I get phone calls

This morning, my phone rang. The number was one I’d never seen.

I decided to answer. “This is Jeremy,” I said.

On the line was a man’s shaky voice. It was trembling, but it was confident too. I’m not sure the wording this man used, but he said something to the effect of, “I’m Richard Butler calling about the Bethany Lott story. Are you familiar with the one I’m talking about?”

I experienced a rush of adrenaline. There’s a chaos in adrenaline rushes. The world turns jumpy. Sporadic. Willy nilly. It’s like the world turns into a perpetual sneeze. Almost all sensory organs shut down to a 1/3 capacity. Probably less. Eyes work in blinks of static. Ears work in spurts. Smell leaves completely. The throat closes. The heart races.

My knees were jello. My voice also went to mush. Should I have been able to smell, I would have gotten a whiff of odor wafting from my armpits.

The stranger on the phone and I shared a moment of chaos.

This stranger was Richard Butler. The Richard Butler. This was the same Richard Butler who recently lost his girlfriend — soon to be fiancé — to a lightning strike (story here, my blog post here).

If you recall, my post made fun of the situation that a person was struck by lightning just after admiring nature.

“Do you know why I’m calling?” he asked.

“What?” My mind was searching for reality.

“Do you know why I’m calling or can’t you understand my southern drawl?” he asked. He made a reference to the Evil Dead II reference I made in my blog post. I’ve loved “Evil Dead II” since I was a teenager, back when I had a thick drawl, and when I knew exactly the irony behind using such a character in a story. I quoted that scene a lot back then. My brother and I used that stuff as inspiration for our own horror movies that we produced.

“I understand you. I am from the south, too,” I said. I said I was from the south too as if it would help. It probably didn’t.

He said “Oh are you?”

I wanted to tell him that I went to college near Pisgah mountains where Bethany was struck. The reason I knew about the story — or even cared — was because it happened so close to “home.” But I didn’t explain that. It was irrelevant. Richard had a message for me that outweighed anything I had to say.

He repeated, “Do you know why I’m calling?”

“I imagine you’re angry about my blog post.”

“No, no,” he said. He paused. “I’m not angry,” he paused again. He was choosing his words carefully. I don’t have his exact words for what he said next. I looked for a way to record the conversation, but I didn’t want to make another mistake by sounding like I was preoccupied. I wanted him to be the focus of my attention.

Richard explained to me that my words were callous, disrespectful, unsavory. He explained that apparently I didn’t take into account that there were real humans behind the story. He was consistent with the character he portrayed in the story (go to the link above and watch the video at the upper right. After the video shows that he had to cut off part of his shoes from the swelling, he talks about how he’s struggling with where to direct his emotions).

Essentially, Richard attached a human voice to counter my lack of tact, humanity, decency.

He explained that Bethany — his Bethany — thought of the universe in spiritual terms, not necessarily Christian — as I joked about in my original post.

“She thought about the world … more like you,” he said. He was describing it the way Carl Sagan describes the universe, there’s an interconnectivity between everything. Often, people confuse this for paganism. Or the religion of the Jedi. This is the way my wife Tina sees the world. I think I get it.

After he told me about his disapproval, I paused and I asked him, “Now that you’ve called me. Now that you’ve said these things, what is it that you would hope that I would do?”

Richard thought about it. I inadvertently stumped him. I didn’t mean to. He said he hadn’t thought about the possibility of that question coming up.

After a few moments of exchange, he said, “I don’t know exactly how I would expect you to respond, but I expect you to do what’s right.”

We talked a little more. Richard admitted, “I don’t expect you to take down the original post. Bethany appreciated humor and saw the world in that way” (that is totally paraphrased from memory).

To take the post down would show a level of deceit that I don’t agree with. It would appear that I was trying to cover up a mistake. I wrote the post. I felt snarky at the time, and wanted to convey a sense of, “Ha! See!”

I was an opportunist. I was maximizing on someone’s loss for the sake of my blog.

Did I think that Bethany Lott deserved to die? No. I didn’t. Did I set out to hurt Richard or Bethany’s loved ones? My goodness no.

What I grasped onto was a religious part of the story. I was searching for the joke.

I see the world with a chip on my shoulder. For over 20 years, everything revolved around Christianity, and that brand of Christianity demonized everything that wasn’t “Christian”. And it did this all under the guise that demonization of non-secular things is a form of “love.”  Every day, something that I thought was cool, or exciting, or interesting was torn down and made to look ugly. I find this kind of Christianity awful.

The church leadership, the school leadership and anyone else that taught me this view of life, all of those people owe non-religious people an apology. They were callous and unsavory toward people that didn’t share their views. So much of what the religious teach kids deserves to be retracted. If Christianity is so great, than it deserves to stand on its own merits.

In my insecurity and lack of vision, I punched Richard Butler in the face just before kicking him in the nuts.

Likely, he was calling on behalf of Bethany’s family and even more importantly for Bethany’s honor. For that, his courage was even greater. Valor is a victor here.

In his response — instead of filling my ears with what an asshole I was — Richard gave me a metaphorical hug and insinuated, I’m sorry you don’t understand how stupid you were. I’m sorry you weren’t more mature to let the chip on your shoulder handle your blog post in a classier, more tasteful way. It was as if to say, “I’m better than you, but I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you.”

It was as if he let me hit him again before saying, “I’m not going to respond in kind. I’m going to respond kindly.

My emotional responses included: embarrassment, shame, regret, a heightened level of personal disgust. Emotions also included a certain thankfulness, a gladness if you will. My words here evoked a response, a call to action. Richard wasn’t about to sit on a life of regret for not calling an antagonistic jerk on the phone and setting the record straight.

He did it. He responded what was right.

I didn’t ask Richard if he is a Christian. He didn’t tell me either. He certainly reflected the ideal of what I think Jesus taught, for the most part.

I decided long ago to be an atheist in part because I was sick and tired of hearing a portrayal of Jesus that wasn’t reflected by Christianity. After researching the Jesus I thought I knew, I found answers that reflect an academic uncertainty regarding the life and times of Jesus, as well as many things that are “Christian.”

I don’t believe that Richard was acting as a religious person by phoning me this morning; he was acting as a human. And in his humanism, he may have acted like a religious ideal, but it wasn’t an exclusive behavior to a religious person. It was exclusive behavior to a heightened level of self, of personal discipline, of self-effacing sacrifice and compassion.

Whatever the case, Richard is a standup guy and deserves accolade. He offered respect, almost to a fault. It was as if he went out of his way not to say something that he thought might be interpreted as disrespectful toward what he thought I believe.

That’s a lot to think about in one sentence, I know. Whatever the case, Richard did right.

I could write about this a lot more. But for Richard Butler and for his love, honor and commitment to Bethany Lott, I will let those thoughts rest.

What do you think about all this?

6 thoughts on “I get phone calls

    1. Wow. You know, I tell my 9-year-old frequently that the difference between an apology that means something and an apology that’s self-serving is whether or not you are able to look the person you’re apologizing to in the eyes, and to let them know sincerely that you won’t do it again.

      You can’t really look someone in the eyes over the phone, and the internet by its very nature tends to take us four or five steps away from the types of comments we would generally feel comfortable making in real life. It’s easy to wound, and difficult to communicate genuine remorse once you’ve wounded someone.

      There’s another side to this, though. I’m thinking of a friend whose father went through a very grueling end stage of cancer less than a year ago, and the funeral process. Death and grieving, senseless tragedy… these are probably the toughest topics for atheists, agnostics, and believers to communicate together about. We’re uncomfortable with it. Most of us (at least those of us over 30) have by this point watched a love one die some kind of horrible death by a certain age, whether it’s cancer or Alzheimer’s or drunk driving, or AIDS. We have, at one point or another during this grieving process, been “comforted” by someone who has said “God called her home”, or “it was her time”. And we have all, in one way or another, had to deal with the urge to: a) punch that person in the face, b) point out that senseless tragedies happen and pretending that there is some higher purpose to tragedy is insulting, or c) bite our tongues and let them cope with their grief at our expense.

      Grey irony is our abstract punch in the face to a world that makes us react this way when we are at our most vulnerable. It wounds, particularly when the punch isn’t felt as an abstraction, but settles in and takes up residence in that aching hole of hurt that is left behind when tragedy occurs for people who are directly connected. I understand where it comes from, and why it hurts, and it’s my deepest wish that the behavior that drives the impulse to punch the world in the face would simply die out.

      On both sides.

      It’s a gestalt thing, though. The positive space of misplaced good intentions defines the negative space of bitterness. As long as the one exists, so will the other. Which is to say, in a very long-winded sort of way, we’re all too human. It doesn’t excuse what we do, it simply explains it.

      My deepest sympathy to Richard for the loss of his girlfriend in such horrific circumstances. My deepest empathy to you in trying to find a way to frame a response that somehow tries to give texture and weight to the negative space without sounding defensive or shallow. And a healthy dose of respect to you both for finding a way to talk about these things so frankly and find positive ways to shine light into dark corners of misunderstanding and grief.

      Not easy stuff. Not by a long shot.

  1. Dear Jeremy,
    Thank you for the kind addition to the story. You showed an incredible amount of humility in your willingness to write these lines and I admire that.

    I wish that I had called before I posted a response earlier. I was a bit knee-jerk and I regret that. But as we both now know, what we have written is written.

    As for my beliefs… I’m a monotheist. And I like Jesus alot. But I cringe at the term Christian for many of the same reasons you might have. But Jesus being the kick-ass guy I like to think of him as… I doubt he’d do a lot of fault finding in any belief which comes from the heart and doesn’t intend harm.

    Anyway… I just want you to know that all is forgotten and that I appreciate your kindness.

    Richard Butler

  2. Very nice blog post.

    It’s a good lesson that what you hear or read about on a national or international scale seems less human than if it happens to people you know. To most of us reading the story, she was just a person who was killed in a somewhat unusual way, but obviously to everyone who knew her she was much more.

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