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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Renken

Scary Movie

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

No horror flick is scarier or sadder than the way we treat other human beings in real life.

I just finished watching the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen and maybe ever will see. Fifteen minutes in, I wanted to turn it off.

It was too scary.

Too violent.

Too depressing.

Too real.

Because it was a true story.

And when I'm queen of the world (which we all can admit is the best idea ever), it will be required viewing for every high school student.

12 Years a Slave.

Talk about knocking the wind out of you. If you can watch that movie without being truly affected . . . truly hurt . . . truly appalled . . . then I'm pretty sure you need to go get a serious check-up on your soul. Like ASAP.

I'm not going into the details because 1) if you've seen it, you know; and 2) if you haven't seen it, you need to--without my unsolicited prologue. Suffice it to say, the slaveowners represent the worst of humanity. And to include them in the term "humanity" is exceedingly generous.

But as much as it gutted me to watch the unbridled cruelty that took place 150+ years ago, something disturbs me even more: I don't think we've come all that far with our hearts. And I don't have much hope we ever will.

And that's what's been weighing on me the past few weeks. I've kind of given up. I'm not depressed--more like resigned. Resigned to the idea that power and fear are always going to overcome compassion in the big scheme of things.

I've lost my optimism that people will (at least usually) do what's right.

All of the sudden, I don't believe I can take people at their word. My default is no longer to believe they are telling me the truth or expressing their true intentions.

It's like the world grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Grow up and shake off the Pollyanna bullshit!"

For the past 7 years, just about every one of my therapy sessions included me saying at some point, "I just wish I felt less. I'm tired of feeling so much."

I've wished I were made so that movies like 12 Years a Slave didn't sit on my chest and leave images burned into my brain for eternity. That I could just watch it, feel disgusted for a few hours, and then let it go.

I've wished I were able to let criticism and disrespect just roll off my back. How liberating it would be to tell myself, "consider the source," and move on. And how affirming it would be to never again hear, "you can't let stuff get to you like that," "you've got such a big heart, but . . . ," and the condescending "you have such passion."

I've imagined what it would be like to know bullying is happening (to kids, adults, animals--whoever) without feeling overwhelmed with anger at the assholes doing it. Or consumed with an unquenchable fury and responsibility to make things right and fair. I'd at least like to keep from crying in frustration over it.

I've longed, struggled, and prayed to feel less because you know where all of that feeling got me in the past? Numbing. With alcohol, pills, shopping, sugar, nicotine, and pretty much any other fill-in-the-blank-vice (except gambling--I think that's the only vice that hasn't appealed to me at one time or another--yay me!). And now that I'm in recovery and have to actually feel all of the shitty shit at 100%? It seriously seems unsustainable sometimes.

I actually picture myself scratching my arms until all of the feels bleed out.

So I can just feel less.

But then last week, during another bout of no-one-understands-me-and-everyone-is-exasperated-with-me, my thoughts did a 180. What if my problem isn't that I want to feel less, but that I want everyone else to feel more?

Don't get me wrong. I have no delusions of grandeur--I don't think people should model my behavior, or that I'm the epitome of compassion and goodness. Far from it. But if everyone felt that intense, breathtaking ache when they saw or knew someone was being hurt, wouldn't that keep judgment, unkindness, and cruelty in check? And maybe, more selfishly, it would make me feel like less of a freak?

If everyone were as susceptible to pain, wouldn't we think twice before shaming each other? Before making jokes about others' religions or cultures? Before looking the other way and saying "not my problem" when someone of a different color, ethnicity, religion, or belief system needs help?

Wouldn't we be forced to start seeing every single person as a person?

Instead of seeing a law-breaking, America-disrespecting "Mexican," we would see a mother who is willing to risk her life and her freedom for the chance to give her children a safe home.

A person.

Instead of seeing a police officer as a racist, violent oppressor, we would see a father who's scared his kids are going to be caught in a senseless crossfire some day, or who still mourns his sister who was killed during a drug deal gone bad.

A person.

Instead of seeing the guy who takes a knee as an ungrateful troublemaker, we would see a man who is so hurt and angry about the injustice and abuse he's witnessed at the hands of the corrupt, he's willing to sacrifice his career to bring attention to the problem.

A person.

Instead of seeing a gang member as a good-for-nothing delinquent unworthy of love or grace, we would see a kid who thinks his best hope for finding belonging is through a group of criminals who promise to have his back.

A person. A child, for God's sake.

Instead of seeing a public assistance recipient as a lazy drain on society, we would see the child who would go hungry without that help. We would see the parent whose health prevents her from keeping a job for more than a couple of months. We would see the single mothers who have to make the God-awful choice of going to work at a minimum-wage job and handing their babies over to a cheap and shady daycare, or swallowing their pride and accepting help from the government so they can at least go to bed knowing their children are safe.

Each of them a person.

Instead of seeing all anti-abortion activists as hypocritical religious zealots, we would see the woman whose life was turned upside down by her own choice to end a pregnancy years ago, and wants to save other young girls from the shame and regret she feels. We would see the woman who has moved heaven and earth to try and conceive a child, but can't see past her own pain and longing to empathize with someone in seemingly opposite circumstances.

Each of them a person.

Instead of seeing a woman who chooses to end a pregnancy as a godless baby-killer, we would see the mom who was viciously raped and is now forced--through no fault of her own--to make a gut-wrenching choice. We would see the girl whose daddy crawled into her bed on the wrong night of her cycle. We would see the woman who--no matter her choice or the reason for it--will carry that decision with her the rest of her life.

Each of them a person.

Instead of seeing women in burkas or men wearing turbans as potential terrorists who don't deserve to take up space in our "Christian" country and as a threat to our way of life, we would see people whose love for their families and God have given them no choice but to run for their lives. To run to the very people who they know hate them, because that has become their only hope.

Each of them a person.

Instead of seeing a kid who was born with a penis and feels most comfortable wearing dresses as a freak who is a danger to our children, we would see a human being who has experienced a hurt and feeling of not belonging that we can't even begin to know or relate to, but had the unmatchable courage to embrace who they are.

A person. A living, breathing, joy-offering human being.

Maybe it's a terrible idea. If everyone feels excruciating deeply, we may find there's not enough therapists, eyedrops, or tissues in the world to keep up with the demand. But it's still something I'll long for and mourn to lack of.

And instead of being self-conscious about being "sensitive," "emotional," and every other adjective that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I think it's best if I just start being more intentional about who I share my time, thoughts, and love with.

My growing obsession with dogs is laughable on a basic level, but being around them brings me so. much. joy. Which makes sense. Because the older I get and the more lack of compassion I witness, the more I just want to be around pure, unconditional, non-judgmental love. I want to limit my interactions to be with those who make me want to be better--who live life the way I want to. And dogs fit that bill.

I want people to know I'm so excited when I see them for the first time in 5 minutes.

I want people to feel true companionship in knowing that I will lay side-by-side with them, walk with them, or watch whatever television mind candy they want while I listen to them without judgment. And I want them to know I won't try to convince them I know better than they do about what's good for them or what they should do.

I want people to feel like they're the only ones in the world when they're around me, and feel safe because they know I'll sink my claws and teeth into anyone who hurts them.

And I don't just want to be that person--I want to surround myself with those who strive to be that person, too. Which is why the keep-me-going vision I have for after I finish my career is Tom and me in a farmhouse or the mountains--away from everything except dogs.

Lots and lots of dogs.

And goats (not because they're good role models, but simply because they make me laugh, and laughing is just so awesome).

And an alpaca or two. Because they're funny. And soft.

Until then, though, I'm trying to figure out a way to not constantly set myself up for disappointment. I don't want to become callous or cynical. I want to continue believing that everyone can exercise equal-opportunity compassion, if they're exposed to the right kind of love. But I think it's best--for me, at least--if I stop expecting they will. Stop hoping they will.

It feels like death saying it, but I believe there are just as many people today who see people who don't look, live, or worship like them as less than human, as there were when people--PEOPLE—were legally whipped, raped, and tortured in this country because they were considered property.

So many of us love to watch films like 12 Years a Slave, tell our friends how heartbreaking it was, and then chalk up what we saw acted out as ancient history. As if we've lived and learned since then. As if we've become better at being human beings. But I just don't believe we have.

And to make it so very much worse, we're still using God and Jesus--or the lack thereof--to justify unkindness. We hear from evangelists and supposedly Godly men (yes, Franklin Graham and Jerry Fallwell Jr.--I mean you) that the reason people suffer is because we've forced God and Jesus out of our schools and government. Yet we ignore the fact that slave masters quoted scripture while they flayed the backs of their "property." We fail to mention that protestors picket outside the funerals of gay service members "in the name of Jesus." We look the other way when our own church's leaders post on social media about "libtards," ridicule students who have seen their classmates shot and killed, and shame women who made the choice to commit what these leaders have designated as the sin of all sins. And we allow our children's private school teachers to describe people who love someone of their same sex or gender as disgusting and immoral.

Because they're doing it for Jesus.

Or maybe we allow it because we agree with what they're saying and feel vindicated hearing it come from a "man of God."

Or maybe we keep our mouths shut because we're just complacent and don't want to make waves. I mean, if we haven't had abortions and are fortunate enough to be in the sexual preference majority, why speak up? No one likes the squeaky wheel.

I have no doubt Jesus cries harder and hurts more than anyone when he sees us treating

each other like we do, and using his name as an excuse to do it.

What we need is more feeling. More compassion. More empathy. More seeing every single person as a human being.

But I'm afraid it's a lost cause.

For once in my life, I want to be wrong. More than anything, I want to be wrong.


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