The Thing About White Horses: The Spiritual Dangers of Fighting Child Abuse
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I am a spiritual man. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I did not say I am a virtuous man, or a good man, or—God knows this and so do all my friends—a Far from it on all counts. I am a deeply flawed and broken guy. But, in spite of all that—or, more precisely, because of all that—I am a spiritual person, by which I mean that I see and understand the world and my life primarily in spiritual terms, brokenness and healing, death and resurrection, darkness and light. Both my religious faith and my program of recovery from addiction teach me how to do this, and there is a lot to be said for it as a way of life. Trying to live according to spiritual principles gives me hope and joy in the everyday, in family and friends, in sunsets and snowstorms. But there is a downside as well, which is that my spiritual program requires that I regularly check myself and my motives: in personal relationships, in lifestyle, in professional endeavors. My life and my faith teach me that there is some darkness in the best of us, some light in the worst of us, and that I am not fit to be a judge of anyone but me, and often not even that.
All of which can be really inconvenient when I go to work. For I fight child sexual abuse for a living. For nearly two decades now, most of my law practice has been dedicated to pursuing justice on behalf of men and women who as children were sexually abused by trusted adults: teachers, priests, pastors, Scout leaders, coaches, relatives. We file lawsuits against child abusers and the institutions that enabled it; we often work with law enforcement to try to prosecute the offenders; we work with educators, regulators and legislators to try to improve policies and laws in institutions of trust where we expect our children to be safe. This is what I do, 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. It is meaningful work and I believe in it and I hope that it makes a difference in keeping kids safer than they otherwise would be.
But this work can be difficult at times, with tragic stories of pain and suffering, cowardice and cover-up, dishonesty and disingenuity. The survivors I work with are often in a lot of pain—depression and disorientation, drugs and or alcohol abuse, relationship or vocational struggles. We have lost three men to suicide in the last decade and had another dozen scares. Some days I get so sad, other days so angry, and yet other days I get to a place of despair—which, for me, is a kind of numbness that can paralyze me into inaction. When that happens I find that I have gradually taken on too much of the pain of others, I have forgotten to take care of myself, and so I slowly sink beneath the quicksand. When these times approach, I have to be especially conscious and aware, and check myself and my motives often. I have to tap into the spiritual resources inside me.
For the truth of the challenge is that my soul does not want long to endure such emotions as overwhelming sadness or despair, loss or futility, and so, almost inevitably after a few minutes or hours of such feelings, anger comes rushing in, deep anger. Soon after the deep anger comes the emotions that are, at least for me, truly toxic, poisonous, self-defeating. Emotions like rage—which is different from anger in both degree and purpose, and revenge—which is wholly different from justice, and, worst of all, righteousness and self-righteousness—which says that I am, we are, qualitatively different, nay, even better than those on the other side of our work.
All of these emotions are out of bounds for me, for they blind me and leave me prey to unconsciousness. When I am unconscious I delude myself into believing that I am better than someone else. I forget my own darkness and brokenness—which is just as dark and broken as anyone else’s—and project it all onto others. My anger makes me do stupid things that I later regret and that do not advance the cause of justice, and I forget that anger or rage are never primary emotions—they always cover up or replace something else, usually fear or hurt. And when I forget all that, then self-righteousness and cause-righteousness produce a kind of arrogance that is off-putting to the very people I hope to gain as allies—judges, jurors, policymakers, the public, and so instead of advancing the cause, I have set it back.
That’s the danger about riding white horses. They are highly visible in a crowd of people, being both very bright and very large. People notice them, and those who ride them. And when you ride a white horse—this is something that social workers, sages and saints have long talked about—you are, as they say, “a marked man.” Other people watch to see if you do your noble work in a noble way, and if you don’t, even for a day, then the work suffers, and those for whom you are fighting suffer. The hard and uncompromising fact is that if you cannot control the white horse, then people get hurt and crushed. And if you fall off the horse—which tends to happen when you pass out from unconsciousness—it is a long way down and there will be no one there to catch you.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who spent his life fighting totalitarian tyranny and so had plenty of time to contemplate such things, said that the line between good and evil runs not between political systems, or economic philosophies, not between governments or parties, but runs right through the heart of every human being.
My law partner and great friend Mark O’Donnell puts it this way: “we know there will be days when we are stupid; there also will be days when we are arrogant; and there will even be days when we are just plain mean. But let’s hope and pray that we are never stupid, arrogant and mean all on the same day. That’s when the disasters happen.”
Those of us who are privileged enough to do this work must also remember that it comes with a high responsibility to stay conscious and to stay humble. For we are all broken and capable of great evil, but we are also all children of God and capable of great love. We have a daily decision as to which parts of our soul we bring to work each day. Much depends on our choice.