202 Darin Strauss
“And then all the emotions sort of flowed and I started crying in a way I don’t think I have since or probably didn’t before. I was just sort of heaving and then I thought, wow, this is going to ruin me. This is the end of my life. You know?”
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
I once sat at the deathbed of a woman in her 70s to take her final confession. And the thing that broke my heart wasn’t her admitting that she’d had a secret affair early in her marriage, it was that a few years later, when she and her husband had a still born child, and she blamed her earlier infidelity for it. For 45 years she carried the moral burden of something that she actually had no control over.
But it’s this thing we do as humans, we assign blame to ourselves when the chaos and randomness of life is just too existentially uncomfortable for us to handle. It’s better to fill in the blank than to face the void.
It’s terrifying to think that horrible things can happen for no reason whatsoever. But sometimes life is unfairly random. And it can be unfairly random in both beautiful and terrible ways. Causal fallacies are how we make sense of life, blaming ourselves or others or God for things that are too painful to think of as happening merely by chance.
But really, there is almost never a reason for tragedy. We can easily answer the who, the what, the when, and the where of it. It’s the why that’s impossible to get right without painful self-incrimination or theological hogwash.
But we are human beings, which means that while we might never find a satisfying reason for the awful shit that happens in life, sometimes we can still find meaning in it. And that’s different.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. Today I’m speaking with someone who touched tragedy at a young age and has been carrying the burden of it for most of his life. Stay with us.
NBW: Joining me in the Confessional today is the writer Darin Strauss. Darin, I know we were just talking about the secret you took with you to college and how it affected you. Let’s start there and work backwards.
Darin Strauss (DS): Yeah, I mean, […] I had this thing happen to me at the very end of my high school career and the only thing that I looked at as a positive in this whole situation was that I was leaving and that I could treat wherever I was going as a witness protection program, so I would go with the secret. And I felt like if I lodged it deep inside, it wouldn’t ever come back out. And I thought. You know, I could just move on. And then I got there and I wasn’t moving on. And so I thought, well, maybe I’ll go to the library and figure out ways to make it, wedged down even deeper. And I’m not very good at library sciences, so it took me a lot of sorties into the stacks — but I would try to find reaction times and see how quickly a human being can possibly avoid a tragedy, can avoid impact in a car accident, what is the fastest a person can avoid impact in a moment when something is thrown before him?
NBW: Mm hmm. So walk me through the secret that I like as an 18 year old you thought you could get away from in college?
DS: So, I was driving with some friends on a very beautiful sunny day. I had friends from summer camp that I was picking up, so I wasn’t in my town. I drove my dad’s car to the neighboring town and picked up the guys we were deciding whether to go to the beach. This was in Long Island outside of New York City. I was deciding whether to go to the beach or play mini golf. And we decided on, I think mini golf, I don’t even remember what we decided. But I was driving along this sort of mini highway that was a four lane road, two lanes in each direction. I was in the far left lane and there was a bicyclist on the shoulder. And I happened to notice her and her friend when I was about a hundred yards away. Just the way you sort of clock something in the distance, but nothing seemed off. And as the distance between car and bicyclist closed, I noticed a sort of glitch in the road. She sort of wobbled, but seemed to right herself and so didn’t, didn’t make a note of it. I guess I guess I made sure I was in the left lane. I was thinking about switching to the right lane, but I thought I should stay far away from her. And then as my car approached her, she darted into the street across two lanes of traffic and straight into my car. And I hit her. And at the time, I remember seeing her head hit the windshield, but. I was in shock and so, bumped over to the median. I expected to see her sort of fine and and, you know, having some explanation for why she turned into the street. And then I got to her body and, you know, she was lying face up in the road and had this stare that I’ll never forget. It was sort of the the gaze only extended sort of part way out. You know, when you’re looking at a person with consciousness, you can see their gaze sort of go out into the world. And this was a person whose gaze didn’t extend beyond her eyes. […]`and then there were suddenly about ten, fifteen cars stopped and everyone came up and said, you know, “don’t worry, it’s not your fault.” And this is something that uh it’s been hard to live with, too, is that among the stopped cars, there was a group of girls who were really cute, and I walked up to them and started flirting with them. And my only explanation was that I was in terrible shock and didn’t realize what was happening. But, you know, they were like, “oh, my God, how were you in that accident?” And I sort of got to act like the celebrity of this of this event. And I was like, “Yeah, I was.” And they were like, “wow, that’s crazy.” So I sort of then sort of swanned away from them with my shoulders back. Like, uh.
NBW: Mm hmm.
DS: And then I got to perform grief, like, I didn’t really feel it, but I thought, OK, I should act wrecked for these girls. And so I sort of sunk to the ground. Um, the way I described it was like, you know, someone just winning the U.S. Open, you know, you sort of sink to your knees and you put your head in your hands but I didn’t really feel anything.
NBW: Mm hmm.
DS: And then, um, the police came. And then they told me, yeah. You know, everyone says it wasn’t your fault. Don’t worry. And I still didn’t feel anything until my father showed up. I don’t know how, or who contacted him or how he got there. But, uh, when I saw him, it sort of made it real somehow. And then all the emotions sort of flowed and I started crying in a way I don’t think I have since or probably didn’t before. I was just sort of heaving and then I thought, wow, this is going to ruin me. This is the end of my life. You know?
NBW: And when, when that, like, floodgate finally opened in terms of actually feeling what had happened? Tell me what was the thought? I just know when I have something like that where I finally sink solidly into sorrow, having tried to keep it at bay as long as I could, there’s usually like one or two thoughts that circle over and over and over. Did you have an experience like that?
DS: Yes, I thought.. I hope she doesn’t die. And then I thought, if she does die, I hope it doesn’t ruin my life.
DS: You know, I had selfish thoughts at that moment. Like, uh,
NBW: Like an 18 year old boy?
DS: Yeah. I would imagine anyone would have thought at some point, like, you know. Yeah. How does one get over this? And then the interesting, terrible coincidence was that I knew the girl. […] She went to my high school. And, uh, had been in the car that killed her. Because I wasn’t friends with her, but I saw her once and said, hey. She was walking home and I said, Do you want a ride home? And she said, yeah, thanks. And so I gave her a ride home. She didn’t know that my car was the one that she was choosing because I later found out that she had, most likely anyway, chosen my car as the object of her suicide.
NBW: Oh, wow. Tell me how you found that out?
DS: This girl who was friends with her in high school said, yeah, it was crazy what she wrote in her diary the night before, huh?. And I said, “I didn’t know that.”
NBW: Mm hmm.
DS: And, uh. Uh, I asked her what that wasn’t. She said, well, you know, today I realized I’m going to die. And, um, all these thoughts about death. And then later, after I wrote my book about it, people came forward and said, you know, she was talking about suicide and death a lot that week. So I can’t be sure, but it seems very odd, because her bicyclist friend who was with her said, I’ve no idea what happened, she was with me. And then she just darted into traffic and we weren’t going anywhere that was left, so there’s no reason for her to turn left unless she’s darting into the street intentionally. So, you know a number of things add up, to say that.
NBW: When you found that out, that piece of information, did anything shift for you in terms of how you understood yourself within the story?
DS: It shifted for me a little bit, not as much as I would’ve thought. I mean, when I was unsure of what happened, I would have paid more than I could have afforded for that information because I would have thought that would be the exoneration that I’m looking for, because I did feel a terrible amount of guilt about this. But I don’t think it’s changed that much because um, and this is why I guess I’m in The Confessional, I think there are a lot of people out there who feel guilt about something that they’re not culpable for. And so even though it wasn’t my fault and I had more confirmation of that. I still felt guilty feelings about it. And it was nothing that ever sort of, it wasn’t like, that was it, and I was like, oh, now I’m happy about this. You know, it wasn’t like a weight was lifted and there was closure. I don’t really believe in closure with things like this.
DS: So, it was a piece of information that did help me a lot, but it didn’t make it go away.
NBW: Tell me what do you feel like the fact that you happened to be driving on a street where somebody was potentially just determined to have this happen, like, your crime is just you were in the wrong place, wrong time. What did it cost you? Like long term, you think?
DS: That’s a really good question. I think it cost me stuff, but I also think it gave me stuff.
NBW: Tell me both.
DS: It cost me my health for a while. I mean, I, uh, I had a lot of maladies. I was, uh, you know, when you swallow this thing and it was a secret, I didn’t tell many people, um, so I lived with this pain. And didn’t talk about it. So, you know, my hair went gray really young. I had stomach issues in my 20s. I had all kinds of stuff.
NBW: The body keeps the score as they say.
DS: The body keeps the score. Yeah.
NBW: Tell me why it was a secret. Why didn’t you want people to know that-?
DS: It was shame. I felt shame. I don’t know why. I just felt, I just didn’t want to talk about it. I just thought if I bury it, it will go away. And if I talk about it, it will be hard.
NBW: And it just came out as gray hair and stomach problems instead.
DS: Yeah. But it gave me a real empathy, like I always think, you know, I don’t know what this person is going through. I know that everyone has secrets that I know that people are dealing with pain and that they might not want to talk about it. I know that life is much more fragile.
NBW: Yeah. For sure. I think once, um, it makes you into like a human metal detector where it’s like you can sense the things below the surface, you know, when other people are just seeing sand and you’re like, naaah, I think something’s there. It’s like beep beep beep. I don’t know how familiar you are with Hebrew Bible, but in the Book of Job, you know, Job is that classic book about suffering.
DS: Yeah. Yeah.
NBW: You know.
DS: Because God and the devil had a bet.
NBW: Yeah, but the devil is has’satan. But has’satan means the accuser. And I just kept thinking of that. How does the accuser function in our psyche? Saying no, it’s your fault. No, no, it’s your fault. No, no, you’re definitely at fault, you know, when you’re not. And like, I end up being somebody who labels things as demonic or whatever that other people wouldn’t, I think. To me, that’s a lot of how it manifests, you know, in the world is feeling that constant accusation about who you are and what you’ve done. And even Martin Luther in, in some of his writing. He said — and this is a different obviously order of reality than what you’re talking about, but I love it — he said it is not God but the devil who rummages through your garbage looking for already forgiven sins and then rubbing your nose in them and saying, this is who you really are.
DS: Yeah. I mean, it’s so funny when you said that because I was thinking when you talked about — How do you pronounce it? Has’satan?
NBW: Has’satan. Yeah.
DS: I was thinking that the devil here, the Satan, was in me. You know, I was the accuser for most of it. I was the demon, you know. I mean, her parents did accuse me, but most people were forgiving to me. You know, I, it’s really interesting, too. I was talking to someone from my high school who I wasn’t friendly with in high school. And he was on the football team. He said, you remember when the football team got your homework? Because this happened in high school, and I was out of school for a while, I just couldn’t face going to school. And he said that the football team brought you your homework. And I thought, what a nice gesture. I wish I remembered that. I had no memory of it because I was just so wallowing in my guilt and feeling bad. I just must barely registered that.
DS: And I thought what a cool thing that happened that I just didn’t, I didn’t appreciate at the time because I was just, has’satan was in me telling me, you know, you’re a bad person, you’re a bad person. Everyone hates you. And I didn’t think to notice, maybe they didn’t. Maybe most people didn’t blame me.
NBW: It’s powerful, man, the accuser. I mean, I once asked my congregation to write on a post-it, what is the thought that you have most frequently about yourself to yourself? And it’s never “you’re doing a great job.” You know, like, nobody wrote down, oh, the thing I say about myself to myself the most frequently is, I really appreciate how kind you are to other people.
NBW: You know, it’s always thoughts of shame or guilt or lack or unworthiness. And-
DS: I could tell you what mine is.
NBW: Yeah. Yeah, sure. What is yours? Do you want to say? You don’t have to.
DS: For me, it’s you fucking asshole.
DS: Or like, what an asshole piece of shit, something like that. Just really crass.
DS: Like the kind of thing you’d only say to your enemy, which is so weird.
NBW: I’m the same way. I mean I would probably the thing I say to myself most often is that you’re a horrible person. And I don’t I don’t know how to remedy it because other people saying, no, you’re wonderful, that doesn’t remedy it. So I don’t, I’m not sure what the interior work is to change it.
DS: But maybe it’s why you’re a good person. People who are bad people don’t think that because they’re like, I’m a good person, you know. It’s like I’m really virtuous and people think they’re virtuous are the ones you gotta watch out for. It’s a terrible byproduct of wanting to be a good person. Like, I think I always beat myself up because I want to be, I really want to be a moral person. I want to be a virtuous person. I want to be more spiritual. I want to be a better person all the time. But that’s probably the kind of person who knows when she comes up short, or he comes up short, you know.
NBW: But also, there’s a danger there as well. I mean, because striving for virtue is generally, um, you end up either being prideful because you’re nailing it or filled with despair because you’re not nailing it.
NBW: I think that’s why I’m obsessed with grace. I mean, it’s the thing I’ve written about, preached about, thought about more than anything else in my whole career is because of this idea of feeling like I because I’ve tried trying harder. It doesn’t make me happy. It just makes me tired.
NBW: And so the idea that maybe there’s a source outside of myself that I can draw upon, and it doesn’t have to rely on my exhaustive efforts, I don’t know. I think that’s why I’m obsessed with grace over virtue.
DS: Yeah. I think that’s a great way of looking at it.
DS: But also, I think maybe happiness is overrated in some way. I mean, you don’t want to be despairing all the time, you don’t want to be depressed. But so much of what is worthy in life is the product of hard work, like, you know, like becoming good at what you do is hard and you have to be sort of a perfectionist that way, in a way, which brings a lot of mental pain. And becoming a good person is hard. And even having grace is hard. You know, like the people who I know are really happy, it’s like a variant of ignorance is bliss, right? Like if you’re not worried about being a good person, you’ll be, god, I’d love to be that guy in a way. Just do whatever you want and not worry about it.
NBW: And not think it exhaustively about every single thing all the time.
DS: And just thought, you know, I’m great at this, I don’t have to work at it, about whatever you did. And that person is a terrible person but is happy. But I wouldn’t. I don’t know if I would want to be that person because, like, happiness is not the be all end all.
NBW: Darin, you mentioned earlier that this whole experience gave you things — good and bad. Is there anything that, looking back on it all, you’re grateful for?
DS: Yeah, the gratitude, I guess, is that I’m alive. And also the gratitude is it made me who I am. And so I don’t know what I would have been without it. You know, I wasn’t probably as thoughtful a person beforehand. So, yeah, I guess I lived through it. I guess I’m grateful that I did. Because I’m happy that I have empathy. I think that that is a part of it.
NBW: But is it ever inconvenient to have compassion?
DS: Oh God yeah. I’ve got a, in this instance, I have it to a degree that’s unhealthy because like if we’re, if I’m with my wife and we’re watching an episode of, say, Friends and if someone is wrongly thought to have done something bad — ergo, every episode — I have to leave the room because I can’t deal with it. They think that this person did something wrong and they didn’t. So it’s too painful.
NBW: Because the cast is being you
NBW: -is being has’satan. Like you frickin’ did that to yourself for years, right? Oh god, no wonder it’s uncomfortable.
DS: If someone is being blamed for something they didn’t do, I got to leave. So yeah, that’s a burden.
NBW: So I. Maybe a couple months ago. I found this website. And I’d never had an experience of stumbling upon a website and spending 15-20 minutes reading it and then crying. I wouldn’t say that’s something I’m even prone to. But the website is called Accidental Impacts, and it’s a sort of online community for people who have caused accidental injury or death of another person. And to read the postings of the people who had just discovered that website and them saying, oh my God, thirty-five years ago, I was involved in the accident, it wasn’t my fault, it took this kid’s life. And, um, I’ve never forgiven myself. I’ve never gotten over it. The weight that people carry for causing injury or death in a completely accidental way that doesn’t have culpability to it is still really fucking heavy.
DS: I think that there’s more of a community forming around this than there had been. I mean, that’s the powerful thing. So I wrote this book and I thought it was going to be just sort of a small thing for people who had accidents, but it was my biggest selling book, and I found out why after it came out. Because I got so many emails, I mean, I got thousands of emails from people just sharing their stories. What I learned was that so many people feel bad about things that just were not their fault. And it wasn’t just car accidents. I mean, people, someone wrote me saying she felt someone wrote me saying she felt terrible forever because she laughed at her father’s funeral when she was six and he died. And she didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with this, and so she laughed. And so forever she’s carried this around. She’s in her late 50s now, you know, and she said only when I say out loud, I realize it wasn’t so bad because I kept it in for 50 years.
NBW: Oh my gosh.
DS: I mean, things that, you know, were not your fault. It’s just we carry these things with us. And so writing the book was such a help for me.
NBW: You know, one of the reasons when I visited that website that I cried is my brother. This was maybe twenty-five years ago had the same thing happen to him. He was driving down C470, and this older man stepped onto the freeway and my brother’s car hit him. And, um, and he died. And it was suicide by car. And so there was no sort of legal thing that my brother was involved in, but he’s carried that his whole life, you know? And I don’t know. I’m interested in the role that blame plays in the human psyche.
NBW: And when it turns on itself, you know.
DS: Well, you know, it’s funny, um, I told a friend I was doing your podcast and they said, great podcast, but why are you doing it? You have nothing to confess.
DS: And I thought, you know, well, yes and no. I mean, because we do carry these things around and, uh, you know, we do feel these things, no matter what.
NBW: Well, Darin, I’m so thankful that you, that you told me this story and that that you were willing to kind of, you know, come out with it and to be honest about that sort of accusing voice and them.
DS: Oh, well thank you so much for having me. It was, it was really good to talk about. I mean, that’s the thing that’s interesting to me, that keeping it secret is the worst thing you can do, but everyone does it. And that’s, I think, the key to like AA and everything like that. You get up before a group of strangers and you talk about something you don’t want to talk about. And it makes you feel better.
NBW: Yeah. It’s also the only thing I ever really want to hear people talk about is, like, how long before I meet somebody till I can hear the worst thing they’ve ever done? Because then I had loved them. I don’t know. Then that’s the thing that makes me go, oh my gosh, like there’s a pathos to that part of the human experience and we want to keep it hidden. And yet I always say, it’s the jagged edges of our humanity that connect us to God and to one another. It’s not the smooth parts, you know, it’s the jagged parts.
DS: Yeah. And who do we think we’re kidding when we pretend we’re perfect? Like, no one’s perfect. Well, thank you again so much.
NBW: I’m so delighted and I’m so happy to know you and so grateful that you’re willing to come on today. Appreciate it.
DS: Yeah. Hope we get to stay in touch.
NBW: Yeah. For sure. All right. Thanks.
NBW: A blessing for Darin,
Darin, my heart breaks picturing you as a college freshman sitting in the library stacks, searching for the truth of who you were in the physics of moving objects and human reactions. As if a formula could judge you to be a good man, or bad.
But life isn’t like that because the moral universe doesn’t work according to the cause and effect of Newtonian physics, where only bad people kill other people. The moral universe is quantum, if anything. It is itself a moving object. A chaos, a mystery.
And a random set of forces put another human being in the path of a car you were driving and you have suffered the moral injury of that.
But Darin, there is a moral injury to just being human. No matter the goodness of our hearts or the purity of our intentions we hurt other people. To live without injuring another is an impossibility we all must suffer, and unfairly you’ve had to suffer more than you deserve and I wish there was a formula that explains why, but there isn’t. It just is. A moving object. A chaos. A mystery.
So my blessing is this: Fuck the accusor Darin. You’re not a bad person. That’s it. That’s my blessing. You are not a bad person. You just have had to carry the weight of a bad thing. You’re a good man, Darin. May that knowledge wedge itself inside of you and give you something a formula never could. Amen.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional…
Abby: All I could do was drink, pop some pills, and forget about what was happening.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.