Just a Stranger on the Bus: On Anonymity and Deception

Truths & Lies

Truths & Lies

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On a recent bus trip from Chicago to Omaha I found myself sitting near a woman in her 50s — effervescent and beautiful with great style and a generous spirit. Generally speaking, I can’t keep my mouth shut on buses so I initiated a conversation. She shared herself honestly with me, and when it was time to respond in kind, I lied. I was drawn to her. I started a conversation. I liked talking to her. And, I lied to her.

There should be some anonymity in public transit. We can’t be totally transparent with everyone. Especially, in the midst of a miserable “polar vortex” cursed travel situation — where raw honesty could cause tension, and where challenges in getting from A to B are rampant — it’s natural to desire a bit of privacy, right? I mean, everyone lies to strangers, don’t they? Perhaps. But, anonymity is one thing and deception is another. I lied to a very nice lady on the bus.

She mentioned that she had a rule of not talking with anyone when traveling. But, after I helped her break that rule and she realized that I was an interested ear, she eventually opened up. She spoke of her kids and how she was heading home after accompanying her son to an operation that would help his fight with cancer. She recalled her struggles to stay sober and how her 17th anniversary of being clean was just a few days away. She mentioned failed experiments in love and how she felt finally that the time might be right for her to seek companionship again.

I listened, and eventually I shared some of my own story with her. When asked, I told her that I was a philosophy student at Loyola University. She had mentioned that she was Jewish; I told her I was Catholic. That much was true. And then she noticed my ring. I wear a silver band on my left hand as a reminder of my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It’s often mistaken by new friends as a wedding ring. When she asked about my partner, I said, “Oh she’s wonderful. She’s a nurse.”

This is not true. It’s a lie on so many levels. I have no partner. I’m not married. My ‘not-partner’ doesn’t exist and, therefore, is not, in fact, wonderful, nor a nurse. I lied to my newest friend. She had shared herself honestly with me and I lied to her.

***

Sometimes, my vocation to the Society of Jesus is exhausting; it’s often difficult and thrown against the backdrop of a world that struggles to understand it right along with me. For one, my chastity is simultaneously one of the most personal and most public aspects of my life. I don’t want to talk about it with everyone. The other day, I was in the gym locker room about to take a post-workout shower, when a guy I had just met asked, “So, how did you decide to be a Jesuit?” That’s not something I felt I could fully explain with a towel around my waist.

Sometimes it’s even hard to talk about when fully dressed. There are times when, in clerics, I can feel the pain and anger from the stares of people in public, on the train, walking down the street, at an athletic event. When priestly scandal still makes the front page news, it can be tough to carry myself with confidence and passion. There are many reasons why I might lie to someone about who I am, what I do, and what my desires are.

Weeks later I think that part of what happened on that bus might be that even though I am and want to be a Jesuit, part of me still wants to be married to a nurse–someone who speaks a foreign language, who wants to spend time in Africa, who loves theatre, who owns the room at cocktail parties. It might take a lifetime to uncover the truth of why I lied on that bus and to figure out what the partner I invented in that moment really means to me.  But there’s no avoiding it. I wasn’t honest about who I am and who, deep down, I really hope to be: a Jesuit — poor, chaste and obedient.

This woman was honest about a life that many might judge. She has lived her struggles openly and in whatever community she’s found herself. She courageously shared herself with a near total stranger and responded honestly to my invitation, inspiring me through her story and callings in life.  Every challenge I face in proclaiming my Jesuit vocation through word and deed were present to her as well. She was the better person in that moment, and, eventually, her honesty convinced me that I couldn’t lie any longer.  I bit my lip and, 45 miles out of Omaha, I told her the truth.

***

During my first year as a Jesuit I and another novice were at a birthday party for a friend and word got around that we were Jesuits. The questions poured in and, after a while, I turned to my brother novice and asked, “How do you keep telling this story over and over again?” He responded simply and directly: “The people of God, of whom I am one, need our story over and over again.  And, we need their stories just as badly. We share ourselves over and over again in love.” As my dishonesty wore on me on that bus these words came back to me and I interrupted my traveling companion to confess. A knowing smile came across her face and she said, “I thought there was something about you. I’m glad to know who you really are. Tell me more.”

The truth was out on that bus and while I could have been rejected, I was forgiven. We finished our ride together, continuing to talk, continuing to open up. When we finally arrived we shared a big hug on the sidewalk and went our separate ways, both better, I think. My best friend and his brother-in-law picked me up and, seeing the hug, asked what it was all about.  I said, “I always meet at least one remarkable person on the bus.” And that, my friends, is the truth.

 ***

The cover image, from Flickr user Chris JL, can be found here.

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