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.

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

The Intolerable Situation

perelandra

I was twenty-one when my first child was conceived. I approached pregnancy like I approach most unfamiliar things: I bought a book and read it cover to cover. I had that book down. I was going to rock this pregnancy thing, just as I rocked everything I put my mind to in a serious way.

Before long I was diagnosed with one of the complications from the book: hyperemesis gravidarum, which is Greek and Latin for throwing up like crazy. The quaint term “morning sickness” was completely inadequate for what I experienced. It lasted all day every day and all through the night. Whatever I ate, it was a toss-up (ha) whether it would stay down. The book advised eating small meals and nibbling crackers before getting out of bed. This did as much good as throwing salt over my shoulder at midnight. I didn’t just not gain weight; I lost weight. I got dehydrated. I was admitted to the hospital where I was given IVs and an anti-nausea medication that I later learned is also used as a tranquilizer. It didn’t make me feel tranquil. It made me feel slow, out of sync with time, uneasy. It also caused my arms and legs to jerk uncontrollably. Sometimes I inadvertently slapped myself in the face.

Later, after that hospital stay ended, we learned that our insurance would send nurses to our apartment to set up an IV there, so the next time I got seriously dehydrated we did that instead. At one point I was completely dependent on intravenous nourishment for two weeks, taking in no food by mouth.

There are some types of pain you can’t compartmentalize. A migraine headache is like this. So is nausea. You can’t just drink a cup of tea and lie down and rest or whatever. It’s a pain that infects everything. There is no escaping or mitigating it.

I was productive of almost nothing during this time—except of the baby, which continued to develop just fine. I couldn’t write or even read much. At first this bothered me. Once in a while I’d pull myself together, get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed in something I could have left the apartment in, and sit down and have some serious Bible study. I had an idea that there was some lesson to be learned from this illness, and that if I hurried up and learned it—studied the right passage in the right way, prayed hard enough, exercised sufficient patience, surrendered adequately to God’s will—it would end.

Guess what? It didn’t work. I went right on being sick. I stayed in bed for days at a time. I couldn’t think about anything other than nausea, pregnancy, and how long it would be till Greg came home. I would lie in bed with this tight, twisty feeling in my stomach—kind of a burning sensation, but also something like a clenched fist—and I would count. In theory I was counting the seconds and minutes till Greg would be off work, but I went very, very slowly, stretching the intervals far beyond actual seconds, almost as if I could fool myself and be pleasantly surprised when he turned up earlier than expected. Or maybe I was just reassuring myself that time was linear and that units of it were indeed passing, however slow the process seemed.

(This habit of counting is something I’ve kept for over twenty years. When I’m bored or stressed and have to sit still, I slowly count, sometimes tracing the numbers with a finger. I might start over when I reach sixty or a hundred, or I might not. Sometimes I start over in a random place. I also count the hours and days and months leading to and from certain events, repeatedly. The events themselves may or may not be significant; I’m just marking time.)

I reached a point where I simply could not take any more. I reached it a lot of times. That’s it! I’d think. I can’t take this any longer! This situation is intolerable! It must change! It didn’t. Nothing changed. I just stayed sick. I had taken all I could take and nobody cared. When I say “nobody cared,” I mean God didn’t care, or didn’t appear to. I myself was powerless to change things. There was no “final straw” action for me to take, no “that does it” plan to put in place, no scenario where I’d finally give in and spend more money or whatever and fix the problem. Only God could fix it.

I know now—know experientially—that people do reach this point again and again, or reach it and stay there: the point of Oh God I can’t take any more of this, this is the absolute limit, something has got to give—and nothing does. In some cases people truly can’t take any more, and they die. The rest of the time they keep going.

There’s a part in Perelandra, the second volume in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, where Ransom, a college professor from Cambridge University, finds himself on the planet Venus with a green lady, the Venusian equivalent of Eve. The green-skinned Venusian version of mankind is unstained by sin. But there’s another non-indigenous guy there on the planet who turns out to be no less than the devil himself inhabiting the undead body of Professor Weston, one of Ransom’s colleagues from earth. (I know how wacked that sounds, but trust me, it works. This book has to be read to be believed.) Devil-possessed Zombie Weston is tempting Venusian Eve. She hasn’t fallen, but she’s listening to his reasoning, and his arguments are good. Ransom argues back but feels woefully out of his depth. He is a well-educated, rational, thoughtful believer, but this is the devil.

This goes on for days and days. Ransom thinks, This can’t be allowed to continue. Something must be done. Reading the book for the first time, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I actually felt that Lewis had a sort of authorial obligation to take narrative action—have Venusian Adam show up and give the devil what-for, have God speak from the heavens in an unmistakable audible way, something. But nothing like that happens. The temptation continues. Ransom finds some mutilated animals that Devil Weston has tortured but not killed. Their suffering is acute. Though the man and woman have not sinned, pain and cruelty have marred their world. Ransom is horrified. Again he thinks, Something must be done. Again nothing happens.

Ransom’s story takes a turn I did not expect. Eventually he realizes that, yes, something must be done, and he’s the one who must do it. He has no clear direction from God, no heavenly voice or prophetic utterance or anything, but he thinks things through and decides that he, Dr. Elwin Ransom, alone and unarmed, must kill the undead corporeal vessel of the incarnate devil. Two out-of-shape college professors, both naked, neither one experienced in hand-to-hand combat, must grapple to the death. The thought is both terrifying and repellent to Ransom, but he does his duty. It is all very difficult and awkward, and it takes several days. (You just have to read this book. It’s one of the darnedest books I ever read.)

The resolution to Ransom’s narrative is the exception rather than the rule; most of us do not have such a bizarre conclusion to our final-straw extremities. We just keep waiting, and getting loaded with more and more straws.

Paul’s metaphor of a thorn in the side is an apt one for certain types of suffering. A thorn is a constant irritation, an ongoing intrusion, different from an honest cut or scrape or puncture. It produces not only pain, but swelling, pressure, and inflammation. It doesn’t belong. The body wants to get rid of it, and over time healthy flesh can break down or expel a foreign body of manageable size and substance. But a thorn like Paul’s is either too big or too resistant to be worked on in this way.

When you have a thorn in your flesh, you just want it removed, and until it is you can’t really rest. Every movement of the affected area, every bit of contact whether accidental or intentional, is a painful reminder of its intrusive, maddening presence. You can’t feel truly whole or sound while it’s there. And once it’s removed, there is instant relief. The puncture wound remains, but the foreign body is gone. There is rest and release. You can heal now.

Some pain is like that. It may be physical, emotional, or psychological. While you have it, you are fixated on relief, and the relief you want is removal, cessation. The greatest possible good you can imagine is the absence of this irritant.

Why was I sick? I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it. Eventually I got better, and delivered a healthy (though skinny) baby boy, but I didn’t become a better person or anything. Often suffering does have a point; often people undertake it willingly for some higher purpose, as with some over-the-top athletic achievements. More often, suffering is completely unasked for, and instead of making you stronger it weakens, scars, or kills you. Don’t mistake me. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I believe that suffering, like everything else in our lives, has its purpose. But that purpose may not be anything we can ever realize in our lifetime. From our perspective, we are in pain for a long time, and then it stops, either because we get better or because we die. Of course there is the idea that suffering makes you more compassionate and better able to comfort others in their own suffering. This is a sound Biblical principle, but it will only satisfy us so much. So, the reason I am suffering now is in order to become able to help someone else who will suffer later. Well, why does that person have to suffer? Is it just for the purpose of comforting yet another person farther in the future? Why not just end the suffering and let people be? What is the meaning of this cycle? Is it an empty cipher, unending and void?

The official answer is that suffering exists in the first place because there is sin in the world. It just happens. It has to be simply as a condition of our fallen existence. And God is able to shape it to his desired ends. I believe this. But the desired ends are too complex for me. When I hurt, or when people close to me hurt, I just want it to stop.

The cycle of suffering and comforting is not an empty cipher. It is not just a matter of passing off comfort like a baton. When we comfort one another, when we suffer vicariously on another’s behalf, and pray or labor or just commiserate, God knits our souls together in a way that is not possible when we are sharing our happiness. Suffering can be a great social equalizer; it can humble us and strip away pretense. When you are in sufficient pain it becomes difficult to lie about it.

Outside of our homes, most people present a public image most of the time. It’s all very clean and positive. Projecting such an image is natural social behavior. It makes people comfortable. No one likes the person who reveals all the ugly personal shortcomings of family members, or even of himself, to any and all. We would rather emphasize the positive, not just to look good but because we want to encourage positive things. But sometimes we grow discouraged, comparing the public images of others with our own private failures. Sometimes we need counsel or empathy, but we are too ashamed to seek it.

More and more as I get older I understand that every individual and family has secret sorrows and patterns of sin, no matter how good they look on the surface. The community of grace should be open about such things, while still respecting personal boundaries. If just a few people within a given church community were to stop caring about appearances and authentically share their struggles, more revelations from others would probably follow. There would be a lot of surprises, and a lot of relief.

The church should be lots of hurt people helping one another, like a company of soldiers behind enemy lines, the wounded supporting the wounded—binding, medicining, carrying, dragging, encouraging, and also trusting and relying, all of us doing our best to make sure everyone makes it safe and sound back to home territory.

Does this sound like a tidy way to wrap up my thoughts about the apparent futility of suffering? It shouldn’t. There’s nothing tidy about it. It’s messy and irritating and hard, and it doesn’t make pain any easier to bear. But I am beginning to think that it is in the tension of pain that we truly draw near to those who become most dear to us.

We can do this because of One who suffered all things, and gave us a pattern for submission in suffering, and empowers us to follow it. He suffered and even died, and he overcame. He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger–of all the lines of all the Christmas songs I know, this is the one that most consistently moves me to tears. He has defeated the intolerable situation.

Of Saints, Freaks, and Weird-Looking Lizard Guys

In speculative fiction as in all art, it’s important to balance realism with fantasy. Your characters may have physiologies unlike those of any creature on this planet, they may live in floating cities or carry on photosynthesis with their antennae, but their behavior and emotional lives had better ring true, and the internal logic of the secondary world had better remain consistent, or your story is sunk.

I’ve written fantasy stories for most of my adult life, and once I had kids I started taking a professional interest in the world-crafting they did through play. My son was a stickler for accuracy from a young age, especially regarding his pet subject, dinosaurs. He demanded strict realism from dino models; the sight of a poorly executed plastic lizard with a random crest or horn irritated him as badly as the word “Brontosaurus.” Once approved and in his possession, though, Daniel’s models led lives of a sort unknown to any taxonomical order or family of Reptilia, building fortresses, forming alliances, and holding feasts to rival those of the Geats and Jutes.

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We got rid of our TV when Daniel was around three and rarely saw movies; my kids’ first exposure to comic books happened in their teens. Their imaginative lives, therefore, were largely unaffected by franchises directed to children. They had to make up origin stories and sometimes names for many of the random action figures we acquired from yard sales. These included a maroon Batman, a Goliath (his back story, at least, was easy to verify), and a Riddler who sported a backpack with a capturing loop thing that could be launched over victims. Some action figure personas were mysteries to Greg and myself as well as to the kids—like Wrench Man, who wore big clamping wrench things on his shoulders for I know not what purpose, and Chief, an armor-suited guy equipped with a jet pack, a hook, and a bubble mask that could have indicated a life in space or the deep sea, or both. Most bafflingly of all, pushing a button on Chief’s back made his head flip around, changing his face to a visage only vaguely humanoid, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed with rage. To this day I have no idea what this character was supposed to be.

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Goliath has no pants. Goliath needs no pants.

It was the nineties, so Beanie Babies and their knockoffs abounded. My kids had lots of beanies and other stuffed animals, including the pragmatically-named Beanie Cow, a fox, an anteater, a mouse, and a kangaroo inexplicably called Peter in spite of the pouch he possessed. Lots of the animals had accessories or clothing; Peter the kangaroo wore a red cape I’d made from a fabric scrap, and a frog who came to us minus one eye was soon supplied with an eye patch, which had to be connected to a matching vest because an eye patch is not an easy thing to strap to the head of a frog. The eclectic stuffed animal tribe included such members as a little fabric crow from a craft store with jointed legs held on by buttons; Gwendolyn, a sassy biped of indeterminate species who wore a gold-embroidered coat; and Cuddly Chameleon, a plush, rainbow-hued fellow with a curled tail, a crested neck, and an inscrutable heavy-lidded facial expression. Cuddly was a sort of patriarch in the stuffed animal community, whimsical but wise, and always stirring things up. He was the sort of character I think of in my own writing as a catalyst. He made things happen.

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LEGO bricks and accompanying figures presented special suspension-of-disbelief problems. Daniel had lots of minifigs, including characters from the Rock Raiders, Johnny Thunder, and King Leo’s Castle storylines. He didn’t have a complete Star Wars set, but Anna had a random Chewbacca who ran around with the other characters. Anna and Emilie also had lots of Belville sets, featuring princesses, a prince, a king and queen, a couple of infants, and assorted fauna. In my daughters’ storyverse, most of the Belville humans were either stupid or evil, as suggested by their facial expressions; the only sympathetic characters were princesses Flora and Elena, the horses, the cats, and a carrot-clutching rabbit. The difference in scale between Belville figures and standard minifigs is substantial; even the rabbit towered over Johnny Thunder. This had to be accounted for when the worlds met.

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And meet they did—not just Belville and minifigs, but dinos, Beanie babies, everyone. The handling of the crossover stories interested me greatly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith”; J.R.R. Tolkien preferred the paradigm of secondary belief based on the inner consistency of the fictional reality. Whatever we call this aesthetic action, we can agree that certain conditions have to be met in order for it to occur, and that credibility can only be stretched so far. An audience or reader may suspend disbelief for ghosts, or aliens, or leprechauns, but ordinarily not for all three in the same story.

My children’s toy collections formed a system of worlds, each equipped with a complex history and mythos, discrete and independent but able to meet and interact through special circumstances. For the most part, conflicting fantastic elements in crossover stories were handled with the breezy nonchalance that made Joss Whedon’s Avengers so much fun. Discrepancies between worlds were cheerfully acknowledged and remarked on but not belabored with heavy-handed explanations.

The stories concerning these characters were long and intricate. Often Daniel and Anna would “play” without actually having the toys present, just by talking through a story scenario. The two of them would go outside and sit on the swings and just talk. They didn’t swing or run around or multitask in any way. They were story-crafting, and that took concentration.

One day while out and about, we happened upon some likely additions to the stuffed animal ’verse. I don’t remember whether they were real Beanie Babies or knockoffs, but I seem to recall some of them being smaller than standard beanies, real micro-guys of three inches or so. They were all reptilian, and—oh, the joy!—one of them had the same rainbow pelt as Cuddly Chameleon! He wasn’t a chameleon himself; he was more of an iguana-type guy. There were some quasi-chameleons in the group, but their pelts had blue and green splotches. Still, these animals were clearly meant to go home with the Midkiffs.

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On the way home I listened to the sounds of play coming from the back seat of the Suburban. I heard this sort of thing all the time but always found it interesting. With only three young actors to voice a multitude of characters, much had to be done in the way of tone, timbre, syntax, and so on, and new dialogue had to be consistent with a character’s history.

These efforts were collaborative and somewhat spontaneous, but usually Daniel directed things. He was doing that now, and his vision was clear. The gist of the story was that the little reptiles were worried about going to their new home. They knew their bodily configurations did not conform to those of any factual animals. They knew they were about to meet a community of toys awaiting them. And they were afraid.

“Look at us!” one little reptile wailed in Daniel’s voice. “We’re freaks!”

I don’t know what made Daniel deal head-on with the realism issue that day, but I do think the decision marked a leap in his maturation as a storyteller. He actually had a bunch of self-aware stuffed animals pondering the nature of their existence. What species are we, exactly? Are we iguanas? Chameleons? Geckos? Why do some of us have these serrated sail things running down our backs while others do not? And what’s up with these weird colors? What’s the matter with us?

Of course we don’t want to get carried away with realism in storytelling. Give it too much weight and you will soon be observing that in the real world you do not see rabbits taller than Chewbacca, or kangaroos taller than that, or Chewbacca at all, or any animals that talk or willingly wear capes, and soon after that you will be giving up play altogether. Daniel didn’t take things that far. What I found so interesting was that in his exploration of the realism problem, he focused on the freakish reptiles’ fear of rejection.

Social conformity is a soul-crushing thing. I’m not talking about natural law, which is here to stay whether people like it or not and is disregarded only at great peril. Social conformity might be likened to what C.S. Lewis referred to as belonging to a collective. Some people are pretty good at it. I never have been. That sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just true.

One of my most painful childhood memories involves an ill-advised slam book fad in sixth grade. These slam books were spiral notebooks in which friends and classmates could record their opinions about various topics, including teachers, music, and each other. There was a thin veneer of anonymity but in reality everyone knew who said what. And the page topped with my name was covered with one word over and over in all the different handwritings of my peers. That word was weird. Variations included nice but weird, weird but nice, and smart but weird, but this did little to mitigate the sting. I had been socially marginalized in the pages of my very own slam book. It still makes me feel a little sick to think about it.

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Wouldn’t it be great to belong to a community where 1) everyone is a freak and 2) no one cares? If everyone is a freak, then no one is. The word has no more power. We are all just individuals. We don’t have to conform to some standard we can never attain and only dimly understand. We can stop striving and simply be.

In his wonderful essay “Membership,” C.S. Lewis writes,

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and the grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

Isn’t this what everyone wants? Not to conform, but to organically belong? To be irreplaceably, inescapably oneself, and to have one’s unique identity recognized and treasured?

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The end of the story for the little reptiles, which of course Daniel was purposely building up to all along, is that they arrived home full of dread, expecting rejection and scorn, only to find that the members of their adoptive family were as outlandish-looking as they were, and also warm and welcoming and fun—exactly the family they would have chosen for themselves if they had even known to imagine something so marvelous.

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If acceptance is so great and makes everyone feel so good, why not just abandon all standards of behavior and accept everything? Because human morality is not an artificial construct. Some behaviors are abhorrent and ugly, and it is natural and just for us to want to cast them out. Tolerating them might make people feel good in the short term (well, some people, anyway) but will ultimately destroy the community we are trying to nurture.

And what are we supposed to do about that? We’ve all got ugly things about ourselves—not just weirdly colored pelts and odd neck frills, but things like malice, lust, perversion, greed. We can’t make these things go away by ignoring them, and we can’t just stop doing them. Our problem with sin is systemic.

The good news is that Christ has dealt with sin, thoroughly and permanently. He hasn’t just made temporary amends or hidden it from view. It’s gone. We who believe in him have a new identity. His blood has paid our debts, his righteousness has been given to us freely, and through him we have the power to walk in the light. We know this because he says so. We might not feel particularly righteous or victorious at any given moment, but his word is more trustworthy than our temporal experience. We can rest in his faithfulness.

And just like the disparate collection of toys in the Midkiff household, we are united to each other by virtue of whose we are. We belong to him, and by extension we belong to each other. With all our defects of mind, character, and person, our weird back-stories and inconsistencies, we can be assured that we have our place, and a very good place it is. We’re free to love and help each other, to think and rest and play and be. The striving is over. We’re home.

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It’s a Wild Ride, so Hang On

What you see here is a 1979 Chevy Super Six truck, formerly owned by Greg’s grandfather, and given to Greg by his mom in 2008 or so when we decided to move to the farm. It’s not old enough to look like a classic; it’s just old enough to look old. Its lines are plain and spare, lacking the truck-on-steroids look of modern designs. Even the color is an understated slate grey. But all that is gold does not glitter, and people who know about trucks find this one strangely exciting. Older men see it and spout fond recollections of trucks they owned once and wish they owned still. Our trusted mechanic back in Krum, who restored the truck to good running condition, praised it in glowing terms I didn’t understand in the slightest. Greg’s friend Joey enthusiastically pressed on the hood, demonstrating the strength and durability of the steel body. Apparently they don’t make them like this anymore.

After sitting inert in our driveway for the past several months, the truck is now fully operational again, thanks to a new starter installed by Greg. Course, the windows are now stuck in a halfway down position, leaving the interior exposed to precipitation and cats, but that’s a repair for another day.

I’m not sure what that drill’s doing there, but Greg knows what he’s doing.

Today I needed to take Emilie to the equine center to work with her horse, and the truck was the only vehicle available to me, so I got to renew my acquaintance with its “three-on-a-tree” transmission. The layout of the gear-shifting scenario is something like a capital H, and after three years it’s still not exactly second nature to me. The bench seat doesn’t come up far enough to accommodate my five feet, two inches. The first time I drove the truck, I started out perched on the edge of the seat so my feet could reach the pedals, but the mammoth effort required to push in the clutch caused my rear to slide backwards. For a while I tried to stay at the edge of the seat by clinging for dear life to the steering wheel while shifting gears, but this proved too exhausting. I ended up in a semi-recumbent posture, with my upper back pressed against the seat back to provide necessary stability, and my head so low I could barely see over the dash. Once in a while the gear-shift knob came off in my hand.

But that was long ago and I’m now pretty well used to the truck’s vagaries. A throw pillow behind my back keeps me from sliding or reclining, and I manage to get from Point A to Point B without too much trouble. Occasionally a man in a truck of comparable vintage will raise his hand to me in the laconic salute of country people. We understand each other, he seems to say. We drive old trucks.

There was a time when the thought of driving a vehicle like this would have paralyzed me with fright. By nature I am not a risk-taker. I am not quick on my feet. I don’t like embarking on any course of action without feeling reasonably certain what the outcome will be. Also I don’t like doing things I don’t already rock at. But that’s sort of limiting, isn’t it? We can’t all rock at everything, especially when we’re just starting out. And security is just an illusion anyway. Life is risk. Sooner or later you have to take the gear shift in your hand, press down on the clutch with all your might and main, and go for it.

Another function for the truck: providing an outdoor perch for Emilie.

The Three Little Orangutans

The three little orangutans had been together since infancy, and as juveniles they’d shared a space too small for them. The arrangement had worked all right so far, but now the zoo had additional space available. Two of the orangs were about to move into apartments adjoining the one where they’d grown up. They would have plenty of room in their new digs, room to spread out and swing around by their long arms and do whatever it is maturing orangutans do.

There was just one problem. They wouldn’t go.

My visiting elementary school class watched in fascination as the young primates wrapped their long, strong arms around each other and refused to be parted. A keeper grabbed one orang, pried him loose from the grip of his companions, and hustled him through the door. Before the door could be shut, the other two came trailing after. When the keeper tried to put those two back in the first room, the third returned with them.

I don’t know what the zoo staff ever did about the orangs, but the memory of their camaraderie, their determination to stay together, remained with me through adulthood.

Greg and I weren’t overburdened with money or space when our kids were young, and for a while the three of them shared a bedroom smaller than the first orangutan enclosure. Anna slept on an improvised trundle, an extra baby mattress that slipped under Emilie’s crib during the day. Daniel, though tall for his age at four or five, managed with a toddler bed.

It was hard to get everyone to sleep at once and keep them all asleep. Daniel was old enough to appreciate a good night’s rest and be annoyed by his sisters’ nocturnal baby chatter. It was also hard to maintain anything resembling neatness. I kept their toy collections as streamlined as possible; children who visited us were sometimes surprised to look over all the possessions and realize that this, indeed, was it.

Shortly after Daniel’s seventh birthday, we moved to a relatively enormous house of 1600 square feet. We rejoiced in the kids’ large bedrooms; with all this space, they wouldn’t have to be constantly in each other’s face anymore.

As it turned out, not much changed. The kids were always together. Even when they got on each other’s nerves, they just couldn’t do without each other. Whenever one of them got particularly annoying, I’d tell the offending party to leave the others alone; but the others wouldn’t leave that one alone. Within minutes they’d be together again, tumbling around in a bundle of confusion, kinetic energy, and noise.

We homeschooled from the beginning, so the kids were typically together all day every day. Texts and binders jostled for space on our dining room table, overlapping, just like their lives. They were each other’s constant companions, playing elaborate games with stuffed animals, Legos, action figures, and cardboard boxes.

Their sense of solidarity astounded me. They were always quick to share good news with each other and to assume that a treat for one meant a treat for all. If one kid happened to be in the kitchen when I was shredding cheese for a recipe, and I told him he could have a handful, he’d take off before even claiming his portion, announcing to the others, “We can have cheese!” (Yes, this was ample cause for excitement at our house. We lived frugally.)

I think this strong sibling unity is one reason my girls grew up so physically capable. If one of them was too scared to perform some daredevil feat like jumping off the top of the jungle gym into the shallow waters of the stock tank below or riding a bike down a slope so long and steep that just looking at it gave me vertigo, the others would mock that one until she gave in. No one ever got hurt this way; I speculate that they all developed a healthy sense of what their bodies could do, which actually protected them against injury.

When Emilie was around six, she had a bout of impetigo. If you’ve never experienced this bacterial skin infection, I hope you never do. The treatment involves the painful scrubbing of tender raw tissues, the sheer horror of which has been known to drive many a strong man out of his house for the duration of his child’s anguish. Daniel and Anna weren’t bothered by the cries of their little sister; they were used to being told to suck it up. They even made some rather callous jokes about leprosy. But when they learned that the contagious illness would prevent Emilie from attending our church’s annual Baptism and Barbecue—which promised to be a particularly epic event that year, as it was being held at an absolute wonderland of a private swimming pool complete with slides and trapezes—the joking stopped and they wept in unashamed compassion. Anna was eight; Daniel was ten.

A few years ago our family moved away from the area where we’d lived since Greg and I were in college. We left a lot of friends behind, and making new ones hasn’t exactly been the work of a moment. Sometimes it seemed we had just each other. And that’s not a bad place to be. I want us to be each other’s best friends, to support and rely on each other. The family is a core of permanence in a shifting world. We cling to each other with uncompromising tenacity.

But suppose you took the quality of commitment normally reserved for family and selectively applied it to a larger group, in a way that would expand the kinship without diluting it. Then you would have a clan—a group of households forming a basic tribal unit. Is such a thing even possible in modern American culture? I think it is. I pray it is.

A group of us had a gala occasion Friday night. It was a delightful concatenation of special events: a homecoming, a birthday, a reunion. Some of the kids had been away at college; my own boy is still away at Fort Benning. The evening’s energy level was pretty high. Lots of sugar and coffee were consumed. Somebody tazed a pumpkin, and somebody else smashed it with a sword. Two and half months’ worth of stories were hastily retold. Teenage boys were picked up and hoisted to the ceiling. The dog ate a package of Twizzlers.

My girls and I were the last to go, and our leave-taking was a thing not easily accomplished. The kids would physically grip each other and not let go, or at least not for long. They’d hug goodbye but not depart, then hug goodbye all over. I would manage to get one daughter pried loose, and while I was working on the other, the first would reattach herself to the group at a different spot. The easiest thing would have been to load the whole group into the Suburban and take all six home with me.

Finally they gathered into a group hug, and I just stood and watched. The two boys each had a wing span in excess of six feet, effectively binding the group into a tight circle of humanity. They were like the three orangutans, only six this time.

I’ve lived long enough to have a lot of regrets. I see now that for most of my life I’ve taken friendship for granted. I’ve enjoyed it and been casually grateful for it, but I haven’t always valued it to the point of fighting for it. I’ve been too quick to let inconvenience or pride or fear come between. My children are wiser than I was at their age.

Hold on, little orangutans. Don’t let go.