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.

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.”

Losing and Finding, and Sometimes Just Losing

For a brief time when I was about five, my family had a dog. His name was Snoopy, which confused me because Snoopy was supposed to be a black and white spotted beagle and our dog was a solid brown dachshund. I was a fearful child, often irrationally so—among other things, I had a phobia of the number four—and I was afraid of Snoopy.

My memories of early childhood are like isolated bursts or blossoms—vivid, discrete units, often lacking context or continuity, floating in an amorphous plasma of not understanding what the heck was going on. I don’t remember petting Snoopy or pouring his dog food or watching him snuggle down in his dog bed, but I do remember swinging on my swingset while he ran back and forth on the ground below, under and around me, barking and barking. Given time, I would have realized that his barking was playful, not menacing; I would have stopped being afraid of him, picked him up, carried him around with me, kissed him between his eyes. But he lived only a short time after we got him. In another blossom-burst of memory, I am outside with my sister and her friends, and my brother is hurrying down the sidewalk towards us, holding Snoopy, who is bloody and yapping in pain. He’s been hit by a car. This is my last memory of him.

Snoopy never slept with me in my bed or cuddled with me on the sofa. I didn’t push him around in a doll stroller or dress him up or feed him treats. I hardly knew him. But his small memory stayed firmly lodged in my mind. As I grew older I thought about him a lot. I felt bad that I hadn’t played with him. I desperately wanted him back—not merely as he had been, but as he should have been throughout the years I should have had with him. For years after his death, I would sometimes lie awake, thinking about this dog I had barely known, and crying.

Some years later, when I was about ten, I lost a stuffed animal—also a dog, bafflingly named Tubels. Some classmates and I had put on a short play for reasons I can’t remember. It was set in a pet store, and I’d brought some toys from home to stand in for animals that weren’t being played by classmates. The play was a rousing success, a credit to me as actor, director, and playwright, and I felt triumphant as I left school, carrying my stuffed animals in a basket. For some reason I was being watched by some after-school babysitting lady that day, a thing which almost never happened in my entire childhood. And somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house, Tubels was lost.

I mourned a long time for that stuffed dog. For a while I actually hoped and prayed that he might somehow be found again and returned to me. Lying awake in bed (again), I mentally replayed the walk to the babysitter’s house. I imagined Tubels falling out of the basket and rolling into a gutter, and me walking away, distracted by post-play euphoria, not paying attention. Sometimes I altered the scene in my mind so that I noticed he was missing, turned back, and rescued him, or never dropped him, or got picked up at school by my mom along with all my animals, safe in their basket.

Maybe I was more obsessed with loss than is usual for a child. The memories of lost inanimate objects, even those of little intrinsic value, remained sharp with me for years. Usually there was guilt involved, as with the plastic ring I took to preschool after I’d been told to leave it at home. Another girl tried to take it and spuriously told the teacher I had stolen it, and the teacher confiscated it from me without due process and put it in a can on a high shelf, from which it was never returned.

Eraser-Mate pens, introduced in the late seventies, were the bane of my sixth-grade existence. I’d always had bad handwriting; my hand cramped easily, and the whole process of putting words on a page was so painful and frustrating that I made a lot of mistakes. By this point in my school career writing with a pen was mandatory, so Eraser-Mate pens seemed like a godsend to me for a time. Theoretically, they offered me a chance to fix my mistakes. In reality, the nonindelible ink smeared under my hand and the eraser didn’t so much remove the ink as smear it around, so my papers looked as bad as ever. Eventually I was forbidden to use the things. But for a while they were precious commodities to me. They were more expensive than regular pens; they had to be stowed securely or brought home after school, or they would be stolen by some dirty pilfering eleven-year-old. I knew this, and yet I could not keep those darn pens in my possession to save my life.

It’s amazing that with my near-pathological levels of anxiety about loss, I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my belongings. My young brain combined hyper-vigilance with extreme absentmindedness. At school, I repeatedly failed to secure the pens in a safe location; at night, lying awake in bed (I did a lot of that), I agonized over my carelessness. Nobody was abusing me at home or making me shovel coal to pay for my lost pens, but there would be an accounting to be made, and I dreaded it.

Loss terrified me, and yet I couldn’t seem to get away from it. Every so often something of mine would just slip into a void, never to be seen again. I always felt I should have been able to prevent the loss, to take better care of my things, but somehow I just couldn’t seem to do it.

Eventually I grew up, and my hyper-vigilance got the better of my absentmindedness. These days I rarely lose my belongings in the sense of mislaying them. I have designated places for almost all household items and I usually put them there. (Sometimes this actually works against me, because when family members can’t find their own misplaced belongings, they know exactly where to look for mine, which they may or may not return after use.) But I am still haunted by loss. Of time, property, money, opportunity, relationship. Of dogs, real ones, whose names and stories I don’t dare set down here because if I do I will never make it through this post.

Sometimes the lost thing is a period of time, an epoch, in which friends and work and opportunity and health come together in a wonderful synergy, a sort of golden age, and suddenly it’s just over, the laughter and the flow of ideas and the good fellowship, and it will never happen again. There will be other people, other good times, but never this particular precious combination.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks, “How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Our family has lost a lot of things in recent months. A horse, some dogs and cats, a vehicle. A hard drive, with a full complement of irreplaceable photos we always meant to back up. Some people. Dreams that can no longer be realistically expected to come true. I am tired of losing things. I want another golden age, one that won’t end. I want lasting security. I want to know that the things and people I love will never go away.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are precious to me. “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9). Jesus is speaking in particular of the joy in heaven over a sinner that repents, but the stories wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t reflect our expansive joy over the restoration of other things. I know that joy, and it is indeed too great to be kept to myself. When the lost kitty, despaired of after going missing for a full week, suddenly turns up early one morning perfectly healthy and meowing for breakfast, my delight must be communicated. I must scoop up the kitty, take it quietly to the bedroom of my sleeping daughter, and put it on her bed, where its softly treading paws and tickling whiskers will make her awakening into a celebration.

The lost-and-found experience teaches me this joy, while the lost-and-still-lost experience keeps me looking forward to the glad morning when I’ll have the most joyful awakening of all. In the meantime, I wait, and hope, and sometimes ache. As C.S. Lewis said in Perelandra, “God makes good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

casey

chat

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bridget

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.

Showers and Sunshine and April Faces

There are few sights more beautiful than an April face, in which laughter and tears mingle. Pure, tremulous joy following on the heels of despair—seeing that is such sweetness. It happened a lot when my kids were small. They’d come to me with some calamity—a rip in the seam of a favorite dress, a dismembered toy—cradling the broken thing in their hands, weeping and appalled, without hope but instinctively turning to me in their grief. And often what seemed irreparable to them was something I could easily set right with glue, needle and thread, or practical knowledge. “Look, honey, that head’ll just pop right back on again. See? Good as new.” “I know it looks like a horrible stain in your gauzy costume skirt, but the fabric’s so thin it’ll rinse right out.” And just like that, all was well. My kid was ecstatic, and I looked like a genius. I liked that. I liked it a lot.

Besides mending the broken, I was also in the business of retrieving the lost. Many a mile have I driven back to various locales to search for stuffed animals and action figures that were left behind. Gwendolyn, Emilie’s furry little jointed stuffed biped of indeterminate species, was lost and found many times. So was Brownie Bear. With what anxious tension did we scan the area where the lost thing had last been seen, and how great was our rejoicing when it was recovered!

But it didn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, try though we might, we couldn’t get the lost things back. It was like they’d just vanished into a void, which was maddening because I knew they really hadn’t. They were out there, somewhere; I just couldn’t get to them. I am haunted by losses—Daniel’s beloved collection of model dinosaurs, a stuffed dinosaur of Anna’s, Emilie’s first rag doll that I made her for Christmas when she was three.

Do I take these things too seriously? I don’t think so. We’re not purely spiritual beings; we have to do with matter and space and time. God made us that way. And when a child becomes attached to an object, investing it with a history and a personality, he gives it an imputed value that exceeds its intrinsic value. The loss of a favorite toy foreshadows future losses of health, opportunity, innocence, and life.

Children grow older, and their problems get more complex. They stop toting stuffed animals around with them, but they don’t stop breaking and losing things, both tangible and intangible. And you can’t always fix that. Sometimes it’s not desirable to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes; sometimes it’s not even possible. Some things, once lost, are lost indeed and can never be recovered. Some things, once broken, can never be made whole. You want to—God, you want to. You would give your life blood to make things right. But almighty as parents appear in the eyes of small children, we have our limits. Much as I wish I could, I can’t be that genius with the glue gun all the time. Truth be told, I haven’t been that person in years.

Many of my friends, like myself, are the parents of grown and nearly-grown children raised in an atmosphere of love and reverence for God and his Word. Sometimes I look around at all of us and wonder, do we even know what we’re doing? I think in many cases we’re making it up as we go, responding to situations we could never have foreseen when our children were small, praying desperately for wisdom. I say this as one who so far has been spared a lot of heartbreak. And I say it with fear and trembling, because the past is no guarantee of the future. You can’t confer some special immunity on your kid, and you can’t assume that because you’ve escaped major trouble so far, you’re all clear. You never reach a point of being all clear from earthly calamity until death takes you.

But there is hope. More than I ever was as the mother of small children, God is in the business of finding and mending things. I don’t say this in resignation, like those who sigh and say, “Ah well, it’s in God’s hands now. All we can do is pray.” God is the beginning of hope, not the end of it. He’s the one who formed the human body and breathed life into it in the first place, the only one who knows how it’s truly supposed to function in a state free from death and decay. Corruption of mind and body was never part of our original design. It doesn’t belong; it’s an alien parasitic thing whose presence grieves God even more than it does us. And he can defeat it. Those who have fled to him for the cleansing of his blood have access to the full power of his redemptive work. His desire is to restore all, and he can do it. I’ve seen him do it for people I would have given up on and discarded. His restoration defies all human understanding of how the world operates. It’s as if entropy starts working backwards. The new life he promises us isn’t some sorry halfhearted thing limping its way along, crippled by history and habit. New life pushes through in audacious vigor, refusing to be smothered by past failures, seeking light and air and open spaces, growing and blossoming and reproducing. The past is crowded out; there is no room for it.

Of course we shouldn’t forget the grief and failures of the past or what they’ve taught us. There is most certainly a place for genuine fear in the heart of a Christian—fear of real consequences to sin, set up by a just and holy God. But our lives should be characterized by bold joy because of the enormous scope of his mercy and grace and the power of the new life in us. We should have both together, and wear an April face as we walk with him.