Archie and the Wickets

My friend David Martin is a heck of a storyteller. He’s a heck of a writer too, but it was in the oral tradition that I first became acquainted with some of his more bizarre and hilarious anecdotes. One of these days he might just put them all together in a memoir tentatively titled Larry, Your Chicken Is Dead: Growing Up Normal in the Sixties. You should read it.

Anyway, of the many stories I remember Dave telling—the unfortunate incident of Nard’s chest, the horrifying tale of the rat and the python, the sad fate of the aforementioned chicken—the one that resonated with me most is that of Archie and the croquet set. Archie was a little dog owned by the Martins when David was a boy. I don’t remember what breed Archie was, but it was something short enough to be easily tripped by croquet wickets. These wickets, disguised by longish grass, lurked treacherously in the Martin yard, and when Archie started running around in energetic small-dog fashion, sooner or later he’d catch his paw on one. He’d fall, bewildered, then pick himself up and look behind him to see what had brought him down. But by now the wicket was lying flat, invisible even to a dog who was really looking. So Archie would get up and start running again, and again a hidden wicket would lay him low. Again he would look behind him; again he’d see nothing.

Animals can do only so much to make sense of the baffling contrivances of the human world. Archie did his best, but the cause of his tripping in the yard remained a dark mystery to him forever. He couldn’t see what was knocking him down, but he knew it was out there, waiting, mocking, and eventually he came up with a coping strategy. As he ran, he would randomly leap every few steps or so, hoping to clear whatever it was that kept tripping him up.

He kept up this behavior long after the croquet set was put away.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

I listened to Dave tell this story, and I thought, I am exactly like that dog. Over two decades later, I am still thinking it. I can see the thing perfectly from Archie’s point of view. There he was, minding his small-dog business, running about the yard, and every so often some mysterious force of nature would catch his paw and lay him low. This M.F.O.N. was not confined to any one spot in the yard. It could not be seen, felt, or detected in any way; it was completely unpredictable. He might run a good bit without incident, but sooner or later the M.F.O.N. would get him. This was just the way life was.

Pictured: also not Archie.

Pictured: also not Archie.

From earliest childhood I have felt out of my depth. I grew up with a brother and a sister eleven and eight years older than myself. They were entrusted with things—mystifying, awe-inspiring things like operating the record player, heating things on the stove, and walking to the TG&Y without being accompanied by an adult. They were even allowed to take me to the TG&Y. My brother owned a truck and he was allowed to drive it. For all practical purposes I considered them grown up, except for the part where they still had to obey Mom and Dad. They did all this impressive stuff with such casual aplomb, like it was no big deal. They were so very competent, in fact, that it was a lot easier for my parents to have them keep on doing things than to teach me to do them. At the time I suspected this was because I was less capable than other children my age. (Yes, I actually spent time and energy suspecting this. Even as a child I was a habitual overthinker and worrier. Throw faulty assumptions and inadequate information into a mix like that and you get some wild conclusions. I remember hiding and crying in my room one December 31 because I thought this “New Year’s Eve” thing everyone kept talking about signified the end of the world. Later I thought the same thing about the Fourth of July, though for different reasons. The sky was on fire, for crying out loud. How could these people take this so calmly?)

My suspicions about my intrinsic inadequacy were reinforced when I entered first grade. I felt small and young compared to other students. (With a late August birthday, I actually was a little young, and thank you Malcolm Gladwell for confirming that this does in fact make a difference.) The others knew things I didn’t know, like their zip code. They plainly considered me ignorant, and I agreed with them. They had amazing capabilities—not so godlike as my brother’s and sister’s, but impressive. They were able to sit in desk seats for long periods of time and do tedious work like copying words from the blackboard. They could throw and catch a ball. They could jump rope.

In retrospect I think a big part of my problem was an overactive imagination coupled with extreme absentmindedness. I lived inside my own head so much that at any given moment I had little to no idea what was going on in the physical world around me. Learning practical skills was an arduous process for me, and whenever an object broke or malfunctioned or behaved in a way that was at all unexpected, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it unless I had been previously instructed (and maybe not even then). A more enterprising child might have taken initiative and figured it out, but I was far from enterprising. I figured anything I did would only mess things up worse than ever. Better to wait for an older, taller, more competent person to do it for me.

Lack of power is foundational to anxiety, and lack of understanding is closely related to lack of power. Anxiety is as much an issue for animals as it is for people, and when you are managing livestock, avoidance of stress is as big a deal as food and water. In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, “In a way, animals are much poorer at handling stress than are people because they can’t think through the problem.” Chickens in particular have a low threshold for stress. Overcrowding, undercrowding, loud noises, sudden movements, and any excessive human intrusion can have significant effects on weight gain and even mortality.

This isn't Archie either.

This isn’t Archie either.

Even big tough predators feel the effects of stress and have to be closely monitored for it in captivity. I once watched some footage of Steve Irwin at his zoo doing something or other for a crocodile, maybe giving it food or doing some sort of maintenance on its enclosure. The croc didn’t like having a human in its home, but Steve did whatever he’d come to do, and when he was finished, rather than just leaving the enclosure, he let the croc chase him out. This gave the animal a feeling of control over its environment. In its mind, it was having success at protecting its territory and driving away intruders. Without this sense of security, the crocodile would feel anxious and helpless. It did look awfully smug as Steve scrambled out of the enclosure, but then crocodiles usually do look smug.

I am more proactive than a chicken, and less emotionally fragile than a crocodile, but that only means I have different limits to my comprehension and ability to control my environment. When we can’t see what’s tripping us, we get anxious, and we randomly jump, hoping against reason to time things just right and avoid getting knocked down. Before long, we’re jumping pretty much all the time. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming, and I sure wouldn’t want to be taken by surprise that way again. I will safeguard myself against a recurrence by feeling extremely anxious! Gah! Now something else is tripping me! What kind of world is this?! Jump! Jump! Jump!

(This is as good a time as any to say that I don’t mean to imply that Archie the dog lived a troubled existence marred by constant crippling anxiety. I never knew him, but I’m sure any dog owned by David Martin must have been well cared for and emotionally secure. Yes, he tripped a lot, but he figured out a system, and although it wasn’t a very good system, the wickets did eventually come down, and like Steve’s crocodile, Archie probably congratulated himself on his success. He didn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s okay. A little logic goes a long way for a dog.)

Not even close.

Not even close.

Eventually I grew up and decided it was high time I learned to do stuff for myself rather than always waiting for someone else. I’m fairly knowledgeable and competent now, but I remember what it was like not to be, and I’m always absurdly pleased with myself whenever I accomplish some practical task. Yep, that breaker tripped and I got the switch flipped back. I totally know where the breaker box is and everything. The internet age is a dream come true for me. All that knowledge there for the taking! All those articles and original texts and step-by-step numbered lists! Wikipedia and eHow are my friends. People, too, are somewhat less baffling to me since I learned to discern their patterns of behavior, motives, and innate temperaments. I have a better understanding now of why people do the things they do and of what to expect from them.

But in spite of my best efforts, I am not omniscient and never will be. I still get taken by unpleasant surprise. People are still mysterious far beyond my ability to quantify them. Weird stuff still happens in the world, stuff that even the brightest and ablest never saw coming.

The thing about being blindsided is, you never do see it coming. That’s what being blindsided means. Anxiety doesn’t really safeguard us against anything; it just robs us of the precious emotional energy we’ll need when—not if—some random crisis does hit us out of the blue. We can never be vigilant enough to effectively guard against any and all eventualities. We would do better to remain in the present, grounded in the actual rather than the imaginary, focused on what is rather than what may be.

I haven’t arrived by any means, but I do think I’m a little better than I once was at rolling with the punches. At the very least I’ve come to see that my anxiety is exactly as useful as randomly jumping to avoid being tripped. The realization in and of itself isn’t much, but it’s something.

The truth is, there are wickets hiding in the grass, and there always will be. Some days I’m just going to get knocked down. But I’ll get up again, just like Archie did.

joyful dog

Hard Providences

Ever since I started writing so much about loss, anxiety, isolation, and depression, my blog readership has seen a dramatic increase. (Um, yay?) The words seem to have resonated; I’ve been amazed and touched by the responses I’ve received. Some were from strangers; others were from people I’d known for years without being aware of even a fraction of what they were going through. One woman I’ve known over a decade said that “a big part of the struggles is feeling like you can’t talk about it.” She’s right. Isolation is crippling, and there’s relief in simply seeing a problem acknowledged, owning it, and knowing you’re not alone. I remarked on this to another friend, and she replied, “People are desperate for transparent relationships and shared struggle. For far too long, the (American) Christian life has been all about ‘living victoriously’ instead of recognizing the difficulties and helping each other walk through the hard providences.”

isolation backpack

American optimism is a beautiful and potent thing. It survived the first horrific winter in Plymouth Colony; it settled the western frontier; it built the railroads. All these achievements have suffering built into their very foundations, but what we chiefly remember is the triumph. Americans are all about assertion, determination, goals, and action plans. We refuse to accept defeat; we focus on the good to nurture and encourage it; we dream; we achieve.

The can-do spirit is so systemic to our culture that we forget there’s any other way of looking at things. We can get a lot of insight from an outsider’s perspective, as in these hilarious travel tips for Russians visiting the United States. Here’s what the Russian advice-giver has to say about American optimism:

Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, “Are you all right?” Russians will inquire: “Are you ill?” We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we “aren’t sick,” they “stay well.” We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.

Hokey as it may sound, there really is tremendous power in thinking positively, though not as much as some would say. To some degree—we could safely call it a significant degree—our moods are affected by the set of our minds, the things we think about and brood over. And, also to a significant degree, this set of the mind is something we can control. But not always, and not entirely. The author of this Huffington Post article claims that changing from a negative to a positive outlook is as simple as flipping a switch. Seriously, those are the words he uses. Some days this may be true, but not every day or for every person. Sometimes the switch is stuck—corroded, even. Anxiety can do a real number on your mind. Obsessive-compulsive disorder—the real kind, not the eccentric-but-cute version we see in movies—can make you think about things you don’t want to think about, horrible things, over and over, and you can’t stop though you desperately want to. I don’t wish to minimize the real and admirable gumption people can show in disciplining their minds and emotions, much less excuse self-indulgence or mental sloth, but some people have a more challenging set of underlying circumstances than others, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

C.S. Lewis has this to say in Mere Christianity:

The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

In recent years a dear friend of mine went through some rough times, which she handled with incredible grace and fortitude. In the face of trials that could have cratered her, she joyfully and deliberately thanked God for blessings of life and salvation and family and coffee and birdsong and sunrise. She had down times too, and she was transparent about these, but hope was never absent. One day she observed that when things are going well, people often assume it’s because their methods for marriage or childrearing or Christian living or whatever must be the right ones. And they congratulate themselves on their success, subtly implying that those who are struggling are doing something wrong. But maybe the self-congratulators haven’t been truly tested yet; maybe their time just hasn’t come. And in the meantime, maybe they ought to be humbly grateful for their blessings and not so quick to take credit for them.

isolation birds

There is no shortage of optimism in the American church. We teach and believe that if you do certain things you will succeed, you will prosper, you will have a spectacular marriage, your children will rise up and call you blessed. And of course it’s true that cause and effect really is a thing and that certain behaviors do generally produce certain results. But there are a lot more causes than our systems account for, and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we aren’t following the behavioral formulas all that well to begin with.

There is a thing called the just-world fallacy which is responsible for a lot of needless frustration and blame. The idea is that people’s actions always bring fair and fitting consequences; good is rewarded, evil is punished, and moral balance is restored before the final credits roll. This has next to nothing to do with the justice of God; it’s a mythical temporal tit-for-tat that satisfies our limited comprehension. If asked point-blank, most people would claim they don’t believe anything so crazy and simplistic, but their responses to calamities often betray their unconscious bias. If someone gets sick, he must have had unhealthful habits. If a child gets hurt, the parents or caregivers must have been negligent. If someone gets swindled, it’s his own fault for being so gullible. This is a defense mechanism, of course, a psychological barrier to shield us from the knowledge that random terrifying events could happen to us too. Job’s friends subscribed to this belief, and they clung fiercely to it, growing increasingly hostile the longer it was challenged. Admit it! You sinned! You brought this on yourself. What, do you think God is unjust? He only metes out what we deserve. You managed to hide your sin for a long time but you were found out at last. You had it coming! Confess and repent before something worse happens to you!

Sometimes you just get tired. You’ve been staying brave and keeping faith and holding the course to the point of white-knuckled fatigue, but still no joy. You smile, but you feel beat up inside. You see people online and in person who appear to have succeeded where you’ve failed, and you’d like to crawl into bed and shut your eyes and make them all go away. You wish some wise mentor would tell you what you should do, but you’re afraid that confiding your problems will be perceived as gossip and complaining. Besides, even if you’re desperate enough to risk it, is there anyone you trust that much?

isolation weeds

On the whole I believe American optimism is a good thing for the church. It causes you to focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t. In relationships, this means that instead of brooding over another person’s shortcomings, you deal with your own, and that is an excellent thing. Once the other person is off the hook and not being criticized anymore, he might respond with positive change of his own, or you might realize that your shortcomings were the real problem to begin with.

But proactive optimism is not a failsafe formula for success. It can only do so much. And with all the emphasis on overcoming, those who suffer have no place to go. They feel they will be blamed for their own difficulties or their struggles will be minimized.

“These people do not stop smiling,” says the travel advisor to Russians visiting America. “Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling.”

Maybe we need to stop smiling and really listen.

If we are believers, then our greatest burden, that of our own guilt, has already been lifted. We can now help bear one another’s remaining burdens. I think we could do better at this. We need to learn to remain in the tension of a difficult providence, to keep company with one another while accepting the lack of resolution and the helplessness. We really are helpless; we need God to intervene. When we realize this, we pray out of real desperation, and in interceding and being interceded for we become dearer to one another.

We also need to be more transparent about our own difficulties. Most of us probably have at least a few folks around us who would be quick to sympathize with our troubles and distressed that we’d kept them to ourselves so long. Also, being transparent can help another person do the same. It has often happened to me that I have shared a weakness or a struggle, and the other person has looked at me and said, “I am so glad you said that.” And then we really talk. Isn’t that remarkable? I don’t think the words are chosen idly. I think my admission truly makes the other person glad. We are both glad together, and able to relax in one another’s company.

Years ago I read an author’s account of how an acquaintance from church dropped by unannounced for some reason while her house was a wreck. The author was cringing inside, but her guest looked around and announced, “I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we can be friends.”

isolation hand in handLet’s not be perfect. We really can’t anyway, so let’s not even try. Being friends is better. Let’s be friends.

Gratitude and the Will of God

I was feeling under the weather, looking forward to a restful day of lying around, catching up on laundry, running the Roomba, and doing some hand sewing, and when I saw my very favorite comfiest jeans hanging in the closet ready to put on, I felt absurdly pleased. But what’s so absurd about it? Why should small material pleasures be counted less worthy of celebration than bigger or more spiritual boons? Contentment is not an artificial state or something I’m somehow getting away with. Surely I would not feel as much satisfaction as I do over a cup of Darjeeling tea or the fact that I have an ample supply of hand cream if God had not intended these good things as blessings.

DSC_3486

I’m a little slow in general to express gratitude to God. I want to wait and see if the apparent blessing will turn out to be such a good thing after all. Is it part of a trend or just a fluke? Will some ironic twist in the future change its complexion entirely and leave me looking like an idiot? I don’t like looking like an idiot. I speak from experience. I know how it feels to be open and tender toward some person or situation and suddenly get punched in the metaphorical solar plexus, to go instantly from happy and grateful and blessed to doubled over with sick pain. Things were not what they appeared. People weren’t honest, or didn’t make good on their promises. And a very real part of the pain is self-reproach. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have actually rejoiced in this thing?

But if I withhold gratitude until I know for absolute certain how the thread will unwind, I will never be grateful in this life at all. If I express gratitude ever, I must do so from a perspective limited by time, space, and comprehension.

Almost any beautiful thing in this life can be wrecked or lost, but that doesn’t cancel its prior existence. People will lie and fail, but they will also learn and grow and do beautiful things. Withholding gratitude betrays a stinginess of spirit, a fearful distrust of God’s character, a suspicion that his gifts will turn to scorpions in my hand. This should not be.

contented kitty

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

This is an amazing statement, a startlingly simple declaration regarding something that from my perspective isn’t simple at all. The will of God! How exactly will it play out in my life and the lives of those around me? Am I missing some opportunity or connection at this very moment through pride or stubbornness or lack of vision or unbelief? To what degree is it even possible for a believer to “miss” some portion of God’s will? If we do miss it, does that mean God’s will has been thwarted by human agency? That doesn’t sound very comforting. Then again, if it’s impossible to thwart God’s will, if everything that happens ultimately is in accordance with his inevitable and inexorable plan, then what’s the point of even pretending that our contributions are meaningful? We would be reduced to puppets who don’t even know they’re puppets, who think they’re acting out of their own impulse or reason or laziness or loyalty or passion or whatever but are really only playing parts in a script preprogrammed into their very being. Any praise or condemnation they might receive would be divorced from personal merit or culpability. In fact, personal merit and culpability could not even exist. That’s not merely comfortless but terrifying. Moreover, I do not believe it. I do not believe that God holds us accountable for things that are not only foreknown but also entirely predetermined. But then, if our contributions are meaningful, what is the believer’s part in determining and taking hold of this mysterious will of God? The Scripture makes it plain that God doesn’t expect us to be passive, but only time will truly tell, and those who make the most noise about particular course of action being most definitely God’s will often fail spectacularly, spreading confusion and discouragement among God’s people.

To further complicate the matter, many of our choices have no clear right or wrong about them, at least morally. It is not merely a matter of doing the “right” thing (as if that were easy); we must sift and discern through options which have conflicting moral claims or contain no intrinsic moral content at all. In such a case the “wrong” choice would be an error in judgment rather than a moral failure. But errors in judgment can have serious and far-reaching consequences.

Am I overthinking? You could say that, though I must add that I wouldn’t overthink if I didn’t underknow. Still, this is the tension in which God has placed my existence. He wants me to function with an understanding which to me feels woefully incomplete. If I knew all, there would be no scope for faith.

And this directive, at least, is beautifully simple and clear. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. No further explanation is needed. In this thing, at least, I can act with confidence. I can give thanks in every thing and know that I am doing God’s will.

To do this I must be very much in the moment. I must be glad in the blessing itself without wondering how long it will last or asking what is to be the pill in all this jam. It’s mostly all frail and temporal anyway, a shadow of blessings to come. There’s no point in trying to hold on. The present moment is all I really have.

So. I am thankful now that my headache has mostly abated, though it may well take a turn for the worse before bedtime. I am thankful for the cat and the Chihuahua curled up on either side of me, though their lifespans are absurdly short compared to mine. I’m thankful for the people I love, with all their moods and shortcomings and unpredictability; they certainly have plenty of the same to put up with from me, and I’m thankful that they do so. I’m thankful for their generosity, their intellect, their humor, and their love. I’m thankful for life, salvation, my aqua hoodie, hot and cold running water, LOTR, the Roomba, and mangoes.

God is good. I know this. The rest can wait.

contented derp

Isolation and Dehumanization: Why Zombies Matter

A few years ago I started writing a zombie apocalypse story. It wasn’t a particularly inspired undertaking; basically someone told me I should write a zombie story and I said okay. I set the story several years into the ZA and focused on two families, the MacTavishes and the Havelocks, who were weathering the crisis together. Both families had lots of grown or mostly grown kids, so there were plenty of characters to share point of view.

I had fun with that story. It was my first real opportunity to write sentences such as “Logan shifted his 12-gauge Mossberg, relishing the familiar heft of it in his hand” and “They completed their circuit back to the front door, where Josiah waited with his AR-15 .223.”

I wrote 167 pages of text and notes before calling it quits. The Walking Dead was going strong, and the timing for my story seemed bad. Occasionally I still pull up my chapters and reread them. They’re pretty good, filled with generational conflict, sibling rivalry, unresolved sexual tension, faith, doubt, depression, crises of leadership, and even some occasional zombie action.

Before beginning the story, I seldom thought about zombies one way or another, but that quickly changed. At the very least I knew I had to familiarize myself with basic zombie lore and different philosophies of zombieism. I watched some movies, read some books, and pondered. Eventually I found myself looking at much of life from the perspective of a potential ZA. I live in the country, so I thought in terms of rural survival scenarios. How would you raise crops and livestock in a confined geographic area whose perimeter you’d have to constantly defend against attack? Prevent food spoilage in a hot climate with no refrigeration? Store and replenish ammunition? Maintain fences? Collect rainwater for drinking? Dispose of zombie corpses?

People started sending me zombie memes and zombie articles. I even started having zombie dreams. My husband’s subconscious could have made much of a zombie dream; he regularly has high-powered action-adventure dreams with weapons, explosions, chase scenes, and fully realized plots. My own zombie dreams were basically goofy anxiety dreams, with zombies. I once dreamed of being the only living human in a town full of zombies, and rather than being afraid, I just felt awkward and tried to discreetly shuffle away without anyone noticing.

zombie horde

The popularity of zombies says much about us as a culture. I’ve read that zombieism is a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, and this is probably true in part; the zombie, after all, is the ultimate mindless consumer. But I think there’s more to it than that. Our culture is preoccupied with fears of isolation and dehumanization, and zombies very much reflect this. Zombies are seldom physically alone—they often gather in hordes, perhaps instinctively—but they are completely devoid of social connection. They have suffered loss of memory, personal history, language, intellect, skill, affection, conscience, compassion, and all finer feelings. Relationship means nothing to them; they will turn on those who were once dearest to them to satisfy their hunger. And yet zombies never are truly satisfied. They wander without aim, disconnected and restless, tormented by an unreasoning desire that is never filled.

zombie crawling

All of which largely sums up life in modern Western civilization.

There’s a poignant flashback scene in the film Warm Bodies, with crowds of pre-ZA people milling through an airport, all focused on their electronic devices rather than on each other. The idea, developed more extensively in the book, is that pre-ZA humanity kept turning inward and neglecting relationships until they finally reached a state of emotional desiccation culminating in zombieism. This dehumanization process continues with the living, as characters deal with loss or grief or anxiety by shutting down emotionally and going all dead inside.

zombie r rain

A recurring thing in ZA stories is the failure of technology, which is something we both fear and yearn for. There are two major consequences to this. One is that people—the ones who survive, anyway—have to be physically capable, or quickly become so. They must be creative and resourceful, improvising with available materials and tools. There are no more movies or video games, no more “virtual” experiences of any kind. Everything is “actual.” Life itself is the adventure now, and survivors are strangely heightened, realizing in a way that was previously impossible that they could die today, die horribly, or see their friends die, or be turned into man-eating monstrosities.

The other effect of loss of technology is that people begin to live in community again. They teach and help and rely on one another, passing on skills for all those physical tasks that their survival now depends on. They can’t look things up on search engines anymore; if they want information they’ll most likely have to get it from other actual human beings. Those who pull their own weight are valued and respected, while users and whiners drain energy from the entire group. When people disagree, things escalate fast. No one can retreat to another room or put in earbuds or take a drive to cool down for a while. Everyone is forced to deal. Things come to a crisis, and one way or another they get resolved: people reach an understanding, or they compromise, or capitulate, or go away, or kill each other.

The other night I dreamed about zombies—not zombie apocalypse survivors, but actual zombies living together in community. Unlike the zombies in Warm Bodies, these zombies weren’t shambling aimlessly in an airport, marking time between feeding frenzies. They were living reasonable, orderly lives in a big building that might have been a hotel. They didn’t eat the living or speak in grunts. They had fully realized human personalities, endowed with intellect, humor, and affection.

The dream didn’t account for regular, living, non-zombie humans. Maybe the zombies were the only ones left.

zombie airport

As in many apocalyptic stories, the community was a makeshift one, a ragtag assortment of individuals and fragmentary families all recombined into an eclectic group. They worked cooperatively and harmoniously. Most of the work was food preparation—mostly French fries, for some reason—and laundry, which was done in epic loads. The community seemed obsessed with clean clothing. Maybe they didn’t like smelling like rotten flesh.

Despite the spots of decay on their skin, the zombies were well-mannered, well-fed, and (owing to all the clean laundry) well-dressed. It was a nice community, companionable and in a strange way cozy. Their existence was not all that could be hoped—they were, after all, undead—but they were coping.

zombie r shower

I say “they,” but I should say “we,” because I was a character in the zombie community. I wasn’t myself, though; I played the part of a zombified teenage boy with a zombie dad. (I don’t know how common it is to dream about being some completely different person, but it happens a lot to me. I just consider that person to be the point-of-view character for the story.) “I” had a zombie best friend around my age, who also lived in the community with his own zombie dad.

One day a new zombie showed up. He was not a well-mannered courteous civilized zombie like the rest of us; he was an open-mouthed teeth-baring ravenous cannibalistic zombie, and he was about to start eating our community.

We were already dead, so we couldn’t be killed per se, but we could be dismembered and devoured, at which point our quasi-life, such as it was, would surely end.

So I picked up a brick and crushed the zombie’s skull.

I noted with interest that his brains were black and liquefied. Using the brick, I scraped them into a plastic grocery bag and stowed the bag in the back of a dresser drawer.

I didn’t feel compunction over ending this zombie. It was him or us, and when a being shows up in your community ready to spread death and destruction, you have to do what you have to do. I did it, and I felt fine about it.

But then my best friend’s dad started acting just like the savage zombie. His appearance even changed; his teeth suddenly got pointy, and he got a starved, crazed look in his eyes, like Bilbo in the FOTR movie when he wants the ring back from Frodo. No one else was around, just the two of us. For a moment he got himself under control with a shaky laugh and even said he was only kidding, but then he went all ravenous again, and I knew the ravenous part wasn’t an act.

So I took the same brick in my hand and crushed his skull too.

His brains looked the same as the other zombie’s brains. I scraped them into another plastic grocery bag and hid it in the drawer next to the first.

Now what? Should I tell the others what had happened? No one had seen what I’d done or witnessed my friend’s dad’s transformation. The others might think I was at fault, that I’d gone randomly murderous on an innocent zombie. They hadn’t minded when I’d ended the other zombie—it had plainly been the right thing to do—but this was different. This wasn’t just some marauding stranger who showed up at the door ready to eat us all. This was one of our own, with a history and a personality.

I considered feigning ignorance about the whole thing; I imagined spiraling into deceit, my lies growing ever more complicated…and decided honesty was the best course. Whether the others believed me or not, they had to be told the truth. I called a meeting, and I told them.

I woke up before anyone had a chance to respond, but whether they believed me didn’t seem important. There was a terrible sense of sadness and finality over it all. Our little community had always been on borrowed time, and now the end was in sight. We’d eluded the typical zombie proclivity for mindless destructive cannibalism so far, but we could no longer escape what we were. This was our entropy. Sooner or later we would all end up reverting to ravenous zombie savagery, and then it was either kill or be killed. Either way, the community was doomed—and in truth it always had been. What did we expect? We’d been undead from the get-go. All that hanging out, eating French fries, doing laundry—it was temporary, just so much shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic. We were never more than dressed-up corpses biding our time.

zombie eating

The worst horror of a zombie apocalypse is the dread of becoming the thing you fear. Zombieism is an infection you pass on. Once it’s done to you, no matter how hard you try or how good your intentions are, barring a hard blow to the brain you’ll do it to someone else. Your chances of staying unscathed for the long haul are not good.

Sin is this way too, especially across generations. A child suffering from a parent’s besetting sin often makes a vow: “I will NEVER do this to my kids.” But once he grows up, he either does it anyway, or does something else that’s bad. Maybe he’s repulsed by his father’s sin of substance abuse, and when he grows up he stays sober but indulges intemperance some other way, perhaps with sexual sin. Or maybe he manages not to get entangled in any such carnal vulgarity but instead internalizes his sin, becoming cold and self-righteous. Either way, in some form or another, the effects of sin are passed on.

Zombieism is an amplification of our own greatest problem, and that problem is sin. Sin leads to death. It isolates us. It hurts people. It spreads. And any measures we take against it in our own power are only temporary. We may win some victories but we know the onslaught isn’t going to let up. The world itself has been altered and is hostile to us now. Danger is always waiting just past the perimeter and sometimes within it, and sooner or later we’ll be vulnerable. Maybe there’ll be a breach in the wall, or maybe we’ll be forced to make a supply run. We can’t keep up perfect performance forever. Sooner or later we’ll be taken down.

We don’t need a bigger weapon or a huge supply of ammunition or a more defensible compound or a lifetime’s supply of freeze-dried meals. We need a cure.

We need a savior.

I wish I could go back to my dream and make things work out okay. I wish I could think of a way to deal with our root problem of death and depersonalization, to bring us back to life for good and deal a final death-blow to the pestilence of the undead.

In the real world the problem’s been fixed. Death isn’t the end of the story, and one day entropy itself is going to cease to be a thing. These decaying shells we walk around in can be reanimated, not with a sham of life but with the reality of it, better and fuller than we ever imagined.

zombie r looking up

Inside the Warp Bubble

If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!

~Dr. Beverly Crusher

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about memory, since even before my daughter fell off her horse, concussed herself, and forgot everything from our family’s new truck to the very existence of one of her managers at work. (Interestingly, she remembered the code to our entry gate and the plot of Battlestar Galactica through the last episode viewed.)

Memory is our most important link to personal history, and studies indicate that it’s a lot more subjective and less reliable than we’d like to think. My own childhood memories are vivid but disjointed, with baffling gaps in the continuum. Often I recall some isolated incident and wonder, “Gosh, what happened next?” or, “What happened beforehand? How did that situation even come about?” I also “remember” some things that couldn’t possibly have happened, like the time I walked in on the Easter Bunny playing my grandfather’s piano. That can’t be right, can it? Maybe these memories are based on dreams that I confused for fact or even stories I heard about other people; I don’t know. Sometimes I try to fact-check with family members, but they are generally at least as confused as I am, and they can’t explain the Easter Bunny thing AT ALL.

Even within its limited capacity for usefulness, memory can let us down, and we can only do so much to correct it. The past doesn’t exist as a thing we can see or touch, like some incredibly detailed bas relief timeline stored in space somewhere, or even a computer file we can access. It’s immutable but invisible; once it happens it can never be changed and never be perfectly recalled. That’s why we use physical memory markers. We write things down, we take pictures, we hold onto objects as evidence. We even store memories in other people, which is one reason why the end of a relationship is so painful and disorienting.

But memory markers, like memory itself, have their limits. Even a high-quality video records an event only from a certain visual point of view. It doesn’t capture smell or touch or the emotional state you were in that day or the exact thoughts running through your head or that pain in your ankle or what the ambient temperature was. And like all markers it can be altered, lost, or destroyed.

Sometimes we don’t want to remember things anymore, so we get rid of our markers. We throw out old photos, letters, and journals; we purge old files. Once our markers are gone or destroyed, does that mean the thing never happened? Of course not. It doesn’t even make the memory itself go away. Michel de Montaigne said, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Sometimes our markers get lost. A marker is a material thing and subject to decay or destruction, as fragile as memory itself in its own way.

Years ago the kids and I spent Thanksgiving with my grandmother. She’d been having issues with dementia for a while, but I hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten until that visit. At one point I said something to one of the kids about the time Uncle Kevin refused to eat his spinach when he was a boy.

There was a pause, and my grandmother said, “Who?”

“Uncle Kevin,” I repeated.

She looked puzzled. “Kevin who?”

“Kevin Siddall,” I replied. “My brother.” Another pause; another quizzical look. “The younger boy. He died when Anna was a baby.” My tone was calm but my heart was wrung at having to describe my brother to my own grandmother, having to convince her that there had been such a person as Kevin Siddall. It was a rough holiday.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Dr. Crusher ends up caught in a sort of parallel universe where people keep vanishing from the Enterprise. (Turns out the whole thing is caused by some experiment with a warp bubble being performed in Engineering by her teenage son, which just figures.) The creepy thing is that the people who are left on the ship can’t remember that the people who have vanished were ever there at all.

It’s fitting that the first person to disappear from the ship is Dr. Quaice, an old friend and mentor of Dr. Crusher’s whom she welcomes on board at the beginning of the episode. Dr. Quaice is recently widowed and about to retire to his home planet. He has lived long enough to experience a lot of loss and is pensive now at the thought of leaving behind his remaining Starfleet friends and associates. Dr. Crusher, who lost her husband after only a few years of marriage, understands his melancholy. He says, “You know what the worst part of growing old is? So many of the people you’ve known all your life are gone; and you realize you didn’t take the time to appreciate them while you still could.”

remember me quaice

Later, Dr. Crusher goes to see Dr. Quaice again and finds his quarters empty and unused. She asks the computer where he is, and the computer says there is no Dr. Quaice on board.

She tells Lieutenant Worf, who agrees to order a search but claims he never knew of Dr. Quaice’s arrival, though as Chief of Security he’s supposed to be informed of all planned guests. Captain Picard says Dr. Quaice’s visit is news to him as well, but Dr. Crusher insists she submitted her request and got it approved weeks ago. O’Brien doesn’t remember beaming Dr. Quaice aboard; Data checks Starfleet records but can find no evidence that he ever existed.

Then six members of Dr. Crusher’s medical staff vanish. Picard asks if they were associates of Dr. Quaice; he can’t remember that they ever worked on the Enterprise.

The disappearances continue. The rest of the medical staff vanishes; sickbay is emptied of patients. Crusher informs Riker and Data, who tell her she never had a staff. When Dr. Crusher asks Data if it makes any sense for her to be the sole medical officer on a ship of 1000, he informs her that there are only 230 people on board—crew members only, no families.

The loneliness of Crusher’s situation is truly poignant. She knows what she knows, but as far as the rest of the crew is concerned, the names of the missing are only so many nonsense syllables. Numbers are against her: she is only one against many, and even the ship’s computer says she’s wrong.

More and more crew members disappear, with the computer keeping up with their diminishing numbers at each stage. Finally it’s down to just Crusher and Picard. The captain has no recollection of his vanished crew and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for Crusher and himself to roam the galaxy alone in the flagship of the Federation. Crusher desperately tries to revive his memory with a speech that begins as a rant and ends as a lament.

Will Riker, your First Officer! He’s…he’s very good at playing poker, loves to cook; he—he listens to jazz music, plays the trombone….Commander Data, the android who sits at Ops. Dreams of being human. Never gets the punch line of a joke….Deanna Troi, your ship’s counselor, half-Betazoid, loves chocolate; the arrival of her mother makes you shudder. O’Brien, Geordi, Worf. Wesley, my son! They all have been the living, breathing heart of this crew for over three years! They deserve more than to be shrugged off, brushed aside, just pinched out of existence like that. They all do. They deserve so much more.

Finally Picard vanishes too. Crusher is all alone on the Enterprise with just the ship’s computer to talk to, and the computer isn’t making any sense. Crusher tries to reason with the automated voice.

Crusher: What is the primary mission of the starship Enterprise?

Computer: To explore the galaxy.

Crusher: Do I have the necessary skills to complete that mission alone?

Computer: Negative.

Crusher: Then why am I the only crew member?

Computer: [makes error noises]

Crusher: Aha, got you there!

Computer: That information is not available.

Imagine catching a computer in faulty logic, and the computer just blows you off! Loneliness doesn’t get much worse than that.

Crusher decides to set course for Tau Alpha C to get help from The Traveler or his people—but there is no Tau Alpha C. The entire planet has vanished. The universe itself is now closing in.

She says to the computer, “Here’s a question you shouldn’t be able to answer: Computer, what is the nature of the universe?” The computer replies, “The universe is a spheroid region, 705 meters in diameter.”

Finally Crusher understands. Her “universe” is actually contained within the warp bubble Wesley created earlier—and the warp bubble is collapsing.

By now the Enterprise is being destroyed, crushed by the shrinking boundaries of the false universe. Eventually, with The Traveler helping Wesley back in the real universe and Crusher figuring things out at her end, Crusher returns home through a combination of “seeing beyond the numbers” and jumping through a sucking vortex thing.

remember me wesley traveler

 

remember me crusher vortexI love Crusher’s courage in this episode, her refusal to believe she’s wrong though everyone is against her, and her ruthlessly logical problem-solving in the face of an existential nightmare. I love her faith that the people she’s lost existed and mattered, and her determination not to forget them.

What a terrifying thing it would be to have your circle of people diminish and diminish and diminish, until all that’s left is you, alone in space with only a computer to talk to.

remember me crusher alone

Sometimes I feel as if the universe is closing in on me. People and animals and pictures and belongings keep vanishing. I wish I could make them come back. Maybe I’m actually trapped inside a collapsing warp bubble, and the real universe is out there somewhere. It would explain a lot.

Safe and sound in the correct universe once again, Crusher asks Picard how many people are on board the Enterprise. “One thousand fourteen, including your guest, Dr. Quaice,” he replies. “Is there something wrong with that count?”

“No,” she replies. “That’s the exact number there should be.”

Memory May Falter, But Truth Never Dies

I was tidying the kitchen last Monday evening when Greg came inside and told me Emilie had hit her head and was acting disoriented. They’d been riding horses, and she’d taken a fall.

I took a quick look inside my trusty self-care book, which for years has been helping me diagnose the family and determine when to seek medical attention and when to shake it off. The entry for head injuries said if the person still seemed confused after the first few minutes, go to the doctor.

I went outside and met Emilie at the yard gate. Her back was covered with dirt and leaves from her fall. She was walking okay, but she was crying, and yes, she was definitely confused, and the confusion did last longer than a few minutes.

As it turned out, it lasted a lot longer than that. When Greg first told me about the accident I assumed it had just happened, but later I learned that after her fall Emilie had gotten back on Pippin and kept riding. She’d seemed fine, and Greg hadn’t realized anything was wrong until she started asking questions like “What horse is this that I’m riding?” and “Where did that red truck come from?” The horse had been hers since October, and we’d bought the truck about a week ago. Altogether, her confusion lasted for hours. In some ways she’s not over it yet.

I took her inside to the office and sat her down on the sofa, figuring that would be the safest place in case she suddenly collapsed. She logged onto Facebook, hoping it would help her remember things.

It didn’t. It just confused her more than ever. Almost nothing in her feed was familiar. I tried to help. Look, see Claire’s pictures? She went to South Carolina for the weekend, remember? No, Emilie did not remember that—but now that I’d mentioned the trip, she demanded details. I repeated the few I knew, all of which I’d heard from Emilie herself.

She scrolled rapidly through her feed. She said she didn’t remember any of it, but she also said, repeatedly and forlornly, “All of this happened a long time ago.”

She asked again (and again, and again) about the horse. Who was he? His name was Pippin, I said, and he was hers. He used to be named Movie Star, and she first saw him years ago at Full Circle Equestrian Center where she used to work. She remembered him as Movie Star but not as her own horse. What happened to Casey, her mare? Well…Casey died back in October. What?! (Fresh tears.) How did she die? We’re not sure what it was. She got sick with something and we had to put her down. Where did the red truck come from? We bought it. Why? Because Daniel was in a wreck last month when the roads were iced over, and the Suburban got totaled. Is he okay? Yes. Where is he? Where’s Anna?

Her questions formed a sort of loop. It was a lot like talking to someone with dementia. She asked if all our animals were okay. I said yes and hoped she wouldn’t ask by name after any pets that she couldn’t remember had died. She asked about family—her brother and sister, a grandmother, a cousin, a relative’s baby—and a few friends. That was about it. Then she asked about them all again.

I asked questions too. Did she remember going on a walk last Friday with Daniel and a friend and some of the dogs? No. Did she remember Christmas? No. Thanksgiving? No.

But mostly she did the asking. Some of the answers were wrenching, as with Casey, and they had to be given over and over because after five minutes she would ask again. It was tempting to say, “We’ll talk about that later,” but it wouldn’t have been fair. In her place I would want honest answers, even if they hurt; I would be desperate to know what was real so I could hold onto it. After a while she started repeating the answers I gave her—by rote, in my exact words, like she was memorizing a lesson.

The text message threads on her phone distressed her. Who was this guy, and why was he texting her? I told her he was a manager from work, and he’d texted to let her know her register drawer had checked out okay at the end of the night, but she was still suspicious. Eventually she deleted the thread. It seemed to make her feel better.

We drove to the hospital in the mysterious red truck. The questions continued. Did we still have the black kitten with the grey neck? Yes, we did. (His neck fur had been shaved off following an accident, and his light undercoat was growing in faster than his black outer coat. She didn’t remember his name, but she remembered this quirk of his appearance.)

She was self-aware enough to know her mind wasn’t working properly. Was it normal to forget things this way? Probably. Would she remember eventually? Maybe.

As we walked to the ER entrance, Emilie suddenly said, “Anna says my hair looks dorky this way,” and began to cry. We assured her that her hair looked lovely and hustled her inside.

The admitting nurse asked a lot of questions too. Did Emilie know her name? Yes. Her birthday? Sort of. Her weight? Absolutely. Day of the month? No. Day of the week? No. She cried. Someone fitted her with a neck brace as a precaution. She looked small and sad and helpless sitting there with the pulse detector on her finger.

Anna showed up almost immediately. Emilie saw her and talked to her, but later, seeing her again after returning from a CAT scan, Emilie asked, “When did you get here?” Anna reminded her that she’d been there all along and said she didn’t really think her hair looked dorky that way.

There’s a scene in Memento where Leonard Shelby, who is suffering from anterograde amnesia, finds himself running. He asks himself, “Okay, so what am I doing?” He sees Dodd also running and thinks, “Oh, I’m chasing this guy.” Then Dodd shoots at Leonard, and Leonard thinks, “No…he’s chasing me.”

Pictured: not Emilie.

Pictured: not Emilie.

Memory is a fragile thing. Without it, nothing in our lives has context or meaning. We don’t know whether that guy is chasing us or we are chasing him. We are something like the blind man of Bethsaida whom Jesus healed in two stages. After healing him in part, Jesus asked him if he saw anything, and he replied, “I see men as trees, walking” (Mark 8:23, 24). Without memory, we see, but we don’t understand.

memento teddy

Memory is also dangerously subjective. As Leonard Shelby says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

Almost everyone has had exasperating experiences dealing with people who have been divorced a long time and tell wildly different versions of events that happened years earlier. Sometimes they mean to deceive, but not always; it’s natural to paint yourself in as flattering a light as possible and ascribe evil actions and motives to someone who’s hurt you. Anger, betrayal, shame, bitterness, and any other strong emotions along for the ride all color our recollections and the language we use to narrate them; and this narration, rather than what actually happened, is what our memory records. Some details get left out; others get exaggerated. Over time the distortion increases. The other person doesn’t correct any inaccuracies in the story because the other person isn’t there.

This is the best example I know of the distortion of memory, but not the only one. Years ago I was involved in a situation in which two different parties, both of whom I respected and loved, gave very different accounts of something that had gone down. Both parties seemed sincere, but their stories, with all the value judgments and imputed motives and so on, could not in all respects both be true.

It was a hard time. These were good, beloved friends whose integrity I’d trusted for years, and having their words at odds was foundation-shaking. I was studying Latin at the time, and I remember taking comfort in Seneca’s words, “Veritas numquam perit”: Truth never dies. The truth exists, and it matters. We see in part; our knowledge is hampered by our own imperfect memories and by the unreliable recollections of others, which are sometimes our only source of information. But God knows the truth in its entirety, and he will not forget or lie.

Emilie’s memory is still a little faulty, even about things that have happened since her injury. A few times she’s forgotten things I’ve told her immediately after I’ve said them, and one day she nearly gave the indoor cats an unneeded Second Breakfast because she couldn’t remember feeding them the first time. Even after I said she’d already fed them, and reminded her of how she’d told them they’d have to share a dish, and showed her which dish it was, she didn’t really remember; she was just taking my word for it. But she is young and strong, and her concussion is a minor one. Given time, rest, and no additional head trauma, she should heal fine. I’m thankful the accident wasn’t worse, and appreciative of the chance to see inside her mind a bit–things that were important to her, things that were preying on her. There were a few surprises.

I’m also grateful that the truth is in safekeeping with the only mind in the universe that can be fully trusted.

Remember me, O LORD, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people; O visit me with thy salvation.

Psalm 106:4

When Hope is Weak

When you’ve had as many cats as we have, you’ve seen cats get sick. A sick cat is a sorry sight. It creeps about with sunken body and head hung low. It stops making the Contented Cat Face. It hunches there, listless and still, waiting.

Sick Cat1

Sometimes the cat gets better. Its eyes clear; it starts eating and drinking and taking an interest again. When you pet the cat, it presses against your hand to get in a really good rub. It narrows its eyes to slits and rounds its back in comfort. A convalescent cat is as happy and grateful as any human recovering from a bad illness and just as wonderful to see.

sick_cat4

And sometimes the cat dies. Its fur and skin grow cold. The color recedes from its gums, leaving them pale and grey. Its eyes dull. It sinks into a stupor. Occasionally it rallies and fights for a while, meowing desperately, arching its back, scrabbling at the floor with its paws. Its breathing is shallow but strained; existence is hard labor. But it holds on.

For hours on Christmas Eve I watched a young cat slowly die. Several times I truly thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t. When my husband got home he took the cat outside with his .22 and ended it.

A recent remark from a friend got me thinking about hope, about how hard it is to let go even when you’re all but certain it’s in vain. It dwindles to a hard little kernel that lodges in your mind and will not move. Hope is part expectation and part desire, and it’s not particular as to proportions. Expectation may shrivel to a dry husk while desire remains robust and green, and together they still add up to hope.

You can tell yourself every hour of every day how unlikely you are to get what you want, but you cannot by an act of will stop the wanting. The most meager grain of expectation is enough to keep hope alive, and desire can actually nurture expectation, doing violence to intellect.

sick-cat-2

The trouble is that we can’t predict the future. If we could, then hope would be neither needful nor possible. We’re caught in the uncertainty between fulfillment and disappointment, and there’s no way out but through.

I think that faint hope is like a little cat that’s sick. It might make it and it might not. And the tension of watching and wondering is a terrible, terrible thing. Even when it seems that the most merciful thing to do would be to kill it, you can’t, because you can’t willfully end hope without ending yourself. The most you might manage is to stifle it, and if you make a habit of that you’ll end up like what C.S. Lewis called the Disillusioned “Sensible Man.” Though priggish and repressed, such a man “rubs along fairly comfortably” without being a nuisance to society. According to Lewis, such a state “would be the best line we could take if man did not live forever.”

Lewis continues,

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. (Mere Christianity)

Is this any help for the one who is suffering not from the failure of earthly things to satisfy ineffable desires but rather from a simple inability to get those earthly things which he so badly wants? I think so–I hope so. If nothing else, it affirms hope itself as a virtue. Continuing to hope past the point of pragmatism can make us feel foolish and embarrassed. It shouldn’t. Hope and folly are not the same thing. We may or may not get the thing we want, but while we wait we can take comfort in knowing there are other, better things awaiting us whose fulfillment is sure.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the LORD more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Psalm 130:5,6

sick-cat-IV