked me why I wore a prosthesis. I replied, “so that I don’t have to be seen as handicapped.” He replied, “that’s interesting, because I’ve played golf with you when you were not wearing it, and I have seen how able-bodied you are, how you hold things in your arm, and how natural you look…and I have seen you at work when you were wearing your prosthesis and how unnaturally you move and how handicapped you are.” Six months later, after processing what he said, I took off my prosthesis and have not worn it since. March 23rd, 2009. I was 47.
That was only half the battle. He helped me with the other half too. Once I stopped wearing the prosthesis, the comments started coming in again – the ones about how incredible it was that I could do things one-handed. I heard these compliments as patronizing. “Why can’t people just appreciate me for who I am?” I said angrily to JC one day. “Why do they always have to point out my disability?” JC had finally heard enough. “You just don’t get it do you?? You’re never going to be normal. Stop trying to be normal. You’re going to have to settle for extraordinary!” It took almost 50 years for me to see that no one was putting me down. I was putting me down. They were trying to tell me that I could do things well with one hand, that they struggled to do with two. Thanks to JC, I will live the rest of my life settling for extraordinary.
2. Seek justice. When I told JC that I had been sexually abused by my own pastor when I was a teenager, and that the church had done nothing to the perpetrator, nothing to protect future victims, and next to nothing to acknowledge the report I had made several years earlier, he had a different reaction than anyone else. He did not think I needed additional counseling, or a support group, or forgiveness, or sympathy. He thought I needed justice, and he was willing to walk with me down the path required to get it. He cheered me on as I brought a second complaint, he connected me with a female bishop in the church, whom he knew would not file my letter away again, and he connected me with an expert in clergy sexual abuse. Today, my abuser still enjoys a full retirement pension, and has never been convicted, but through my hard work and JC’s support, I have found a measure of justice. One of the connections JC initiated for me led to me finding and befriending a fellow survivor of my abuser, and learning that my failed first attempt to report him had become a priceless source of strength for her when she bought charges against him later. I have since become a CASA volunteer as another way of advocating for children in the Injustice system, and Jackie and I have founded LearningHope.org, a resource for survivors of sexual abuse. It only took a spark.
3. Understanding manipulation as abuse. I have an undergraduate minor in psychology, I have read dozens of self-help books, I’ve benefitted immensely from therapy, but I continued to define manipulative behaviors in my ex-husband as “personality traits”. Society taught me to do this. We use words like “he’s a jerk,” or “what’s her problem.” It’s not cool in many settings to name manipulation what it is – abuse. I, like many people, think of emotional abuse as aggressive, hurtful statements, or blatant control.
I had been divorced more than six months, when JC, his wife Mary, and I were eating out in Branson, MO. It was a restaurant I recommended for their great BBQ and I had been there several times. As we were perusing the menu, JC and Mary asked “how are the ribs here.” I replied I didn’t know because I had never had ribs. “You’ve never had ribs?!?” they said in unison. “But you love BBQ. Why have you never had ribs?” “Because George was morally opposed to them. He thought they were bad for you and a waste of money,” I answered. JC would not let that go unchallenged. Through a series of gentle, but persistent questions, he allowed me to hear myself say that if I had ever wanted to order ribs, George would not have told me I couldn’t order them, but his ensuing behavior and comments would have made the choice not worth the pain. “It’s the same thing as not letting you,” JC and Mary helped me see. I never made excuses for manipulation again. And I began to understand that emotional abuse should be defined by what it accomplishes, not how it is accomplished.
4. It’s possible to completely understand and yet completely disagree with another paradigm.
One of JC’s most interesting careers was an intake officer at a boys camp in northern California. It was his job to assess within a few hours what emotional/cognitive level a new boy at the camp was functioning at and how best to serve him. He was taught and utilized an assessment model that focused on the subject’s ability to perceive both good and bad in a situation at the same time. Those predicted to be the most successful, were the ones who could see the gray areas of a situation and could understand opinions and ideas that were different than their own. JC was so impressed by this that he honed his own skill at seeing things from other people’s perspectives. He helped me move from seeing people I encountered at work, socially, and in family as either completely “good” or “bad.” Now, whenever I feel myself objectifying others in my life, and the inherent frustration from doing so, I know I am slipping back into black and white thinking and I work to see both sides. JC would be proud.
I never mastered the art of understanding someone’s opinion that is completely contrary to my own, though. I will miss JC’s explanations without judgement.
5. “I’m sorry” can be sincere without accepting blame. Before I met JC, my paradigm said apologizing was synonymous with taking blame for someone else’s pain. It was part of my two-dimensional, black or white thinking. Over the 9 years I knew JC, we discussed many painful things openly. From time to time, he would say something that I was not ready to hear; and at the time, I perceived it as mean, or hurtful. Whenever, I would express to him that I felt hurt from what he said, he would say, “I’m sorry,” and I assumed he was admitting he was wrong. One day, I was telling him how another person had hurt me and he replied, “I’m sorry,” which struck me as really odd because he wasn’t to blame for any of it. “I know,” he said, “but I am still sorry you are hurting and you needed to hear it.” He went on to explain, “I apologize a lot without deciding who is to blame. It doesn’t matter who is to blame. It matters that you’re hurting.” Words feel inadequate to explain how powerful that revelation was – to see that I had the blessing of a friend who didn’t care who was right or wrong, who could offer a sincere apology simply to lessen my load, without diminishing himself.
6. The best test of theology is the third-world test. At one point in my theological journey, I was really into the Law of Attraction. It’s a theology that says the universe is a cosmic vending machine, that conspires to provide you with whatever you ask for. Expect pain and betrayal and the universe gives you pain and betrayal. Expect wealth and happiness and the universe conspires to bring it to you. I proudly shared my new-found “Answer” with JC during one of our coffee chats. He said he thought that kind of theology had some good points, but he didn’t think it could pass his third-world theology check. I had never heard of such a thing. It’s very simple, if a theology is universal, it should not only make sense in our privileged, first-world lives, it should also hold hope and meaning for someone starving on the other side of the globe. He said he couldn’t quite see telling someone born into a life of famine, that they should just expect food and clean water and the universe would provide, or that they were starving in the first place because their people had not attracted food and water. It was my first introduction to Social Justice theology – a theology that does pass the third-world test, one that helps me see that I am privileged, not persecuted.
JC was the most well-versed Biblical scholar I ever met. He knew EVERY story in the Bible, and he knew them in a way I had not been exposed to before – that of Progressive Christianity. He, along with Mary Browne and Doyle Burbank-Williams introduced me to so many new Biblical concepts that made sense to me, that my Christianity was transformed.
Last year, JC officiated the wedding ceremony for Dave and me. On JC’s 73rd birthday, earlier this year, I called him — not only to wish him a happy birthday, but to tell him that I could not have been the person I am today if I had not met him. I’m a better person because I knew him. Rest in peace my dear, dear friend. Rest in peace.