I once had a client who was a white supremacist.* The thing about being a therapist is, you quickly learn that everyone’s got a story. In this case, there was a history of domestic abuse, a parent with extreme racist ideologies, underlying severe depression and anxiety, and experiences of rejection by loved ones (which hurt him deeply, though he would only rarely admit it). He was also bright and thoughtful, extremely well read, and had a sardonic sense of humor that I genuinely enjoyed. He openly discussed his racist ideologies with me, and I was never shy about telling him how abhorrent his ideas were. He was always willing to debate these ideas, but whenever I called them out for what I thought they were—stories he told himself in order to feel strong, powerful, and invulnerable—he scoffed and quickly changed the subject.
Once, in the aftermath of an incident in which his own risky behaviors nearly cost him his life, I told him honestly how concerned I had been for his safety. At this, he grew intensely uncomfortable, and more emotional than I had ever seen him. “I don’t want to know that!” he said to me, curling up into a ball in the chair with his head in his hands. It was as though the very idea that I—or anyone, for that matter—could care about him enough to be worried about him was just utterly intolerable to him. He just could not handle the vulnerability of true human connection.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. That was the last time I saw him—days afterwards, he moved away and I wasn’t able to continue working with him. He sent me a short message several months later to tell me that he had “no hard feelings.” Several months after that, I heard that he had died by suicide.
Unsurprisingly, he’s been on my mind as I’ve watched events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend. I tell this story not to excuse the perpetrators of racism and violence–I believe, as I would hope all people would, that evil such as this must be condemned in the strongest terms. But my experiences working with this individual (and others) have taught me that it is still humans with their own complicated stories who commit these acts of violence, humans who are often attracted to extreme ideologies out of fear and a desire for safety, and who cannot tolerate the vulnerability that comes with life on earth.
Something I’ve noticed in the past several years is that almost every client who comes into my office (regardless of how they describe the “problem”) is wrestling with some variation on that one essential question: how can I feel safe and certain in a world that is complicated and dangerous? I’m afraid I have also realized that the only real answer to this question is not one that is likely to provide immediate comfort—the truth is that life is full of risk and complexity, and complete safety and certainty are not actually possible (no matter who tells us otherwise). It’s a hard idea for many of us to swallow, as evidenced by the many ways we try and avoid the discomforts of vulnerability.
Many people develop perfectionistic tendencies, for example. We work ourselves into anxious frenzies, trying to control the uncontrollable. Some of us become defensive and hostile when feeling vulnerable. We blame, we criticize, or we refuse to confront the possibility that we are wrong. To be wrong is to seem weak, and that is unacceptable for many of us. Some of us take the opposite approach and avoid conflict at all costs. We become supremely adaptable, and pat ourselves on the back for our patience and long-suffering, neglecting to realize that standing up for ourselves in an open, honest way creates a sense of risk that we’d just as soon avoid. So we go with the flow, and refuse to “show up.”
And yes, some of us feel the vulnerability of cultural change or a perceived loss of power, and form increasingly polarized mentalities of the world. We resort to tribalist thinking and begin to divide people into easily defined “us-vs-them” categories. We surround ourselves with people who think and look and sound just like us. It feels safer to not have to confront complex realities, where most people are doing their best (even when clearly screwing up all the time) and many problems don’t have simple solutions (if they have solutions at all).
These aren’t new tensions; rather, these are themes that have existed since the dawn of time. What little we know about the council in heaven provides us with some clues about the nature of the original conflict between Satan’s proposed plan, and God’s. In Moses 4:1, Satan offers to the Father, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” Note carefully what he promises here—“not one soul shall be lost.” Some have interpreted this to mean that Satan’s plan involved some sort of coercion, or somehow “forcing” everyone to be good. This was the interpretation that was most common in my childhood primary classes, and I imagine many of my contemporaries who grew up in the church will recognize it too. However, the text itself does not necessarily support this. Another, I think more plausible interpretation is that rather than stating his desire to somehow “force” the perfection God’s children, Satan was stating a belief that he could somehow circumvent consequences and avoid loss altogether. Later in the garden, Satan speaks to Eve in the form of a serpent, and tells her to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “Ye shall not surely die,” he promises her (Genesis 3:4, Moses 4:10).
These are the devil’s lies: I can protect everyone from loss. You shall not surely die. And make no mistake; they are incredibly seductive lies, even for us today. Satan’s proposal is essentially a wholesale rejection of vulnerability. But there is no vitality without risk. Such a plan as Satan’s would never, could never have been possible for a God who loves life, and truly would have “destroy[ed] the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). God’s plan, in contrast, requires becoming both flesh and subject to death (accepting and embracing even the most intense kind of vulnerability), as Christ himself shows us. And Satan, in his attempt to avoid the reality of loss, death, and vulnerability destroyed his chance at having a life, rather than just a meaningless existence.
So what to do with all this? I don’t know that I have a good answer, but I think we try to approach the messiness and vulnerability of life with clear-eyed bravery. We learn to see and love people, in all their complicated glory. We hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We forgive. We grieve our losses, and celebrate our joys. We stay open. We learn, we grow. We choose life, even as we are subject to death and loss and pain and change. In this, we follow our Savior’s example.
*To protect confidentiality, I’ve made minor adjustments to some identifying details, and left the rest intentionally vague.