Dennis is back. His latest girlfriend kicked him out, he lost his job, and he's moved back in with his mother yet again. A collective sigh arises in the supermarket aisles in town: Oh God. Dennis is back.

We've all known Dennis from a child. He was a cute enough kid, but when he hit puberty, the collision was spectacular. Okay, so many kids turn fattish and pimply and lout-like at 13 or 14, but mostly they start coming out the other side by the time they're 18 or 19. Not so Dennis.

And as he seemed to stay mired in unhappy zittish teendom, so he failed to grow in wisdom and adult social skills. He's still got that adolescent know-it-all bug, that tendency to lecture adults about what they're doing wrong, that "I'm at the center of the universe" attitude, that mixture of grievance and entitlement, all liberally doused in self-pity. He has, frankly, all the charm and grace of your average warthog. This is just barely tolerable for a few years in late adolescence. But Dennis is now 27, and he's showing no signs of any significant change.

He's had a few girlfriends--that old feminine urge to take on a "problem" guy as a handywoman's special still operates, it seems. But each of them has given up on him fairly quickly, as she realized that he has no interest in changing; in fact, he is quite satisfied with himself: a difficult combination to work with. He tried university and flunked out, managed to scrape through a tech college course, and has held down a few jobs; but he's not much of an employee. He's lippy to bosses, argumentative with other workers, follows directions poorly, and constantly complains or flounces out when things don't go his way. So even in a boom economy, Dennis had trouble holding down a job. And it's no longer a boom economy.

So Dennis comes home, where Mother will do his laundry and cook for him and sympathize with him; and he sleeps in till 2 and slouches around town, muckling on to whatever poor, patient souls will listen to him and reciting his litany of misery and unfairness. We've taken to dodging down supermarket aisles whenever we sight him over by the baked goods section. The alternative--strongly whomping him upside the head and yelling "GROW UP, DENNIS!"--is not socially acceptable in burgs of such modest population as ours.

I heard about Dennis's latest return just about the time I ran into a newspaper article about some study--I can't remember the details, unfortunately--that established a sad but interesting point. People who are rated as highly competent at their work are also highly aware of where they screw up. People who are rated by fellow employees as incompetent are most satisfied with their own performance. In other words, those who need to improve the most are least aware of their need for improvement. Which is really pretty pathetic, when you think about it.

My mind flew immediately to Dennis. If you let Dennis give you an earful, his estimate of what he's like as a person is wholly positive. He prides himself on his strong people skills, for example, and listening to him, you want to say "huh?!?" He knows he's got all sorts of things to offer the world, and he is deeply puzzled and hurt by the fact that the world doesn't seem to want to take advantage of his talents. As for all the things that went wrong in the past, well, that wasn't Dennis's fault. People have been unkind and unfair, and he doesn't understand why he gets this treatment. Why won't people just accept him the way he is?

Dennis makes me understand why the concept of sin is so important. We need correction sometimes--from our own conscience, ideally, or from people who love us and whom we can trust. Without that correction, we stay stuck in ways that aren't productive; we fail to grow into greater competence and consciousness as people, we justify behaviour that really isn't justifiable, we fail to face into the painful business of pulling up our socks. The most spiritually competent people I know are not the ones who are most sure of their own saintliness. In fact, come to think of it, it's exactly the other way around.

Yes, we need affirmation too, and the dear Lord knows that this world needs to become a more affirming place. The problem occurs when we demand affirmation regardless of whether it's called for. Dennis wants to be affirmed exactly as he is, and on a real-life basis, that sort of affirmation is just not on, because Dennis hasn't done anything to deserve affirmation. True, God loves Dennis warts and all, but the warts are so up front and central and the rest of us aren't God. It's really straining credulity for Dennis to seek unconditional positive regard from the people whose toes he is stomping, blissfully unaware.

Every so often, someone tries to talk to Dennis: maybe a little change might be in order: he might get his hair cut, go out walking to lose a little weight, see a counselor, learn a bit about how to get on with people better. Dennis's response to these suggestions varies. Sometimes he's hurt or enraged; sometimes he just brushes the comment off; sometimes he turns defensive and proves to the other person (yet again!) how victimized he's been, and how none of it was his fault. What Dennis never, ever does is to say, "You know, you might have a point there. I'll think about it."

And so Dennis comes home again. And again. And again.

Dear Lord, when you (or anyone else who really cares about me) says, "You know, maybe you should think about this behavior or attitude of yours; maybe you need to change here," always make me mindful of the fact that I don't have it all together. I still need correction; I still need to change. Help me cultivate my awareness of where I screw up. Help me understand that the ability to take correction is the sign of a healthy person. Remind me once again that the truest, deepest sort of joy is the gut understanding that I really AM a Miserable Offender, and that we're both okay with that.

And God, please help Dennis. He needs your intervention, because I don't think he's going to listen to anyone much smaller than you. And maybe not even you. But please, God ....

Poor Dennis.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 24 Mar 2001
[Sabbath Blessings contents page] [Saint Sam's home page] [Comments to web page maintainers]