Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I March: Because of Her

[W]e are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the "culture of death" and the "culture of life". We find ourselves not only "faced with" but necessarily "in the midst of" this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.
 - John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 28

On Wednesday, January 22 of this year, I will join tens of thousands other pro-lifers for the 41st Annual March for Life.
2013 March for Life
Photo credit: Drew Angerer, New York Times
As I prepare to attend the March this year, many reflections - musings and memories both - fill my mind. Since the March for Life Education and Defense Fund is calling on people to share on social media #WhyWeMarch, I figured I would share some of my own reflections here.

As I think of how to answer the question, "Why do you March for Life?", there are certain memories that surface involuntarily: memories not of previous years' Marches, but of those rather lonelier and more sober affairs, morning prayer vigils on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics.

One such occasion comes first to mind for the impact it made on me. There was nothing momentous about the day itself, nothing observably different from any other such affair. But that, precisely, was what ended up sticking in my mind, heart, and soul.

It was winter; a very cold and grey Saturday morning. All dressed in black - a seminarian at the time - a black topcoat and black scarf and knit cap over a black suit - looking surely very Mormon, I knelt on the pavement outside the Philadelphia Women's Center Clinic at 8th and Appletree trying to ply my rosary beads with increasingly sensation-less fingers and thumbs. The event organizers, a group called the Helpers of God's Precious Infants, led the prayers, and the trained sidewalk counselors among them gently offered literature to the young women going into the clinic.

Trying to focus on the words of the Aves floating by, I remember coming quickly to my senses at one particular point and realizing that I'd been staring at something. Someone. And she stared back.

My eyes had become locked with the eyes of a young girl with short cropped hair standing opposite. She wore an orange safety vest designating her as a volunteer. She and a young man volunteering alongside her would approach the women coming to the clinic once they crossed a certain threshold or perimeter that was apparently known by instruction because no visible demarcation existed; and they would proceed to walk, one on either side of the girl, over to the entrance of the clinic, seeming very much like body guards.

I had only been staring absentmindedly, literally devoid of any conscious thoughts, dumbly numb with the cold, and somehow this girl's eyes had become my focal point. And when suddenly my mind did return from wandering and I began to see consciously again, I was literally jolted by what I saw in the eyes staring back into mine. It was hatred: angry, direct, and very personal hatred.

I want to be very clear about something at this point.

I believe with the utmost sincerity that the vast majority of those people who might be called agents in the abortion industry - the doctors, nurses, clinic workers and administrators - are not malicious. 

I have long given benefit of the doubt in consideration of such that there are probably any number of contributory factors to explain their presence in such places and their doing the work they do there... reasons besides a fully rationalized ill motive. There can be trauma, pain, ignorance, or confusion. Indeed, in many cases, I believe they are themselves victims - of lies, propaganda, ill treatment, and a host of other injustices.

And if this is true, as I believe it is, of such as these... then how much more can, must, it be believed true of those poor women I have watched entering these clinics on days such as the one I'm describing!

It is this belief, in fact, which gave the element of such sincere shock to my sudden realization that behind the eyes of this young girl - who couldn't have been much older than 21 - there was unmistakably a very deep hatred, and a hatred toward me!

Probably how I looked.
'What have I done?' ... When a shock like this occurs, the mind will immediately begin seeking explanations. My first theory was that I, perhaps, had unwittingly offended her. Maybe my unconscious staring had given a wrong impression. Who could tell, after all, what emotional implication might have unintentionally been communicated by my glazed-over and unseeing eyes? Or all that while, what had been the expression on my face...? 'Ah! That's it!' ... and so I smiled, my best attempt at a gentle, conciliatory smile.

In response, her eyes narrowed - ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly - and the daggers grew only sharper. The message of dislike grew still more intense.

Finally, 'stop staring, idiot,' my mind chided. And I immediately averted my eyes, looking down at the pavement for a minute or so.

Looking up again anon, I found her eyes directed elsewhere: yet their expression had not changed. Now she was looking around at the crowd of those gathered, the same vicious glint on her pupils... almost (it seemed) as if looking for another set of eyes she could stare into and make sure they got the message: "I despise you."

There are a few other observations I recall from that morning regarding this same young girl, and they will be important to my answering the question, "Why do I March for Life?"

Nearly each time after walking a new client into the clinic, she and her male volunteer counterpart  would exchange some banter. Somehow, I felt that I recognized them both during these moments - but that's because I was recognizing the interaction, not them personally. As I watched these exchanges, it became more and more evident to me that they were very contrived, very deliberate, very self-aware - both on her part and his.

The body language (shuffling feet, moving the shoulders over the hips in a very slightly exaggerated nonchalance), the too-emphatic eye contact and attention on one another, the sure inclusion of one burst of laughter literally every time... all this was staged, I realized.

There's nothing all that remarkable in this, really.

The way I had been able to recognize these interactions for what they were is because I've acted on stage. This behavior was unmistakably that same sort of hyper-conscious interaction (meant to maintain the pretense of casualness) that one must employ when acting upstage as a disinterested crowd member during a scene with a separate downstage focus. (I think I remember being told that mouthing the words "watermelon juice" at different tempos and in different combinations gave the best and most believable impression of actual speech.)

Of course, reflecting that these two weren't merely pantomiming. Nevertheless, their casual, nonchalant, good-humored interactions were definitely acted, even if only subconsciously.

Now, the whole point of recounting this interaction is this: I have remembered this girl. 

It remains in my memory as vivid a meeting as any other I can recall in my entire life, and we had spoken not a word.

Indeed, for the few days following this, while I lay on my bed drifting off to sleep and my mind did its nightly circumambulation and sorting out, it would return to me the vivid image of this encounter, like a cat coming back from its last time out for the night with a dead rodent as a present for master.

I wanted to just forget it, since I had trouble making any sense of it. But I couldn't forget. I can't, even now, forget. Why?

Finally, after so many years, I've been able to find a reason for why this scene had become seared so powerfully into my memory and weighed so heavily upon my heart. And for that reason, it has - at least for where I am now in my spiritual journey - become a big part of the reason why I will once again March for Life. (I'd marched before, with other reasons before, and those reasons certainly still attain; but this reason now is what renews my personal commitment to the "inescapable responsibility" of being pro-life.)

When I started from reverie and comprehended a look of hatred being directed specifically and deliberately at me, my first reaction was shock.

My second reaction a kind of dismay.

My third reaction a struggling confusion.

My fourth reaction, and the one that lingered, was the temptation to hate in return.

The more over the years I sat with this memory, the more my confusion at the way it affected me would turn into a kind of resentment, frustration, or anger toward this girl.

Who the hell was she, anyway? She didn't know anything about me. How could she just hate me for kneeling there praying a rosary?... and so on went my thoughts, taking the path of least resistance along the mixed-up wiring of wounded sinful nature.

It was the most natural way to respond. It made psychological sense. It seemed to offer a kind of comfort or relief. It nursed my sense of woundedness, catered to the egocentricity of indignant victimhood. What's more, it could be safely rationalized, if it came to that: Sure, I might be giving in a bit to hatred toward her now... but at least she isn't here to suffer it: I'm not hurting her, or staring her down the way she did to me.

And then it hit me: this was why this mysterious thing had been allowed to happen in the first place. In a way, it's not about her. Honestly, I don't know if I could say whether it had even been she herself or a demon that had stared at me with such sensible hatred and vitriol that day: indeed, perhaps in the final assessment all of it had been merely in my perception. Nonetheless, the memory and the effect remained the same.

But ultimately this was a challenge, from Our Lord to me: "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you." As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Borglio (now-Pope Francis) applied this message directly in this context: "Defend the unborn against abortion even if they persecute you, calumniate you, set traps for you, take you to court or kill you."
I'd been laid a trap, and I for many years fell into it.

As often as I would remember that day, I would first force my mind away from the look of hatred I'd encountered, and remember instead those interactions spoken about above, between this girl and the other volunteer. I'd recall how - right after walking young girls in through that door to commit an act that broke my heart even to imagine it, an act that sent shivers down my spine merely to conceive of it - they would stand there and joke around and laugh nonchalantly, like walking through the park.

And only then, after detouring in my remembrances, would I allow myself to consider again that look. And thus I would come prepared and armed with my own rationale for hatred, with an extra sense of indignation and what I saw as "just" anger. And I would meet her remembered stare with my own in my mind's eye, and shoot back the message: I despise you, too. It was, in a very literal sense, "an eye for an eye."

"But I say unto you: Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you."

After years of standing by abortion clinics praying, it is reasonable to assume that I've unwittingly been present at the loss of scores of unborn lives. Two persons walking in, one walking out: time and time again I've witnessed it, my heart rending, and I've tried to grapple with the sheer horror and magnitude of the thing.

Despite that fact, it has always been this memory that has stood at the center of all, getting caught up in all the other emotions and sadnesses and outrages that my encounters with the abortion industry have afforded me.

God magnified this event for me, and allowed it to become so central, for a very specific and very shocking reason: in the midst of all that atrocity and death, children's lives lost and women's lives shattered, this is what God wanted to be most topically focused and intensely felt for me: I cannot, I MUST NOT, hate that girl.

This is that "enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the 'culture of death' and the 'culture of life'" of which John Paul II wrote, and this is part of what he meant when we said we are "in the midst" of and intertwined with that clash. We are "in it" because, to a large extent, it is "in" us - in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls.

For all I know her banter with her fellow volunteer might have merely been a kind of defense mechanism and shyness: a way of coping coping with their own sense of being "on display" in front of all these praying activists - they the only two volunteers, standing in bright orange vests in front of a crowd of rosary-murmuring protesters. For that matter, her look of hatred toward me might have been another version of the same. But all of it was moot when it came to interpreting the clear message Our Lord wanted to convey to me through the bright recollection: God loves her still, and so must I.

I'll close with one final observation.

I am not trying to prove any grand thesis here. There are agents of evil in the abortion industry. There are, it can truly be said, evil people working there, as within other mechanisms of the Culture of Death. To acknowledge the woundedness and hurt and pain that often lies at the root of why people get to be where we find them does not whitewash the fact that there are simply some who have given themselves over to the Enemy and willfully live lives of diabolical depravity.

The point of this story is that one personal encounter. And the personal part is the key. I can't stretch this point out to generalities. First of all, we would run into those difficult cases just mentioned, where it's hard to feel anything like love. But secondly... even if I could successfully generalize my point here, that would simply make the Gospel's radical and revolutionary command to love our enemies too tame, too facile.

These words of Christ's, like most words of challenge, are easier said than done: and doing requires an encounter, a reification of what the words index. The challenge cannot be met in abstraction. It must be met in lived reality.

So, in closing, please understand that I am not riding some moral high horse off into the sunset amidst triumphant music. I am not claiming that I succeed in loving all of the agents who work as the enemies of life (and, by the by, if actually calling them "enemies," even in the most egregious cases, makes the challenge more difficult to us then we probably had better not).

I am not even saying I succeed merely in trying most times to love them, as (for example) I see this or that spokesperson on the news decrying "anti-choice" laws.

No; I am a sinner. I struggle. I slip all too easily and fall into anger and hatred still.

But I don't in this one case, anymore. Not for that girl, anymore. And that is my point. I love her. I love her because God loves her. And THAT, right now, is the renewing element reviving all the many reasons #WhyIMarch: I march because I love her.
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