From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Being born into an American household of predominantly Irish lineage, it was kind of taken for granted that we could explain away our worst family altercations by placing blame on the old Irish temper. It was just accepted as fact that we were all a bit fiery on the inside. When our passions were stoked, usually when we perceived we or someone we cared for had been wronged, we quickly entered into fight mode. Mostly our exchanges were of an intense verbal nature and not just a few reached a decibel which could be heard by neighbors near and far. I clearly recall being on the way home from a bike ride at age 6 or 7 and turning onto my street at an intersection that was about half a block from my house. I could very clearly hear my father yelling at my brothers. I learned pretty quickly it was better to take a detour at times such as this rather than enter the fray and risk becoming a secondary target of the rage.

Observing these outbursts and the subsequent fallout became a “normal” part of my childhood. It’s what we did. One late afternoon on a Saturday towards the end of summer my parents were outside doing yard work. I was suffering miserably from boredom, yet my creative brain had just dreamed up a solution to put an end to the day’s monotony. I was relieved and excited, but there was one caveat; my solution required a trip to the store for some craft supplies. I asked very nicely if one of them would take a break and run me to the store to pick up said items. “No”, they both answered separately. I proceeded to beg passionately, “Pretty pleeeaaassseee?” I pleaded and made my best case and even tried to barter taking on extra chores around the house if.only.someone.would.take.me. “No!” This terse, resounding and irritable response from the two of them, in infuriating unison, activated the ferocity within. Without any warning, while screaming and yelling at the injustice of it all, I threw a punch through what I believed to be a plexiglass door. Turned out it was glass. They took me for a ride that afternoon, not to the store, but to the clinic to get stitches in my wrist. Sitting up on the doctor’s examining table, at the tender age of ten years old, I remember the doctor speaking in hushed tones to my parents of concerns about my “anger problem”. That may have been the first time I realized that what was “normal” in my house might not be considered normal to outsiders. I felt ashamed.

During my forty years of life’s journey since that doctor quietly named my “anger problem” there have been plenty experiences when the same sense of shame returned. These sudden and powerful bursts of my temper left me exhausted, embarrassed and in need of making amends to those who were witnesses or recipients of their fury. I wished I could just ditch this angry part of me alongside the road and keep traveling, like the inedible parts of a piece of fruit I tossed out the window of my car on road trips. But it hasn’t been that easy and so far my attempts at extricating this fiery temper from my being have been entirely unsuccessful.

Metamorphosis may be defined as the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. As I sense an exodus from what I hope will prove the most difficult years of parenting my soon to be post-adolescent daughter, it seems my temper has undergone a sort of evolution. No longer is it as externally observable, but it has now gone underground and tends to wage a fierce battle in my mind and my heart when an ideal or belief I hold sacred is violated. Pandemic living, in all of its previously unimaginable facets has presented a whole slew of weekly, if not daily violations. I find them all over, the people who violate my sacred ideals and beliefs. They are found in the news every day—members of a political party who seem to me cruel and heartless, at times even vicious in their response to my brothers and sisters who have suffered for so long. They are found writing emails that populate my inbox at work—complaining about being “persecuted” because they are unable to experience church in the same way they were used to in pre-pandemic days. These people are found in my American Catholic community—excitedly sharing vile and disparaging articles on social media about other members of the Body of Christ, degrading us to a mere reflection of the country’s divided political system. They are members of my brother’s Arizona town—confronting him at a local home improvement store to tell him he is a “fu**ing idiot” for wearing a mask (he works in the medical field). They are my neighbors who share the beloved trail where I go to find relief from this crazy world—running four people across, not moving as I approach, forcing me off trail to avoid an accident that would have injured all of us.

These perceived transgressions of humanity, and countless others, they have consumed me for weeks. They have battled for my emotional energy and they have fueled my anger and frustration on the daily. Coupled with six weeks of working 70-hour weeks as part of the effort to reopen the parish where I serve, rendering me unable to find time for self-care and grounding prayer, my temper has been gaining strength within my being. There is something quite powerful when one feels justified and righteous in one’s rage. Every new infraction on another’s part only served to widen the divide of US vs. THEM within me. Each perceived violation thoroughly convinced me mine was the right team and my judgments all correct.

That day I was forced off the trail by the runners, it was as if my loving Creator intervened to push me off my path of self-destruction. It had been my first day off from work in weeks and I desperately needed to find some balance and reground in goodness. Reciting the Rosary while riding along on my bike, suddenly forced off the trail to avoid an accident, the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….” were interrupted by the most heinous slur of expletives coming not from an outsider, but from within my brain. I stopped them from leaving my mouth, but regardless, they provided me with a wake-up call. They were direct evidence of the ugliness consuming me and claiming me as its own. I was becoming the very divisive, unloving, cruel, heartless embodiment of what I exactly despised in others.

Hurt people hurt people”, my friend Carlos reminded me in an email. His words coupled with recent experiences served to bring forth the acute awareness of a need for a different way. It had been way too easy to get carried away in the fight of US vs. THEM and I needed to reverse my course. The past few weeks I’ve been about getting back to the basics of prayer, self-care, filling my mind and soul with lovely things and the voices of wisdom speakers. Surprisingly it is almost as easy to seek out and notice the lovely, as it is to seek out and notice the ugly, but it isn’t always so self-satisfying. Rather, loveliness and wisdom serve to bring me to my knees. They humble me and remind me of my very low and insignificant place in this world, how much I am a work in progress with a far way to go, but paradoxically they also serve to affirm my belovedness and great significance in the eyes of Love.

One recent morning while attending daily Mass, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been asking of God, what is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to be in this world? How do I contend with all that breaks my heart and my spirit? Sometimes God has to shout to get my attention. It was the last sentence in the First Reading of the day:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

MICAH 6:8

Wow! What a clear and simple formula, right? It might be if my fiery temper and humongous ego didn’t try to trip me up every.single.step.of.the.way.

In the aftermath of the death of the great Civil Rights Activist, John Lewis, the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett rebroadcast an extraordinary conversation with John recorded in 2013. Listening to John describe his life’s journey is to hear a man who did the work to become an embodiment of Micah 6:8. As he stated, it isn’t something natural to become this way. He says we have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace can a human being proclaim,

“In the religious sense, in a moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the Divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the Divine in your fellow human being…you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone…You beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”

John Lewis

I find his witness absolutely stunning. It is breathtaking. It is the opposite of everything I mostly see happening in the world around us right now. It is contrary to everything my arrogance and my thirst for revenge demand, even of those who have only slightly offended me. I stand in wonder and awe at Love so present within this human soul. It is the same Love incarnate found in Christ, even in the face of His unjust crucifixion. It is radical, counter-cultural, blessing those who persecute, standing with the poor and the outcast, never hating the oppressor, only the sin. It is forgiveness freely offered in the face of the unforgivable.

In the book, “Becoming Mister Rogers”, author Shea Tuttle describes a professor of theology who taught Fred Rogers during his studies to become an ordained minister. Dr. Orr had a unique way of describing evil that resonated with Fred. He referred to it as “The Accuser”. As Fred recalled, “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her…Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives.”

Dr. Orr taught that Jesus stands in complete contrast as “The Advocate”. In an interview Fred Rogers said of this, “Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”

With all of the issues that have arisen during these early months of the pandemic, growing in prominence in the exchanges from both sides of every issue is the reality of “cancel culture”. Cancel culture not only eggs us on to dismiss the ideas we find appalling, but it pushes us further to completely nullify the human dignity of the persons whose ideas we love to hate. This is exactly what I now see the Accuser has been tempting me to do, boldly, but falsely asserting to me that to do so is a righteous endeavor. In stark contradiction, the Advocate calls me forth to the work of loving, accepting and honoring the spark of the Divine in every human being. He dares me to demonstrate the most rebellious act possible when confronted with evil words and actions—forgiveness.

Jesus was serious when He said, “Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you.” And in opposition to what I imagine as being fair, He offered no provisions to disregard this commandment. He didn’t say, if your enemy suffocates and kills an innocent man of color, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy complains about how what you did to help them return to church isn’t good enough, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul and countless hours to make it happen, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy says and propagates falsities about their own brothers and sisters in faith, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy verbally attacks your brother for taking steps to keep others safe, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy puts your physical safety in danger by not making space for you on the trail, you can hate him. This commandment is hard to embrace and even more difficult to live. Yet it isn’t impossible to follow when we cooperate with Divine Grace and let it transform us, just as John Lewis did, just as Fred Rogers did, just as countless humans who have gone before us did and in doing so have forged the path for us to follow.

After weeks of angst and grappling with all that has been transpiring in my inner life, last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing a young man from the parish where I work receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is our belief that through this sacrament there is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which we are given the increased ability to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives and to witness Christ in every situation. Father was wearing vestments of bright red and gold and I was struck by the beauty of what they represented—the Holy Fire we would be calling upon to descend on us and energize us to love more fully. At the moment he was tracing the sign of the cross and anointing the forehead of the Confirmandi with the oil of Chrism, deep within me I felt a nudge to offer up to God the fiery temper that is mine. I imagined an all-encompassing Holy Fire descending from above co-mingling with my unholy fire ascending from below, its flames consuming the hatred with which my temper has burned as of late.

A peace was restored to me that day that has graciously remained. Its presence reveals to me the inner reformation required to become an Advocate cannot be accomplished through my efforts alone, but requires me to traverse the long path as a student in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace will I become a force of good in the face of evil and be able to offer forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable. From Accuser to Advocate, I am a work in progress; thankfully God never gives up on anyone.

John, Fred, all you saints of God who have walked this way before us, pray for us.

A Little Bit of Light Pushes Away a Lot of Darkness

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Every so often we are offered a deliberate opportunity to stop and reflect upon the power of one person who uses their light to make a big ol’ positive difference in our lives. Just this week that opportunity was mine when I was asked to write a letter of support for my daughter’s IEP Case Manager and math teacher, Derek Sutor, who has been nominated for Educator of the Year in our school district. Since this world can be short on tales of loveliness, I want to turn the spotlight on one such story about this man who has changed our lives forever. He has spent four years rooting for our girl, so now it’s our turn to root for him.

For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.”

Dear Educator of the Year Selection Committee,

Recently it came to my attention that Derek Sutor has been nominated by his colleagues at Geneva High School for the 2019 Educator of the Year. Not only did this news bring me great joy, because I can think of no other educator more deserving than he, but I also was thrilled to be asked to write a letter in support of his nomination. We address you today from the perspective as a mom and dad to one Geneva High School senior whose life trajectory became brighter and better the first day of her freshman year when she stepped into Algebra IA. It was her first team taught class and half of that dynamic teaching duo was Derek Sutor. We will forever be grateful for that moment because it is when she met this incredible man whose belief and whose championing of her cause has, without a doubt, had the single most positive impact on her life as a high school student.

As a mom, my journey as a neuro-typical person raising a child diagnosed very early on with Sensory Processing Disorder, inattentive type ADHD and an Anxiety Disorder has perhaps been the greatest challenge of my life. In the throes of the worst of days, it feels like riding on a roller coaster buckled in next to your child, but the ride remains on constant repeat. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t let you or your child get out of the car when you’ve both had enough. It can be thrilling and terrifying and dizzying and anxiety producing and sometimes even sickening. And so much of the time you feel alone—as if the responsibility to help your child survive and function on this crazy ride rests solely on you. Sadly on these days, you don’t even allow the hope of ever seeing your child thrive enter into your consciousness-you just want to get through the day or the next hour or maybe even just the next minute.

Being a neuro-typical person raising a neuro-atypical child means your primary vocation as parent suddenly involves investing lots of time and money to provide occupational therapy and psychotherapy and testing and psychiatric services. It means educating yourself so that you might understand how to best love and support and motivate a child who experiences the world differently than you. And then in turn it means having to respectfully share your education with those who are like you were at one time-ignorant of the struggles faced by a child like yours. Sometimes it causes you to have to be fierce, even though you may be shy and people-pleasing by nature. It stretches you beyond your boundaries of comfort, but you go there because you love this child more than life itself and would do anything to relieve the suffering they experience being square in a world built for circles.

It was a scary decision to move our daughter from the small, private school in DuPage County where she attended K-8 to the large environment of Geneva High School. Though her experiences in elementary school included many ups and downs, by 8th grade we had developed a mostly positive rapport with the faculty and they were granting her some accommodations after years of negotiation. Moving to the public school system with the task ahead of working to establish an IEP was a bit overwhelming and we knew no one. However, we believed that she would have quickly drowned in a private high school environment and knew GHS was the best option.

You can imagine it was much to our surprise when we received a letter after the first month of freshman year informing us the Math Department had chosen our daughter as Student of the Month. We were delighted. At the recognition ceremony before school one morning we gathered, met Mr. Sutor and his co-teacher Mr. Showalter for the first time, and listened as they recounted the great qualities and efforts they observed in our daughter. This was one of the moments in which we found ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude that someone other than us was able to see the heart of our child and find the good within and to name it for her to hear.

Freshman year was full of testing and evaluations in the effort to establish an IEP. At the forefront of our efforts we found consistent support from Derek Sutor who had quickly become our daughter’s favorite teacher. He had a way of building up her confidence while also challenging her when she wasn’t performing to the best of her ability. To this day she still refers to him as her “Coach in the Classroom”. At the end of the year when it was concluded she would benefit from an IEP, Derek didn’t hesitate to express interest in becoming her case manager. This came as a complete relief because with Derek championing her cause, it felt as if we were no longer alone. We felt assured she had an advocate at school who not only possessed a keen understanding of how our daughter functioned, but who also had developed an effective way of motivating her to rise up to her potential.

As we continued our relationship with Derek in consecutive years, it became abundantly clear that for him, educating students and advocating for them isn’t merely a job, but his life’s mission. He has gone the extra mile time after time to do all that can be done to help our daughter not only survive high school, but to even have times in which she thrives. Derek has proven over and over his ability to see instinctively what many of us may never notice. During some particularly rough patches, our daughter could be observed in class sticking in her ear buds, pulling her hood up and over her face and tuning out. Most of us might experience this type of behavior as disrespectful and unacceptable. Instead, what Derek seemed to observe was a kid who was waging a great battle inside to fight off an encroaching panic attack. Not only did he recognize the truth of the situation, but together with her input, they figured out alternative ways in which she could cope in these moments. Behind the scenes, he confidentially communicated these methods to her other teachers, so they could all work as a team to help her. Because of Derek’s efforts, our daughter’s community at GHS has become bigger and she has found many teachers who have been enabled to understand her better and advocate for her in ways they are able. The environment she now encounters each day is one that is supportive, understanding and encouraging.

One of the things we find most inspiring about Derek is his ability to use the challenges he has faced in his life to model for his students how to become a successful and positive influence in the world, even when they encounter others who don’t understand them and may even mock them. He is honest with the hardships he has endured and uses his life as a shining example of one who has overcome through his choices and his hard work. This is also exemplified in the way he lives his life outside the classroom, juggling his role as a baseball coach, his roles as husband and father and even training and finishing the Chicago Marathon last fall. He is an incredible witness to his students and shows them who they can become, even with the incredible challenges they face.

As I reflect back on nearly four years at GHS, I realize that somewhere along the way, the crazy roller coaster ride began to slow down and one day it was as if it came to a complete stop. Offering us a hand to step off the ride was one very influential advocate who joined us in our efforts to help our child survive and function and he built a community of others to assist us in fulfilling our goals. There is an old proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness”. One thing we know for certain is Derek Sutor has been and continues to be a bright light in the life of our family. He has worked ceaselessly to create with our daughter many experiences of success and his belief in her has given her the freedom to dream of who she can become, despite her differences and obstacles. To us, her parents, he has given us the immeasurable gift to hope for a bright future for our girl.

For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.

For these reasons and countless others, we wholeheartedly recommend Derek Sutor as 2019 Educator of the Year.

Gratefully,

Jim and Lisa Gilligan

Parents of Sadie, Class of 2019