Dear Chris Hedges,
I only met you twice, but in those two meetings, you left a mark on my life. The first meeting was at an event hosted by the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological School back in the late 2000s (2009, if memory serves me well). The second meeting happened in McDowell County when you and Joe Sacco came to tour the area and do a little investigative reporting for a book you were co-authoring.
But what I have to apologize for is something that happened long before I had the pleasure of helping you navigate McDowell County, before I heard you speak in New York… really, it was before I even knew who you were.
It was 2002–my life was on a totally different trajectory than what it would be when I met you. I was in an unhappy and mutually abusive marriage. We were both miserable and I was looking at my life and where I had wound up–at an age when I should have been graduated from college and beginning a career, I was instead a housewife in a lousy marriage, a college drop-out, and on the fast track to total self-destruction.
I was filled with anger about a lot of things: About my own failures, about my failing marriage, about my husband’s failures… and of course, just a few months earlier I had watched in horror as my world came crashing down. The events of September 11, 2001 had taken us to war in Afghanistan… and at the time I really believed that we were heading to war in Iraq for the same related reasons.
I was on the same patriotism-high that most of the nation was on. I had flags displayed everywhere: on my car, in windows of my house, flying from the front porch… I spent a considerable amount of my day “catching up” on the news from the front lines. If more than an hour or two rolled by without a news update, I’d panic. What if something big and historical had happened and I hadn’t seen it? What would I tell my future kids? That I was too busy enjoying the sunshine or enjoying life to know when something had happened?
I think it might’ve been the guilt I had over what I was doing when the first plane struck–At 8:46am on that terrible Tuesday morning I was standing in the lobby of the office building in which I worked, waiting impatiently for the elevator, fuming about having forgotten my lunch at home. A co-worker asked me what time it was and I sighed as I looked at my watch, “we’ve got four minutes to get upstairs and get clocked in.” Once upstairs I was in so much of a rush that I didn’t turn on my radio–I was trying to get the day started. It was a job I hated and a job I wasn’t good at… and I was two months into a marriage that I had already figured out was a mistake. So I was pretty much just feeling sorry for myself.
I didnt’ know people were already dying. I didn’t know people in New York were leaping out of windows, choosing to die from the fall than to be burned to death. I didn’t know a second plane struck. I didn’t know about the Pentagon or the plane being driven into the ground in Pennsylvania by courageous passengers. I didn’t know… that is, not until everything came to screeching halt and everyone in the building was glued to their radios, breathlessly listening. I had missed so much being so wrapped up in myself, and I guess that in the collective PTSD our nation seemed to feel, I was terrified of letting myself be caught unaware again.
By the time you had delivered your infamous commencement speech denouncing America’s involvement in Iraq, I was a stay-at-home wife and watching cable news pretty much twenty-four hours a day.
I didn’t know who you were. I didn’t know why you would even be chosen to deliver a commencement speech at a prestigious college.
I was an avid reader, but back then I did very little academic reading, sticking almost entirely to literature and fiction (both good and bad), so I had never encountered you writing. Being a life-long West Virginian, I didn’t follow the New York Times. And until war came knocking at my door did I even think about things like that. What would I have to do with a war correspondent from the New York Times?
But one evening I watched Mark Hyman play clips of your speech on the evening news–he gave me the in-a-nutshell version of what you had said. All I needed to know was that you were anti-war, which made you anti-American… which made you a collaborator with the terrorists. You were a terrible person who didn’t deserve the good things you had in your life. And you certainly didn’t deserve a job at one of the nation’s top newspapers.
We were encouraged to let the New York Times know how we felt about your anti-American slurs–and I did just that. I grabbed my laptop and fired off an angry email to your editor.
How dare this liberal elitist Chris Hedges take a stand other than the one I had? I wasn’t happy just turning off your speech. I wasn’t happy just disagreeing with you. I wanted you to lose your job, and thereby your voice and prestige. I wanted to destroy you.
And then my life moved on. I lost interest in you nearly as quickly as I was outraged by you. I didn’t worry about what had ever become of Chris Hedges. Why would I?
I decided to return to college to finish my degree and to get my life back on track. This was essentially the nail in the coffin of my marriage. By the end of my first semester my husband had separated from me and within a year we were divorced. But I got back a big part of who I was and I was beginning to experience a life that was unlike any I had ever known.
Divorced and underemployed due to being in school full-time, I was cast from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle into poverty. I was still reeling from all the emotional and mental trauma of a bad marriage and was constantly on the edge of a full-blown panic attack, which altered how I functioned. This forced me to begin looking at the world from a different perspective.
I was also befriending the biggest bleeding-heart liberal I had ever known and learning to not get mad and go home when arguments didn’t go my way. I was learning to listen. And because he was my professor, chair of the sociology department, and faculty advisor, he was also introducing me to new ways to think.
He encouraged me to read academic materials not just for class, but for enjoyment. He nurtured my love of learning. He stretched me every time I got comfortable in a belief or stance. And when it came time to graduate and head off to seminary, it was his advice to step out of my comfort zone that ultimately caused me to apply to the Iliff School of Theology, United Methodism’s notoriously liberal school.
And it was life out of my comfort zone that taught me more than anything I could have ever learned at any graduate school I had chosen. My Appalachian security nets were gone–I was on the other side of the country, with no connections if things went wrong. I had to learn to rely on myself, to be confident in who I was. I met people I would have never met if the choice had been mine, but each one expanded my life and worldview a little bit more.
By the time I had graduated and moved back to West Virginia to begin my ministry I was in a full-blown identity crisis: I had been a Republican since I turned 18 and a proud conservative who had campaigned for George W. Bush… twice. But I was starting to think and act and sound like a liberal.
To say this was unsettling would be the greatest understatement of my life.
And so, in the midst of this identity crisis I decided to take a “working vacation”. I drove up to New York for the Poverty Initiative event. I heard you speak. I debated late into the night about your speech with others who held the same desire to eliminate poverty as I did. I saw how our common goal had connected us from all sorts of walks of life and had brought together all sorts of different causes: blacks, whites, latina/o, rich, poor, rural Appalachian and New York urban. There were political groups, labor unions, women’s rights activists, environmental groups, and religious leaders… and we all had the same goal–and you had challenged all of us.
By then I had discovered your body of work, though I had only begun to scratch the surface. I had not connected you with the infamous un-American I had railed against a few years earlier.
You had even recounted the event in your speech to us–how you had been booed off the stage, how you had been brought into your editor’s office and given a ultimatum and ultimately fired. I was moved by how much that event had affected you considering you had been around the globe and stood in war zones in places I couldn’t identify on the map. But it was the hostility of your fellow Americans which seemed to cause you the most harm. None of that I rang a bell in my mind, though. I didn’t connect you with the faceless person I had detested a lifetime ago.
A year or so later you contacted me. You were coming to West Virginia and wanted to be able to meet some folks from McDowell County that you could interview and I was happy to be your liason.
For a few days you traveled around the county and I had the privilege of joining you and Joe on much of it. I was thrilled to watch seasoned reporters at work.
And then, one afternoon, you started recounting that story about how you were fired… the story I had already heard you tell, but there was something about the way you were telling it in that car that suddenly turned a lightbulb on over my head. I sat there, breathless and silent, wondering if you somehow knew that it was me…
It was me who had sent one of those nasty emails to your editor. It was me who was so outraged that you dared to hold a different opinion than me. It was me who wanted to destroy you for not thinking like me.
It was me.
The pain, the resentment, the anger, the lingering questions you had… it was because of me.
I didn’t speak up that day. I nodded and groaned about “angry people” and never once let on that I had been one of them. I didn’t explain myself. I didn’t apologize. I didn’t give you the chance to confront your accuser.
There we were: two people with the same piece of paper declaring us “Masters of Divinity” (albeit from different schools), two people worshipping the same God (albeit from two different denominations), two people laying bricks for the foundation of the same Kin-dom (albeit two different corners)…
It seemed so preposterous that just a few years ago I saw you as the antithesis of everything I stood for because in that moment I could only see the things that connected us.
True, you were a bit more of a leftie than me… true, your worldview was a bit different from mine… true, we didn’t agree on everything. But in that car all I could see was your common humanity. You, like me, was a beloved child of God. And I was devastated that I had once tried to destroy you.
So I remained silent.
I have regretted it ever since.
I should have given you the chance to speak your mind, to let you tell me what you thought of my behavior, to tell me off. But I wasn’t afraid that you would do any of those things. I wasn’t afraid you would be angry at me. That’s not why I chose silence. I chose silence because I was deeply ashamed and I was afraid that even through the disappointment you would surely forgive me. That’s the sort of person I had figured out you were.
I was afraid I’d have to look in your eyes and receive forgiveness and realize that not long ago I had tried to destroy the life of a good man.
I’ve changed a lot over the years. I finally embraced that “liberal” title. I abandoned the Republican party and went independent. I’ve learned to love quite a bit broader, to judge less, and to listen more. I’ve learned to always seek the common ground before I make assumptions about people. I’ve learned to hold my tongue when I am tempted to speak in anger (well, I’m working on it, anyway). I’ve learned not to dismiss people who think different from me or to paint anyone in broad strokes.
But I find myself still regretting not being honest with you that day. So, I’m here to set the record straight today.
Chris, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I tried to destroy you. I’m sorry I couldn’t love you through our differences. I’m sorry I hurt you and your family. I’m sorry I didn’t give you the chance to confront me. I’m sorry I didn’t give you the chance to show me what kind of person you really are. I’m sorry I remained silent in the car that day and stole your power–to forgive or to be angry–away from you. I’m sorry for those and the millions of other reasons to which I can’t give voice.
I’m sorry and I promise that I will be deliberate in never doing that to another person, ever again. I will be a better person and I thank you so much for helping me to get there.
Your Sister in Christ,