Losing a Whole Person

Can you help me out? I seem to have misplaced someone. He shouldn't be too hard to find: he's about my height (maybe half an inch taller), has my face (only clean shaven) and a hairline a few inches lower than mine. His hair, which was once bright red, has darkened over the years, but is now starting to go gray. Other than that, he looks a lot like me. When last seen, he looked very much like the man in this picture:

Now here's the hard part: he's been missing for fourteen years.

By now, you've almost certainly realized I'm talking about myself. Fourteen years ago this month, I left the United Methodist ministry--though that's not quite the right word for it. It's more like I was pushed. The push was gentle, but it had been going on almost as long as I had been a minister. I can't entirely blame the church for pushing me, either: a good part of the pressure came from inside me, from the realization that this was not the right place for me.

I'm writing this essay because a friend of mine has also lost a whole person, though in her case, it's not just a career change (though she is, in fact, making just such a change this week). MaryAnn is a smart, funny, caring person I met four years ago when I began playing keyboard for Comedy Sportz. Her main job there is to run the screens, putting up jokes and images that add a running commentary to the improv being performed on the stage. She is incredibly fast with these gags, so much so that the audience is often left wondering if what they've been seeing was scripted, because how else could there be an image of an elephant on a bicycle up there just seconds after it came up in a scene? (I like to think people have the same idea about the music I inject into scenes, by the way.)

In fact, though, while MaryAnn does have a wealth of resources at her fingertips, everything that pops up on those screens has been found by her either on the hard disk or online, or made up on the spot. She's brilliant at this, and there are times when her work with the screens saves an otherwise weak show. She's at almost show, managing the house as well as running the screens, and to many in the troupe, she's a mother figure.

What I'm about to write, I do with MaryAnn's permission: she is also morbidly obese. But not as much as she was. In the last year, MaryAnn has lost a whole person, more than 163 pounds. She still has a long way to go, but the change has been remarkable. In the process, she has become a hero to everyone who knows her. She's writing about her experience in an excellent blog called Repairing Me, which I highly recommend to you.

Last week, MaryAnn began posting cryptic messages on Facebook about a change that was about to take place in her life. Apart from Comedy Sportz, MaryAnn has been doing upper level customer service phone work for a major corporation. That means she gets the complaint calls that have burned their way through the initial level of responders. By the time they get to her, these callers are often furious, abusive, profane. As MaryAnn points out in her most recent blog post, she understands that many of these people are using her company as a punching bag to address the hurt in their lives. That may make it possible for her to leave most of the abuse at work, but it can't take it all away. Just before Christmas, she took a call from a man who, when he realized she was not going to give her what he wanted, told her he hoped she was raped in the parking lot that evening after work.

That call was the impetus for MaryAnn to lose another whole person: the one who sat, day after day, listening to harsh invective, doing her best to calm these people and help them understand just why they couldn't get what they wanted out of the service that company provides. She does not fault either the customers or her employers, but it was time for a change. So almost as quickly as she can put together a slide for a CSz show, MaryAnn found a new job. She starts next week, and she's thrilled: it will use her wonderful skills in ways that don't leave her emotionally bludgeoned, and the employers will work with her to be sure she can continue working at CSz, as well.

I told MaryAnn she had inspired me to blog about her experience, and she told me I was welcome to write about her. And now I'm going to write about me, which is what this blog is all about.

The person I lost, the man in the picture above, was both younger and older than the person I am now. Physically, he was in great shape, preparing to run his fourth marathon. In every other way, though, he was coming to the end of his rope: in the middle of his second divorce; wrestling with his first wife over how much time he would be permitted to spend with his children; three months away from being told he was just not welcome at the church to which he was appointed as music minister; and spiritually adrift. He was worn down, burned out, with no hope, no future. He'd gone to the central Cascades for a personal retreat, and for nearly a week he divided his days between climbing mountains and participating in a spirituality seminar going on at the Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp. He didn't really come home from that retreat. In fact, I'm not sure he ever came down from the mountain he's sitting on in this picture.

Almost everything that man was has fallen away from me. My children grew up and moved to Idaho. My career in ministry ended. The divorce went through very quickly, leaving only minor scars compared to the first one. I had to give up marathoning in 2001 due to injuries. And as far as spirituality goes, I feel much more like I am myself than I have ever been, but to get there, I had to lose God.

(I've written a lot about that last piece, and will certainly write more in the future. God is a big thing to lose, and I'm not absolutely certain that God is permanently gone from my life. It's more like the God I once believed in--or told myself I believed in--has died, and I'm in the process of getting to know the far more complex, subtle, nuanced ground of being and becoming that really is both imminent and immanent in all things. And now I return you to our regularly scheduled blog.)

I look back to that man, and know that he got to that point the way most people do: when he was in his 20s, he fell into far too many things by believing, as most 20-somethings do, in the permanence of the perishable. He had a hard year of teaching, and couldn't face a lifetime of it, so he ran away to seminary, not realizing that the antidote to a bad year of teaching is more teaching, and that it only gets better when you do enough of it to know that it does get better. After a lonely first semester of seminary, he had his first real relationship, and after just a few months, could not imagine ever having another relationship, so he locked it in by proposing marriage--again not realizing that relationships come and go, and that having had a relationship gives ones skills to have another, and that the more experience one has being in relationship, the more mature and fulfilling a relationship can be. Both those decisions set him on a course to disappointment.

Of course, they also went into making me the man I am today. Had I stuck with teaching, had a allowed myself to fall in and out of love a few more times, or just waited on getting married until I'd had a few more seasons of relationship under my belt, I would not be who I am today. I would not have my children, I would not have the memories and experiences that have molded me, I would not have seen so many amazing places, I would not have learned enough about God to know that I needed a more honest spirituality, and I would absolutely not have any of the amazing people (including MaryAnn) in my life. I would probably have a different community, but I doubt it would be filled with such joy, humor, and passion. Most significantly, I would not have Amy, the "mountain wife" whose love infuses every moment with joy and peace.

One advantage of leaving teaching, then coming back to it, is that my career feels far newer than it would otherwise. There are teachers my age who are on the verge of retiring. I, on the other hand, am just finally finding my feet as a teacher. I've got about a decade under my belt. I'd like to do another fifteen, maybe twenty years.

I've also shed so many of the insecurities that locked me into that failed career and those failed marriages. As Amy and I look at our future together, and make plans for formalizing (though not legalizing) our relationship this summer, I am filled with hope and delight at what lies ahead. I'm in the second half of my life, and it looks and feels so much better than the first half.

What I'm saying, then, is I hope that guy at the top of the page stays lost.


  1. Mark, I am so very deeply moved at what you've written about me... I am (almost) without words. I'm very grateful both for the man that you lost, and for the fact that you lost him, because it means that our friendship is a part of my life. Love you.


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