Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

Spirit 1: On Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.

Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.

But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.

Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).

Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.

I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.

Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.

Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.

But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.

Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.

As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.

But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.

I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.

“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.

I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.

Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.

And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.

 

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

Hell

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

I looked up to the rearview mirror in shock, my eyes open wide. I looked at my four year old son, A, in the backseat, his hair tousled from a hard day of play at school, a jelly stain on his beloved shark shirt. His eyes are so blue.

“A, of course you aren’t going to Hell! Why would you ask that?”

My eyes flashed over to J, my 7 year old, on the other side of the backseat, strapped into his booster seat. He looked over at his little brother, ever the supporter. “Yeah, A, y would you ask that?” He must have noticed the touch of concern in my voice.

A shrugged, not disturbed, just curious. “Well, Heavenly Father created Heaven for good people and Hell for bad people.”

I grimaced internally but didn’t show it on my face. Now more of an atheist, I was raised an active Mormon, and remembered growing up with the vision of sunlight and clouds for the angels, and torture and fire and brimstone with the evil laughing devil over them for the bad guys. I try hard to instill in my children a wide world view of living happy lives and understanding all religions. They attend the Unitarian Church with their mother now, but they still visit their grandparents regularly, their grandparents being active Mormons who pray and still teach them about Heavenly Father and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. And they naturally have questions.

“A, you are definitely a good person. You are a great kid.”

J chipped in, still concerned. “Yeah, A. And you have a good family who loves you.”

A was looking out the window. “Well, I know why there is a devil.”

“Yeah? Why is that, A?”

“Well, cause Heavenly Father created one. And he lives in Hell. He’s a really really mean bad guy. He’s more mean than the Joker or Loki or Green Goblin. But he’s kind of like the Joker.”

“How is he like the Joker?”

“He likes to joke! And they are mean jokes!”

I made eye contact with him in the mirror and suppressed a laugh. A has the most serious little look on his face when he’s being dramatic like this, talking about sharks or super villains.

“Yeah, he is definitely a mean guy.” J interjected, looking up at me to back him up.

Before I could respond, A switched topics. “How come there aren’t dinosaurs anymore?”

I smiled, keeping my eyes on the road. “Well, dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago and they all died.”

A talked right over me. “They were born even before Grandma. And Heavenly Father created them, too. But I wish they were still alive. Then I could fight a T-Rex. I’m faster and they have tiny little arms.”

The boys chattered on for a minute, hilarious and random as they usually are, as I thought silently. When there was a lull in conversation, I went back to the concerning topic.

“A, how come you asked if you are going to Hell?”

He looked at me this time, in the mirror. “I was just wondering.”

I gave him my intense dad look, conveying seriousness and pride and silliness all at once, my eyebrows knit down and my eyes on his. “Well listen up, little man. There is no way you are going to Hell. And even if you did, you know what I would do?”

“What?” He asked in wonder.

“I would get all of my friends and everyone who loves you and I would lead them down there and we would rescue you. We would fight the devil and everyone and I would win. Then I would put you on my back, piggy-back, and I would carry you back to Earth.”

He had an expression of adventure on his face. “You could fight dragons! And–and dinosaurs!”

“Yes! I’ll fight them all because I love you! And J would help me! He would use all of his super powers and his super brain and we would rescue you!”

A sat up taller. “Yeah, and after you get me out of my Hell cage I could fight with you, too! I’ll punch the devil right in the face cause I’m so strong!”

J joined in now, sitting up taller as well. “Yeah, and I will dance and run all over and so fast! We will save you, A!”

A few hours later, after a pancake with peanut butter dinner and pretending we are sharks in a swimming pool and bath time and pajamas, I cuddled my boys, one on each arm, and made up stories to tell them about giant frogs and fairy princesses and sabretooth tigers. I sang them their favorite lullabies and tucked them in to sleep. I walked in a while later and looked at them sleeping. J lay in the shorts and tank top he had chosen to sleep in, underneath the three blankets he had pulled around his frame. A lay in thick wool pajamas he had chosen, with no blankets, flipped upside down with his feet on the pillow. I listened to their breathing and wondered about their dreams. But I hoped that if they dreamed of monsters or villains or devils, that perhaps I appeared in some form as their ally, as their dad, as their rescuer.

Because they have certainly rescued me.