Easter has always been my least favorite Sunday to go to church. I’m sure that as a child my distaste was mostly due to the custom of dressing up more than usual. I resisted any efforts my family made in that department. I once wore my California Raisins t-shirt for a week and was quite miffed at having to change. That was last year. Just kidding. Maybe. But it’s not the dressing up that gets to me anymore. It’s the fact that most of the Easter services I’ve attended in the past few decades have felt like high school pep rallies.
I liked high school pep rallies. What wasn’t to like? We all got pumped up to cheer on the football team for the inevitable win that night. My high school’s football team didn’t lose my junior or senior year. I didn’t play on it, so I can’t take much credit, but I did paint my face a few times, and my senior year I even made a joyful noise with a bass drum as part of our drumline.
The principal of my elementary school (the years I wasn’t homeschooled) told us we should be as excited about Jesus as we were about our favorite sports teams. Granted, the bar was set pretty low. It was the ‘80s in Georgia. We didn’t exactly have to fight the crowd at Braves games. But even that was a tough measure for me to reach, and my apparent apathy was especially poignant during Easter services.
All these people around me seemed genuinely moved by “Up from the Grave He Arose.” And why wouldn’t they be? We were singing about the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of life over death, and the key to our salvation. My elementary school principal was right. This was a big deal. But I just couldn’t get into it. So, I did what any good, Christian boy would do. I faked it. God forbid the people around me have any sense that I wasn’t rejoicing in the central event in Christian theology!
I was pretty paranoid that someone would find out. My entire identity was predicated on being the best Christian anyone knew, and, other than the fear someone would find me out, I was completely emotionless on Easter Sunday. For years, as I sat in various church pews, hoping resurrection jubilation was contagious, I wondered why. It occurred to me that the simplest explanation was that I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe Jesus actually rose from the dead. I put that thought out of my mind as best I could, going so far as to proselytize to others, hoping concern for their salvation would take my mind off my own. It didn’t help. I was terrified.
I’m beginning my fourth year of my longest continuous therapy, and something powerful is happening. I’m becoming increasingly aware of how angry I have been and the exhausting work my mind has done to keep it under the surface. I have not been explosive. I have not lashed out at people. Instead, I’ve just been tired. I’ve learned to shut down to keep any “negative” feelings away because I’ve been so afraid of what might come out. So, I’ve just been numb. It’s been impossible for me to engage fully in any meaningful work or relationship because it’s felt too dangerous to be fully present. I have been that full of rage.
So, back to Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, sitting in church, singing words I want to believe to songs I don’t care about, wondering why I can’t feel anything….and I think I finally get it.
My father died when I was 9 years old. As is normal in any loss, at first it didn’t seem permanent. I expected my dad to come back, and my young mind invented all kinds of elaborate fantasies around his return. It’s been nearly 29 years now, and he still hasn’t come back. I still don’t know exactly what I felt when he died or in the years soon after. What I suspect is that I was incredibly angry. I now know that rage is a natural response to both helplessness and loss, and those two words pretty much sum up what I tried so hard not to feel back then.
Our religious culture taught me to eschew “negative” emotions. It further taught me that emotions are wholly unreliable. What we have is The Truth. It’s in black and white and sometimes in red. Those words are what we can know, what we can trust. They are what we BELIEVE. And those words say that on the third day Jesus rose again. Good for fucking Jesus. My father sure didn’t.
After all these years, I’ve come to believe that celebrating the power of God in the resurrection of the dead without being able to verbalize my own grief about my father’s death was torturing my mind. If God was so powerful…? If death was impotent…? I was SO angry. But I wasn’t allowed to be angry, so I just shut down. I just sat there, cold and lonely, while the people around me cheered for a team I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on anymore.