What Pete Said--A Scene from Parish Life

I don't know what Pete really said, only what Selina told me. I wasn't there when it happened.

Apparently Pete said something to Selina at the last parish supper, and Selina was terribly, terribly hurt. Figuring out what actually happened is tricky. Reports vary. I know that Pete, who is a good soul, can be terminally tactless ("munching his moccasins" is his besetting sin). But I've also seen Selina take other things and blow them out of proportion. And as I said, I wasn't there.

Of course, the best thing would have been if Selina had gone back to Pete and said, "'Scuse me, Pete, this what I think I heard you say. Is that what you intended?" That way, they could have sorted the whole mess out. And that's probably what would happen if this whole sorry mess had blown up at Pete's or Selina's workplace--at least, so I hope.

But this isn't a workplace; it's church, and that means the dynamics are different--more personal, more emotional. People bring expectations to church that they don't carry to work. Church is somehow supposed to make up for all the shortfalls of the rest of life. It's supposed to be (we think) a sanctuary, a protected place, a place where we can be perfectly safe, at liberty to be our truest selves, never wounded, never affronted. Sometimes we'd just like church to be a place where our inner child can stick its thumb in its mouth, mash its banana into pulp on the tabletop, and not worry too much about what's in its diapers. Church is where we should never have to hear the words "no" or "I'm sorry, we can't do it your way" or "you must" or "please clean up your act", much less "go straighten out that mess; you may be at fault here."

And church is supposed to be full of Christians, and Christians never hurt other people, not even accidentally. Christians are good, kind, loving people. Christians are saints. If Pete were a real Christian, he would know not to say things that might hurt sensitive people like Selina. Or so Selina believes.

Selina wouldn't go back to Pete and try to untangle the problem. Instead, for the last few weeks, she talked it through with all of her friends, and even some who weren't her friends, over bottomless cups of tea at kitchen tables. Selina, of course, wouldn't even think about gossiping. All she wanted in these conversations was to talk through her hurt and to understand why Pete had been so horrible to her. She said repeatedly that she'd forgiven Pete for wounding her so deeply; she knew about turning the other cheek. But she still needed to talk her feelings out. The process seemed to need an awful lot of tea and sympathy, but then, Selina is a sensitive soul. We've all known that for years.

Substantial parts of the parish got their knickers in a twist about Pete and Selina. Nobody could go back and ask Pete what really happened; that would be a betrayal of Selina's trust. Selina had confided in you, after all. How could you possibly breach her confidentiality by letting Pete know what was being said about him behind his back? So Pete, unwitting, simply went along being Pete without the least idea that he'd been laid out on numerous kitchen tables and extensively dissected. Instead, nebulous complaints began to reach the church wardens, who spent fruitless hours on the phone with each other trying to figure out what the heck they were supposed to do, fergawdsakes.

Selina also went and spilled her personal beans to the parish priest, in floods of tears. He offered to mediate between her and Pete, but she didn't want that. She told him that she just wanted to forgive Pete, get over it, and move on. The priest wouldn't take her part as unreservedly as she wanted; he even went so far as to hint that perhaps her sensitivity to hurt might perhaps be part of the problem. He didn't exactly say anything about princesses and peas, but he seemed to be thinking along those lines. That, too, hurt Selina deeply. She hasn't even started to deal with that one.

Why, oh why, do we carry on like this? It's disastrous. It's terribly off-putting to newcomers, who put their noses in the door, pick up the scent of well-rotted garbage, and promptly vanish again. It justifies all those who would call us Christian hypocrites. It's a huge waste of time and emotional energy. And it doesn't accomplish a damned thing.

It happens because we can't seem to say "no" to its happening. When Selina sits across the kitchen table from you, rehearsing for the eleventy-seventh time how hurt she was by Pete's comments, you don't have the heart to say, "Oh Selina, that's weeks ago. Let's talk about something else." For starters, that would probably wound Selina deeply and then you'd be the cruel one and the focus of a swirl of parish gossip. And who wants to be there?

More than that: because church is supposed to be a safe place, we're all supposed to be loving and accepting and affirming, and Selina is playing those strings as the late Mr. Heifetz played the fiddle. Not that Selina is being consciously manipulative. But she does soak up loving attention the way a thirsty sponge soaks up water. And like water, we're sucked into her inner secret drought and emptiness. Fulfilling Selina's need for loving attention makes us feel like we're being really good people, gentle and loving Christians. It's a warm and comforting feeling. It doesn't even occur to us that Pete's a person too....

And still more: we get drawn into this because gossip is like watching real-life disaster shows on TV: it has its own eerie fascination. When we're gathered with Selina and her three best friends at the kitchen table over tea, we are in a warm, dark circle, a magical intimacy where we're temporarily free of our own faults and worries, standing aside from our ordinary stresses. We feel close, involved; we have an object of fascination, Selina's hurt. It's like eating salted peanuts; we know we shouldn't, but we don't find ourselves able to stop.

Yanking free of this warm circle requires an act of will, a conscious decision to leave that kitchen-table intimacy, because what's going on here is not right. Selina was not, in fact, "working through" her feelings about Pete; in a month of tea and sympathy, she hadn't even started to think about letting go of her grievance. Not once had she questioned her own righteous victimhood. So far from forgiving Pete, she was having a perfectly lovely wallow in the warm salt sea of Resentment, and the rest of us were wading with her instead of saying, "whoa, this isn't a good idea."

Something had to give. We couldn't go on like this.

The break came when Selina's friend Annie confided in her husband Jake about the whole Selina-Pete mess, because Annie didn't feel right about it. Jake, who is a forthright, sensible soul, actually went to Pete and tackled him about the parish-supper incident. At first, Pete was understandably angry about Selina's refusal to talk the matter through with him--he'd meant something very different from what she'd heard. and to him the whole silly business seemed blown out of all proportion. It didn't greatly please him that half the parish had been talking behind his back while no one had the courtesy to get his side of the story. But Pete was willing to let the whole thing go. At church on Sunday, he came straight up to Selina, apologized for his tactlessness and explained what he'd intended to say. He straightened the whole thing out in about five minutes and gave her a big hug. Selina dissolved in reconciliatory tears. It was a sweet scene. I think it would have been even sweeter if Selina had done some apologizing too, but hey, we know Selina.

Now the parish is transfixed by Selina's problem with Annie....

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 10 Mar 2001
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