My atheist neighbor offended me this week. He said I was “bereft of intelligence.”
Some interesting dynamics came out of his valuation of me. An agnostic friend witnessed the exchange leading up to the offense and understood immediately that damage was done. He came to my house the next day to help dress my wound and formulate a strategy for protecting my friendship with my atheist neighbor.
As expected, I felt this compelling urge to dismiss my neighbor’s insult because it would be the “Christian thing to do.” I’ve done this a great deal over the years so have a routine for managing emotional pain. I take long walks, journal, think a lot, and build additional layers of protection. I hunker down and absorb the hurt. In other words, I internalize the conflict in order to keep my outward appearance consistent with the expression expected of me as a Christian: smiling, nice, tolerant, peaceful demeanor; you know the drill.
My agnostic friend offered interesting counsel. Sitting by the fire with me, he said, “Preston, you have to embrace the security that must exist between you and your God and live there, untouchable as a person, regardless of what anyone might say about you.” Pretty astute spiritual counsel for an agnostic, wouldn’t you say? I knew God was speaking to me, offering me encouragement, and using the sharpest tool in the drawer at the time: an agnostic buddy.
Next he counseled that I must not tolerate being run over. “I’ve known our friend (my neighbor) for twenty years. He’s never said he was sorry for anything that I know of, but if you let him get away with this, he will lose respect for you. That would be a shame, because then you will lose your voice.”
While taking a long walk, I realized that pretending everything is okay when it is not is a lie. I haven’t taken the time to check this morning, but I think there is a guideline about this in the Bible. I also realized that keeping to myself—in this case, keeping my wounded soul locked away—prevented me from taking the risk of loving and sheltered me from the potential benefit of being loved. Doing what I’ve always done—hiding behind a contrived theology—would stop me from loving myself and would eliminate the chance to love my neighbor as myself. That sounds like a Bible verse as well; will check later.
Every now and then, Father gets stuck on an idea and obsesses about it with me for a long time. Lately, every time I ask Him if He has any counsel for me as I prepare to make a speech, or write something, or—as I’m walking to my neighbor’s house—if He has anything to say to me before I ring the door bell, He has been saying the same thing: “Love these people—or this man—Preston.” That’s all. He’s been hung on that thought for a while now. I gather it is important to Him.
I sat down last night with my neighbor. I loved him, at least I loved the best I understand the idea. I affirmed the common ground of our friendship. He readily agreed. I told him I wanted to revisit our previous interaction and told him again I was committed to our friendship. I told him I would happily debate and consider his perspectives, and that I wanted at a later date to revisit the debate of the other night, but that this evening there was something of paramount importance on my mind.
His brow furrowed. I told him he could challenge my ideas all he wanted, but that disparaging me—my person, my intelligence—was out of bounds. “Insult my beliefs all you want, but when you insult me you undercut our mutual respect. That’s not alright. I want our friendship to progress, but our mutual respect must be protected. You hurt my feelings Monday and I can’t go forward until I get this resolved.”
“I see,” he said. He talked for 45-seconds about his definition of “bereft intelligence,” but I think he was collecting his thoughts. Then he said, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” He told me he had never apologized to anyone for anything before.
We talked literature the rest of the evening, a safer subject than evolution, religion, or politics. He returned a bit later in the evening to my confrontation and his apology. He affirmed me, complimented me, and modified his definition of “intelligence.” He stood me back upright.
I hugged my friend good bye as I left.
I’ve never seen him hug anyone before either.