In a weird twist of fate, on the same day Ted Cruz endorsed Donald Trump for president, my husband and I had to share some unpleasant truth with our youngest son about someone who used to be an important figure in his life.
The situations are, of course, different—whereas my husband and I are feeling let down by a political figure, our son is experiencing a very personal disappointment. But the similarity in both cases is the sense of disillusionment at discovering that someone you once looked up to is not what he seemed.
It’s something we all go through, so regularly that the theme of “initiation” is one of the most common in literature. Initiation stories depict a character, usually one who is young, experiencing an event or discovering something about the world that forever alters his perspective from innocence to experience. After the formative event, the character typically has a less idealistic and more skeptical view of life, having been “initiated” from starry-eyed youth into cynical adulthood.
The Quintessential Tale of Disillusionment
The quintessential initiation story is “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It used to be required high school reading. In the story, set in colonial Salem, the character for whom the story is named goes for a walk in the woods only to discover his fellow townspeople engaging in what appears to be a Satanic rite. These are people Goodman Brown knows by day as morally upstanding, church-going folk.
The climactic moment in the story is Brown’s discovery that his very own wife Faith is also present as a new “convert” to the evil fellowship that has convened. He screams at her to “Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one!” After that, the scene jumps to Brown’s return to the village the following morning. Had it all been a dream?
Ultimately that matters little, since Brown was from that time forward “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” who “when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave” had “no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”
The allegorical elements are unmistakable. When at the beginning of the story “Good Man” Brown leaves on his mysterious walk, his Faith begs him not to go, but he disregards her pleas. Ultimately, he discovers not only Faith but his minister and former Sunday school teacher at the gathering in the woods. No wonder his “dying hour was gloom.” Everyone he believed in has shown themselves to be something other than what he has always thought.
What does someone do with a discovery like that? Here’s what I told my son a few days ago in answer to that question.
Four Things to Remember
1. People are a mess. That means everything they touch is a mess: families, churches, governments, and nations. It’s always been that way and will always be that way. Thank God we don’t put our ultimate hope in sinful humanity and its various institutions but in the one who created the world and all its inhabitants, who loves the world he created more than we can possibly imagine, and who therefore made and carried out a plan for its redemption. His love and truth dwarf all our little messes.
2. Because people are a mess, they are going to let you down. Even the people you look up to most—parents, teachers, pastors, presidents—will let you down. When this happens, it doesn’t void the things those people taught you.
If you catch the parent who taught you not to use foul language dropping the f-bomb, it doesn’t make him a hypocrite—it just makes him a fallible human being. If the pastor who taught you the faith turns out to be a liar in his personal life, it doesn’t negate the truth that he taught you about God. If the presidential candidate you believe in ends up doing what you never thought he would, it doesn’t take away from the ideas he represented. Principles stand independent of people, and the failure of those people to perfectly carry them out does not nullify them.
3. If you decide, based on a betrayal, to become cynical and untrusting, you will ultimately hurt yourself more than anyone else. Yes, trusting and believing in another means opening yourself up to another betrayal, another hurt, another let-down. But it also opens you up to future good. If you give up on everyone because one person has disappointed, you guarantee for yourself a lifetime of disappointment.
4. The people who really, really matter will always be there for you. Unfortunately, they, too, may let you down in ways big and small because they, too, are only human. But you will know your importance to them when they come to you and humbly lay their failure at your feet and ask you for your forgiveness. When they do that, forgive them. They’re struggling through this life, trying to make sense of it just like you are. Have compassion for them, and be kind.
Don’t Lose Faith, Or You Lose Yourself
My husband and I were initiated to the ways of the world—and politics—long before Cruz decided to throw his support to someone he once called a pathological liar. When we heard of Cruz’s endorsement we shrugged, sighed, and moved on. We have “been there, done that” with politicians and certainly will again.
My son, on the other hand, is having to come to terms with a much more painful realization. My heart breaks for him as he makes this difficult step into adulthood. Unfortunately, it is a step he has to make, one I can’t protect him from forever.
It can be a slap in the face to discover that someone you put on a pedestal of sorts is making it up as he goes along, just like you. It’s good to remember that when Young Goodman Brown headed into the forest he was not without sin. What, after all, was he doing there himself?
He tells us at the beginning of the story: “Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! . . . Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”
We do well, always, to remember that in this life each of us is constantly tempted to compromise, for the sake of ease or expedience, those principles we claim to hold dear. When we fail, and when those we look up to fail, let us not lose faith in what remains true or in the God who made all truth. Instead, let us cling to our Faith even more tightly, and pray for each other as we head out into the wilderness.