A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.

Zathura

People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

“So Swift and Excellent a Wit”: Reason and Intuition in Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing opens with a messenger newly arrived to say that visitors are on their way. Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has just finished some military action and is bringing his men to Messina for a visit. The news is received by Leonato, Governor of Messina; Hero, his daughter; and Beatrice, his orphaned niece. Leonato inquires about the campaign; the messenger answers. They chat a bit.

Then Beatrice speaks up. “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” The messenger says, “I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.” Leonato asks, “What is he that you ask for, niece?” Then Hero says, “My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua” (I.i.27-31).

much ado beatrice

Montanto is a fencing term for a strike or jab made in an upward direction with a sword. “Mr. Fancy Fighter” is perhaps the most innocent interpretation that could be given to the name “Signior Mountanto.” Whatever Beatrice means here, it isn’t something flattering.

The messenger answers, “O, he’s returned, and as pleasant as ever he was” (I.i.32-3). Beatrice responds with more Benedick-insulting nonsense; the messenger gives another straight answer. They go back and forth for a while, the messenger growing increasingly puzzled. Finally Leonato tells him, “You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

much ado beatrice benedick

Constant heckling gets tiresome, and Benedick and Beatrice could easily be insufferable boors. They are saved from this by their genuine good will and affection for others. The reactions to them by the characters who know them best make it plain that they are well liked. They are both described as having no trace of melancholy; they aren’t moody or introspective. The word merry is used ten times in the play, seven of which are in connection with Beatrice and Benedick. The messenger, after his prolonged teasing by Beatrice, ends by saying, “I will hold friends with you, lady,” to which Beatrice replies, “Do, good friend” (I.i.80-1). For a stranger to perceive the playful good humor behind her wit is testimony to her personal warmth.

The word wit occurs thirty-three times in this play. Twenty of these are in reference to Benedick and Beatrice. Wit can be defined as “a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.” This is the normal mode of communication for Benedick and Beatrice. Their speech is filled with puns (often bawdy), hyperbole, and bewildering turns of fancy. Benedick’s fellow soldiers are so used to hearing him speak this way that when at last they hear him speak plainly (which happens no earlier than Act V), they don’t believe him, even after he repeatedly insists he’s serious. And anytime Beatrice and Benedick are together with their respective wits, things escalate fast.

Humor can be used to disguise meaning, to deflect perception, to have it both ways. You can wrap up some genuine inquiry or declaration in humor to see how it’ll be received; if not so well, you can always say, I was only joking. In this way you can feel out the other person without communicating your true self, take without giving, and avoid looking like a fool.

Beatrice and Benedick have much to disguise, even from themselves, for they have been in love for some time. The audience realizes this long before they do. When the messenger first arrives, Leonato asks how many soldiers were killed in the recent action; the messenger says only a few but doesn’t name names. Beatrice wants to know particulars. What about Benedick? Is he alive? What’s he doing? Who’s his companion? But to ask directly would betray her feelings, so she couches her inquiry in an insult. Her listeners are too dazzled by her wit to realize she asks no fewer than seven questions about Benedick’s doings. She doesn’t inquire about any other soldier in Don Pedro’s company.

The soldiers arrive, and before Benedick has had a chance to say more than a few lines of pleasantries to his host, this exchange takes place between him and Beatrice.

BEATRICE

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.

BENEDICK

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

BEATRICE

Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.

BENEDICK

Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

BEATRICE

A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

BENEDICK

God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face.

BEATRICE

Scratching could not make it worse an ’twere such a face as yours were.

BENEDICK

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

BEATRICE

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

BENEDICK

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, a God’s name! I have done.

BEATRICE

You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old. (I.i.103-30)

much ado jade's trick

Why does Beatrice say no one marks Benedick if in fact no one does mark him? Why point out that no one is listening to him if no one really is? She, for one, is certainly listening, and once she delivers her jab everyone else within earshot will be listening as well. Benedick takes up the exchange eagerly, as if he was just waiting for an opportunity; he fairly pounces on her words. He is quick to introduce the subject of love to the conversation and to remind everyone present that he loves none; and Beatrice is just as quick to say that she feels the same way. In this, their opposition to love and marriage, they are strangely united. They are alike; they are superior to ordinary mortals who let their feelings run away with them. Beatrice’s final line is most intriguing of all: “I know you of old.” Benedick and Beatrice have a history, often hinted at but never fully explained.

Neither of them is accomplishing anything here; neither is really trumping the other. Everything they say is designed to prolong the encounter, effectively daring the other to top that, if you may. If they disliked each other as much as they claim, they could easily say something game-ending or say nothing at all.

The women withdraw, and Benedick’s friend Claudio, a young count who has distinguished himself in the recent action, asks Benedick’s opinion of Hero.

much ado claudio

CLAUDIO

Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?

BENEDICK

I noted her not, but I looked on her.

CLAUDIO

Is she not a modest young lady?

BENEDICK

Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?

CLAUDIO

No, I pray thee speak in sober judgment.

BENEDICK

Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.

CLAUDIO

Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik’st her.

BENEDICK

Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?

CLAUDIO

Can the world buy such a jewel?

BENEDICK

Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?

CLAUDIO

In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.

BENEDICK

I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter. There’s her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. (I.i.143-71)

much ado hero beatrice

Much of the humor in this scene arises from the contrast between Claudio’s deadly seriousness and Benedick’s jests. And though he is jesting, Benedick is something of a straight man here; Claudio is the one using inflated language. But Benedick’s plain-spoken, sober-minded praise of Beatrice’s beauty resonates more, is more valuable, than Claudio’s contrived raptures about Hero.

Claudio confides to Don Pedro that he’s in love with Hero. Don Pedro approves, and furthermore, offers to woo Hero in Claudio’s place that very night at a masked dance. This interference seems a bit much even for a well-intentioned commanding officer and nobleman. As is admitted outright later in the play, the soldiers are bored and ready to stir things up, and some of their stirring up ultimately leads to a lot of trouble and heartache for themselves and Leonato’s household. Much could be drawn from this play about the effect of too quickly reintroducing men newly returned from combat back into civilian society. The Prince and Claudio behave like warriors with Issues: quick to close ranks, exaggerating perceived threats, overreacting to provocation, and dispensing summary justice.

much ado guys

The ultimate source of the provocation is Don John, the Prince’s illegitimate brother, who stood against the Prince in the recent military action. He was defeated and is now in a sort of probation. This chafes at him. He isn’t truly repentant at all and would love nothing more than to stir up trouble, especially for his brother and Claudio, whose recent renown came at Don John’s expense. At the masked dance, Don John, pretending to mistake Claudio for Benedick, tells him that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, and Claudio believes him. But the misunderstanding is soon cleared up, and Hero and Claudio agree to marry as soon as possible.

Disguise is a recurring element in this play. Characters are often masked, literally or figuratively. Unlike Rosalind and Viola, other romantic heroines of Shakespearean comedies, Beatrice does not dress up in men’s clothing, but she and Benedick both use wit as a disguise.

much ado masks

They share a dance. Benedick wears a mask, and he pretends to be someone else and tells Beatrice all the unpleasant things he has heard about her. She sees through this transparent ruse but plays along and gives him what-for by abusing Benedick to himself. Her insults leave his in the dust.

Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy; for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him (II.i.122-7).

Beatrice criticizes Benedick for being critical, which is appropriate considering that he just criticized her, and also ironic because she is just as habitually critical as he is. Her jabs hit home; Benedick seems truly hurt by the suggestion that people dislike him, and tries to reassure himself afterwards that this isn’t true.

Later he vents to the Prince and Claudio.

O, she misused me past the endurance of a block! An oak but with one green leaf on it would have answered her; my very visor began to assume life and scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star. I would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too. Come, talk not of her. You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God some scholar would conjure her, for certainly, while she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they would go thither; so indeed all disquiet, horror, and perturbation follows her (II.i.214-35).

This is a long speech with lots of hyperbole. There is nothing understated or subtle about Benedick or Beatrice. Benedick says he would not marry Beatrice if she were basically endowed with every conceivable virtue; well, who’s asking him to? Who brought up marriage but himself? He says, “Come, talk not of her,” and then proceeds to go on talking of her. No one else talks about her half as much as he does. No one else has anything like his interest in the subject.

much ado benedick

After the dance, Benedick reflects on Claudio’s defection to the ranks of lovers and ponders whether he himself might one day fall in love.

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love; and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor; and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I’ll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall never make me such a fool. One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God. (II.iii.7-32)

Benedick’s defense against falling in love is that it will take no less than a flawless paragon of beauty, intellect, and virtue to win his heart, but very soon after he is undone by a simple hoax. The Prince decides to amuse himself in his down time by bringing Beatrice and Benedick together. Claudio, Hero, and Leonato all agree to help. Because the two potential lovers are so contrary, they must be tricked: the men will speak so as to be overheard by Benedick about how Beatrice is secretly in love with him, and Hero and her maid Ursula will serve Beatrice the same way.

much ado benedick listening

The plan goes off beautifully. With Benedick eavesdropping from the arbor, Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato talk at length about how hopelessly Beatrice is in love with him, how worthy a woman she is, and how Benedick is too proud and disdainful too ever requite her. When they are gone, he reflects on what he has heard.

This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die then give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair—’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous—’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving me—by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage. But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married. Here comes Beatrice. By this day, she’s a fair lady! I do spy some marks of love in her (II.iii.202-25).

For such a professed cynic, Benedick is easily taken in. The possibility of deception is mentioned in his very first sentence, only to be dismissed at once. Thinking you’re clever can make you easier to fool, but something more is going on here. Benedick’s objections to marriage, and to Beatrice in particular, could not be so quickly overcome if they had not been so flimsy to begin with. Truth is, he’s glad for the excuse.

Not long after, Hero arranges to have Beatrice listen in on her conversation with Ursula. They speak of Benedick’s merit and Beatrice’s scorn; they agree that it’s a hopeless case. Their words hit home.

much ado beatrice listening

After they depart, Beatrice says,

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?

     Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?

Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!

     No glory lives behind the back of such.

And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,

     Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.

If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee

     To bind our loves up in a holy band;

For others say thou dost deserve, and I

Believe it better than reportingly (II.iii.107-16).

Before either of them can make a move, the time comes for Hero and Claudio’s wedding. After Don John’s lie to Claudio fails to amount to much mischief, he hatches a far more ambitious scheme. One of his own men, Borachio, proposes to have a romantic encounter with Margaret, one of Hero’s maids, in Hero’s window for Claudio and the Prince to see. Claudio will mistake Margaret for Hero and call off his marriage; Hero’s reputation and future prospects will be ruined; her family will be shamed. Don John revels in the collateral damage; the more people are made miserable, the better satisfied he will be.

much ado baddies

The ruse succeeds. Don John slanders Hero to the Prince and Claudio, saying that she has had many illicit lovers, and arranges for them to see the tryst at the window. Claudio is incensed. He vows to keep his rage in check until the day of the intended wedding, when he will publicly shame Hero at the altar before her family and the entire community. And this he does, with the Prince backing him up. Hero faints from shock and grief, and Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio stalk off.

Leonato’s behavior in the altar scene is appalling. At first, when the reason for Claudio’s sudden coldness to Hero is unclear, Leonato almost bends over backwards to smooth things over, calling Claudio son and dear my lord. After Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste, Leonato assumes that Claudio himself seduced her, and he is absurdly conciliatory, almost apologetic. But once he fully understands the allegation, he turns on Hero with startling ferocity, shaming her and wishing her dead. When she protests her innocence, he retorts, “Would the two princes lie? and Claudio lie,/Who loved her so that, speaking of her foulness,/Washed it with tears?” (IV.i.149-51) This is as much as to say that Hero would lie, that he believes their word over hers. Also, this all takes place shortly after Leonato himself has taken part in a successful trick on Benedick. Though deceived, Leonato is much to blame.

much ado post accusation

Beatrice defends her cousin, but blindly; she is bewildered as to why the Prince and Claudio would lie or how they could have made such a mistake.

Benedick doesn’t storm off with his fellow soldiers, he remains with Beatrice, Hero, and Leonato. In the midst of the vitriol and drama, his words are a balm, though all he says is that he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Under the circumstances, withholding judgment is the most reasonable and fair-minded thing he can do.

Then the friar speaks. He has been watching Hero closely throughout the ordeal and is convinced that she is telling the truth. He says that the princes—Don Pedro and Don John—must be mistaken, and Benedick suddenly realizes that Don John must be to blame.

The friar proposes that Leonato pretend that Hero has died of grief. In this way he will allow some time for the truth to come to light and for Don Pedro and Claudio to repent of what they’ve done. This might seem like an extreme course of action, but in a culture that highly valued a woman’s reputation for virtue, the loss of a good name was a serious, life-altering thing. Benedick agrees with the friar’s plan and vows to keep it secret from the prince and Claudio.

The others exit, leaving Benedick and Beatrice alone. They have this exchange.

BENEDICK

Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.

BEATRICE

Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!

BENEDICK

Is there any way to show such friendship?

BEATRICE

A very even way, but no such friend.

BENEDICK

May a man do it?

BEATRICE

It is a man’s office, but not yours.

BENEDICK

I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?

BEATRICE

As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you. But believe me not; and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.

BENEDICK

By my word, Beatrice, thou lovest me.

BEATRICE

Do not swear and eat it.

BENEDICK

I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.

BEATRICE

Will you not eat your word?

BENEDICK

With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.

BEATRICE

Why then, God forgive me!

BENEDICK

What offense, sweet Beatrice?

BEATRICE

You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.

BENEDICK

And do it with all thy heart.

BEATRICE

I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.

BENEDICK

Come, bid me do anything for thee.

BEATRICE

Kill Claudio.

BENEDICK

Ha! not for the wide world!

BEATRICE

You kill me to deny it. Farewell.

BENEDICK

Tarry, sweet Beatrice.

BEATRICE

I am gone, though I am here. There is no love in you. Nay, I pray you let me go.

BENEDICK

Beatrice—

BEATRICE

In faith, I will go.

BENEDICK

We’ll be friends first.

BEATRICE

You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy.

BENEDICK

Is Claudio thine enemy?

BEATRICE

Is ’a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What? bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place.

BENEDICK

Hear me, Beatrice—

BEATRICE

Talk with a man out at a window!—a proper saying!

BENEDICK

Nay, but Beatrice—

BEATRICE

Sweet Hero! she is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone.

BENEDICK

Beat—

BEATRICE

Princes and Counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.

BENEDICK

Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.

BEATRICE

Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.

BENEDICK

Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?

BEATRICE

Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.

BENEDICK

Enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him.

(IV.i.257-326)

This is as riveting a back-and-forth as any they have had so far, and more, because for the first time they are speaking plainly without a single jest. The depth of Beatrice’s character is revealed—her ferocious loyalty, her sense of justice, her desire for vindication of her cousin’s good name. When she says she would be willing to fight to defend Hero’s honor, we believe her. And Benedick agrees to fight a duel with a comrade at arms whom he loves like a brother, based on Beatrice’s assurance of her cousin’s innocence. He trusts her that much, and values honor as much as she does.

One of the most beautiful things about this play is also what keeps it from being too dark for a comedy while still allowing the characters a broad emotional range. After the staged scene at the window between Borachio and Margaret, but before Hero has been accused, the members of the watch overhear Borachio as he is bragging about the success of his evil scheme and arrest him. Dogberry, the constable, actually tries to tell Leonato this before the wedding, but his manner of speaking is so obscure, so overblown and full of malapropisms, that Leonato brushes him off. But we are confident that Dogberry will return and the truth will out. Even as Leonato is refusing to be comforted, the sexton is on his way with good news. We can sympathize with the characters’ misery, but we know their deliverance is nigh.

much ado dogberry

By the time Benedick confronts Don Pedro and Claudio, they have received word that Hero is dead. Benedick rebukes them both and challenges Claudio to single combat.

You are a villain. I jest not; I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you. Let me hear from you (V.i.143-7).

much ado challenge

Claudio and the Prince think Benedick is joking, and they joke back with him, showing no remorse over Hero’s supposed death. Perhaps there is some suppressed guilt in their humor; it certainly goes on a long time, long after it ought to be plain to them that he is serious, long beyond the bounds of good taste. Finally Benedick tells Claudio,

Fare you well, boy; you know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossip-like humor. You break jests as braggards do their blades, which God be thanked hurt not. [to the Prince] My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet; and till then peace be with him (IV.i.178-186).

Many reversals occur here. For the first time, Benedick is the serious one, and Claudio and the Prince can’t stop joking. Furthermore, Benedick is turning his back on the male companionship and camaraderie that mean so much to him. By now the audience has laughed at his wit many times, but this is his first opportunity to demonstrate that he is a good man.

Immediately after Benedick leaves them, Dogberry shows up with his prisoners.

PEDRO

Officers, what offense have these men done?

DOGBERRY

Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.

PEDRO

First, I ask thee what they have done; thirdly, I ask thee what’s their offense; sixth and lastly, why they are committed; and to conclude, what you lay to their charge.

Who have you offended, masters, that you are thus bound to your answer? This learned constable is too cunning to be understood. What’s your offense?

(IV.i.205-18)

Borachio confesses all and concludes by telling Don Pedro and Claudio, “I have deceived even your very eyes. What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.i.221-3). Dogberry has neither wit nor wisdom to guide him, and he can’t even count to six, but he means well and manages to uncover the truth, foiling the plans of clever criminals almost in spite of himself. In this case, a good heart triumphs over a sharp wit.

Claudio and the Prince both protest to Leonato that they “sinned…not but in mistaking” (IV.i.261-2). This is not satisfactory. The testimony about Hero’s habitual promiscuity was mere hearsay from Don John, and the evidence of their eyes was inconclusive, since they obviously weren’t close enough to see the woman’s face. They could and should have made inquiry and spoken to Leonato privately. Instead they publicly shamed Hero based on circumstantial evidence and an unconfirmed report, all originating from a person they knew to have been previously untrustworthy. Their behavior was graceless, harsh, and based on too high an opinion of their own understanding and importance. They lacked the humility to realize they could be fooled.

From start to finish, the romance between Claudio and Hero has been in sharp contrast to, and less satisfactory than, the one between Benedick and Beatrice. The former is based on very little prior acquaintance; Benedick and Beatrice have known each other a long time. Claudio falls in love based on a visual impression of Hero’s beauty and the virtue that he intuitively imputes to her character; Beatrice and Benedick know one another’s mind. Claudio and Hero are usually speechless in each other’s presence; Beatrice and Benedick won’t stop talking.

much ado claudio hero

Claudio’s love originates in a kind of unreasoning, impressionistic faith, but his rejection of Hero arises from strict (though limited and misguided) factual deduction. His restoration involves a return to faith. Penitent, he yields himself completely to the will of Leonato. Leonato offers an unexpected grace: since Claudio could not be his son-in-law, he will be his nephew instead, and marry the daughter of Leonato’s brother. Claudio agrees. After an all-night vigil at Hero’s grave, designed to inform the entire community of Messina that the accusations against her were false, he arrives at the chapel. Four women are brought out, all masked: Hero, Beatrice, and two maids.

“Which is the lady I must seize upon?” Claudio asks (V.iv.53). Leonato brings Hero forth. Claudio asks to see her face, but Leonato says, “No, that you shall not till you take her hand/Before this friar and swear to marry her” (V.iv.56-7). Formerly taken in by the faulty evidence of his eyes, Claudio must abandon completely his own judgment and outer eye. He must give himself over wholly to the will of another and proceed on faith, which is what he should have had in Hero before. And he does. He says to the masked woman, “Give me your hand before this holy friar./I am your husband if you like of me” (V.iv.58-9).

Removing her mask, Hero replies,

And when I lived I was your other wife;

And when you loved you were my other husband….

One Hero died defiled; but I do live,

And surely as I live, I am a maid (V.i.60-1, 63-4).

Then Benedick steps forward, and before the whole assembly, says,

BENEDICK

Soft and fair, friar. Which is Beatrice?

BEATRICE [unmasks]

I answer to that name. What is your will?

BENEDICK

Do not you love me?

BEATRICE

                                    Why, no; no more than reason.

BENEDICK

Why, then your uncle, and the Prince, and Claudio

Have been deceived—they swore you did.

BEATRICE

Do not you love me?

BENEDICK

                                    Troth, no; no more than reason.

BEATRICE

Why, then my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula

Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

BENEDICK

They swore that you were almost sick for me.

BEATRICE

They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

BENEDICK

’Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

BEATRICE

No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

Leonato calls out, “Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman,” and Claudio adds,

And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her;

For here’s a paper written in his hand,

A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,

Fashioned to Beatrice (V.iv.85-8).

Then Hero says,

And here’s another,

Writ in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket,

Containing her affection unto Benedick (V.iv.88-90).

much ado sonnets

They’re trapped now, but they don’t seem to mind. Benedick says,

A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity (V.iv.91-3).

Beatrice replies,

I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption (V.iv.94-6).

Those are the last words Beatrice speaks. Benedick replies, “Peace! I will stop your mouth,” and kisses her—which is a pretty good way for wit to conclude (V.iv.97).

much ado stop your mouth

The Empty Ring

My friend Jim at Therefore Now Ministries recently wrote a piece on why marriage is objectively better than living together—not merely for reasons of moral soundness, but because it’s just better, more desirable, more satisfying. Jim was right on as usual, and as I read his words, I suddenly remembered a strange and terrifying situation I heard about some years ago.

A man met a woman at a strip club or whatever those places are called now. He was a patron; she was an employee. They developed a relationship, and she moved into his high-dollar home in a Dallas suburb. She quit her job and became a full-time homemaker, cooking for this guy and keeping his house.

In a way this sounds like a cushy deal for her. She didn’t have to work her sexually degrading job anymore. She had no childcare duties. She had a nice well-furnished house to live in and good food to eat, and all she had to do in return was keep the place clean, cook appetizing meals from expensive ingredients in a spacious kitchen with new high-dollar appliances, and provide pleasant company for the guy. Sexual favors would certainly be expected, but at least she had just one man to satisfy, which had to be an improvement over whatever she was doing before.

Okay, so I tried for the sake of argument to make the above scenario sound reasonably attractive, but I guess there’s really no way to do that. Basically this was high-end, white-collar prostitution.

For Christmas the man gave the woman an engagement ring minus the diamond. The space inside the prongs was substantial; it would take a big stone to fill it. He said he would buy the stone after she proved that she was “The One.”

empty ring

What kind of man does that?! And what kind of standards might such a man have for housekeeping? With so much time on her hands the woman ought to be able to produce some exquisite meals as well as keep the house in pristine condition. She would constantly labor under the pressure of expectations, both spoken and unspoken. She would feel perpetually off-balance, never sure if she had done enough. They say that when you marry for money, you will earn every penny. I imagine that when you provide sexual and housekeeping services for money, you will earn it even more. And of course it was for money. What woman would enter into an arrangement like that for love? What could love possibly have to do with it?

This is the legalist view of the Christian walk. We have been taken out of a former degrading way of life and moved into a clean, respectable environment, but we must prove our worthiness to be there through constant performance. It’s not that we believe we earn our salvation—that would be bad doctrine—but we hold to a vague idea of some higher level of God’s favor that makes a Christian truly legit. Home schooling, natural living, daily “quiet times”—whatever activity or combination of activities our particular group has deemed essential in separating serious Christians from shallow fire-insurance dabblers, we must persist in doing them if we want to keep in good standing with God. We can never be sure we are doing enough; we are edgy and anxious. We have been given a costly gift, but it’s defined by its emptiness, prongs outstretched like the fingers of a grasping hand. Who would want to wear such a thing?

In this construct we are not a bride but a whore. And God is not a loving husband but a man of business, dispensing payment for services rendered. In the place of sacrifice, we have a bloodless commercial arrangement.

God’s love is nothing like this. It is a wild reckless passion culminating in an unbreakable lifelong commitment. It is unilateral: nothing we can do or leave undone will ever lessen or increase its strength. It is permanent: God will never walk away. It is more than duty: he maintains the same intensity of love for us always. He doesn’t get disillusioned; he never had any illusions to lose. We may fool others and ourselves with silly posturing, but he sees all—the hidden sins, the laziness, the lust, the greed, the moral weakness—and he chose us anyway. In his eyes we are precious and lovely and will remain that way forever.

God doesn’t offer an empty ring.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Song of Solomon 8:6

Underneath the Canopy

It was the sort of middle-of-the-night wake-up experienced by all parents who don’t have nannies. A young daughter was wailing at our bedroom door, covered in what until recently had been the contents of her stomach. I had a moment of real horror as my sleep-addled mind tried to make sense of facial features distorted by globules of half-digested food, but I soon figured out what was up and went off to deal with the consequences. The child needed a bath and a fresh nightgown, and the double bed she shared with her sister needed a change of sheets. There was some spot-cleaning of the carpet to be done as well.

My memory of this night is hazy, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t quite finished the clean-up before my other daughter evacuated her own stomach. Like her sister, she threw up in the bed, which once again had to be stripped. Soon the second set of sheets was piled on the laundry room floor, awaiting its turn in the washer.

The girls continued this horrific tandem for some hours. They didn’t once make it to the toilet before throwing up. For dinner we’d had beef stew with paprika, faint traces of which were to remain in the hallway for the lifetime of the light-colored carpet. Eventually Greg hauled in a cooler and put it in the girls’ room as a sort of vomiting trough. By now all the double-bed sheets in the house were in need of laundering, so I lined their mattress with towels.

Meanwhile, our son was having gastric distress of his own. Unlike his sisters, who were burning up with fever, he didn’t appear to have a virus. He’d been suffering for some weeks from a stomach malady similar to mine, which continues to intermittently plague us both to this day. Also unlike his sisters, he took himself to the bathroom in a rational manner rather than throwing up in his bed or on the floor. It was a small blessing, but I was grateful for it.

On my hands and knees scrubbing carpet at 2 a.m., I remarked to my husband that I suddenly didn’t feel so good myself. Soon after, I too was busy being violently ill. Greg manfully got dressed for work in spite of his own growing nausea, but he didn’t make it past the garage.

For the next few days Greg and I languished in bed, weak and horribly sick. Periodically one or the other of us would creep out of bed long enough to make sure the kids were all alive and accounted for. They had recovered quickly and were now enjoying a sort of holiday, free from parental restraint, living on crackers and staging imaginative games all over the house. At one point I was startled to find Emilie with her hair standing on end and her arms and legs striped with what appeared to be tribal tattoos. On investigation these turned out to be lines of green dinosaur footprints from a rolling rubber stamp. I couldn’t figure out what the deal was with her hair, and I didn’t care. I went back to bed.

For Greg and me, the days ran together in a blur of nausea, fever, muscle aches, and restless sleep. Somewhere in the midst of all that, one of us realized it was the eighteenth of January. We weakly wished each other a happy anniversary and went on sipping our tea.

It wasn’t our best anniversary, but the whole thing was affirming in a way, because I realized that if I had to be bedridden with a body-wracking stomach virus, there was no one I’d rather be doing it with.

Today Greg and I have been married for twenty-three years. Our relationship now is different than when we went on our first date at age twenty, more than half our lives ago. The difference is one of perspective and experience. It is like seeing a forest from a distance—from your car, say—and then seeing it again from inside. From far off you can see the canopy, shrouded with fog or burnished with sunlight or rolling with cloud shadows. There is something ineffable in your perception, a mystery and grandeur which are conditional on the distance. You can look at the forest, daydream, even doze a little. But to get out of your car and hoof it into the forest is to enter into a new set of experiences. You see roots, rocks, leaf litter, animal tracks; you feel the texture of bark with your hand; you smell the pine rosin in the air; you hear the call of frogs from the branches overhead. Each tree trunk has its own character, and the leaves that from a distance were just a mass of green now have individual sizes and shapes and tints. You have moved from possibility to particularity.

Marriage as a romantic idea is not the same as marriage as a reality. The reality is not a diminished thing; it’s a different thing, a more developed thing. Our culture is full of dispiriting representations of a settled marriage with the shine long gone—nagging wives, listless husbands, unfulfilled promises, dead dreams. There is real bitterness behind the mockery and the tropes. This is all wrong.

But so is the idea that for romantic love to be valid, it has to keep the palpable sensation of ineffability it had in the beginning. This is like doubting that you’re in the forest because you can’t see the canopy anymore. The wonderful truth is, the canopy hasn’t gone away; it’s just over your head now, sheltering and containing you. It’s not less real than the pine cones and twigs and acorns that you can physically see. It’s there. Maybe once in a while you’ll climb a tall tree to the very top, like Bilbo did, and get a glimpse of the canopy from the middle, with all the black butterflies dipping and flitting in the sunlight.

bilbo-above-mirkwood

This has been a rough year. There have been blessings that I’m thankful for, and bright spots I would revisit if I could, but overall it’s been wrenching. No sooner do we get one thing somewhat under control than we’re blindsided by something else; often I’m exhausted before even leaving my bed in the morning. And once again, I can say in all honesty that though my circumstances are trying, there’s no one I’d rather be in them with than my husband. I hope and pray for times of refreshment in the year to come, but I’m confident that I’m walking in the forest with someone I can count on. I’ve seen him keep his feet under him and his wits about him in situations that would crater some men; I’ve watched him really listen while I poured out my fears and frustrations, and heard him offer compassionate wisdom when I was tapped out.

If you are happily married and have been for some decades, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t married yet, I would ask this. Who do you want with you when all hell breaks loose? Because break loose it will. Life will knock you upside the head and bludgeon the daylights out of you. I say this as one who believes in the goodness and sovereignty of God. There is ultimate purpose in suffering as in all things, but we almost never know what that purpose is. Suffering just hurts. Who do you want by your side when life brings out the very worst and best in you? Choose someone faithful and durable, who’ll bolster you during self-doubt, recognize and point out when one or both of you need to adjust course, and remind you of your most precious convictions and deepest passions. Someone who takes vows seriously and is wholly and irrevocably committed to you personally. Someone you can trust.

It’s more comfortable to look at a forest from a car than to walk around inside one; you can avoid bugs and blisters, and you can daydream about Lothlórien. But that’s as far as it’ll ever go. You will see beauty and mystery magnified by distance, but you will never really know.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant–in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis

Control is Just an Illusion, Friend.

Lots of people sneer at the Control Freak archetype. I do not understand these people. They seem to think loss of control would be a good time—like a roller coaster, perhaps, which is actually a tightly controlled construct when functioning correctly and not killing people. Also people choose whether or not to get on the thing, thereby exercising control; so this is not the best illustration, though I see it used a lot.

Loss of control is not an amusement park ride, friend. It is death, dismemberment, famine, enmity, destruction, financial loss, and horrifying social situations that make you wish to God you’d stayed home with a cat on your lap instead of venturing into the greater world. It is falling asleep at the wheel and having the trailer of a semi sheer off the top of your car, along with your head. It is coming home from vacation to find one of the last of your child’s unexpected litter of gerbils dead in the cage because they started fighting and the house-sitters couldn’t spare the time to make a damn phone call to ask you what to do. The root of the desire for control is fear. And fear in this world is not without cause.

My own usual response to fear is to put a lot of energy into creating an airtight system that eliminates risk. But this is not without cost. Go too far with this sort of thing and you will find yourself desiring secrecy even when there’s no need for it. You’ll want to check things all the time and make sure all is well. You’ll suppress emotion, because emotion must be regulated by reason in order for the system to function, and then when it’s time for emotion to have its say, you won’t be able to find it.

I don’t really have a grip on this problem. I honestly don’t. I believe it is right for reason to regulate emotion, for cause and effect to be understood and managed, and for risk to be taken seriously. But I have lived forty-four years, and I see now that I have feared too much and modeled some not-so-healthy behaviors to my kids. I’ve been too quick to circle the wagons when things got rough. There were friendships I didn’t nurture, hospitality I didn’t show, and unasked-for advice I didn’t give but should have. I meant well. I wanted to keep from making mistakes. But fear of making mistakes can lead to sins of omission. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The sad irony is that the point of control is to protect something, but too much control is destructive. To eliminate all risk is to smother life itself.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” That’s our friend C.S. Lewis talking, and he knew.

The assumption behind a preoccupation with control is that I can in fact control everything, that it all depends on me. To this unspeakable hubris I can only plead guilty.

And therein lies the system’s flaw. I can’t control everything, and even if I could control half the things I’d like to control, I wouldn’t have the wisdom to manage them properly. That’s how supervillains are made.

Three nights ago, I saw Frozen with my youngest child. This is a story about a princess, Elsa, who has the power to create ice at will and sculpt it into whatever formations she chooses—crystals, pillars, flurries, drifts. Her creations are beautiful, and great fun for Elsa and her younger sister, Anna.

But as the opening song warns, ice is beautiful! powerful! dangerous! cold! Elsa loses control over her power and hurts Anna. The aftermath is a nightmare of shock, trauma, fear, and guilt. Elsa’s parents sternly warn her that this must never happen again. From that day forward, Elsa’s life is terribly altered.

elsa

The words fear, love, power, and control all occur in the opening song, and these forces dominate the story. Power carries risk; risk leads to fear; and the response to fear is to try to exercise more control. After Anna’s accident, Elsa focuses all her energy into maintaining control over her power. Because the manifestations have emotional triggers, this involves severe emotional suppression. Her efforts leave her mentally exhausted and socially isolated. Worst of all, Anna, formerly her closest companion, has had her memory wiped of the knowledge of Elsa’s power, leaving her confused and hurt by her sister’s rejection. So a construct designed to keep Anna from being hurt just ends up hurting her in a different way.

Eventually things come to a head, as they are wont to do in Disney movies and in life. After Elsa loses control again and unwittingly freezes the entire kingdom, she flees to a mountain where she thinks she can do no further damage. But Anna follows, refusing to be kept at bay any longer. Cornered and pressured, Elsa struggles to maintain control; but in trying to stifle her emotion, she only warps it, and it breaks out in unwanted and terrifying manifestations. The more she panics, the worse things get.

Watching Elsa’s frantic and futile efforts, I thought, This is exactly like living by the law. Legalism is all about damage control. It can never produce any active good, despite what those who live by it think. It seeks to quell sin, but it only produces rebellion.

Control proves a failure, and Anna is hurt again, this time apparently fatally. Only then does Elsa learn that the true protection, the only force capable of managing her potentially deadly power, is not control at all, but love.

This changes everything. Anna is healed, the kingdom is restored, and Elsa’s entire existence blossoms into a thing of glorious possibility. Transformations abound: death into life, conformity into freedom, fear into love. Elsa is able to not only be near people again, but to relax, to laugh, to play.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t mean to be flippant by quoting the apostle John in connection with a Disney movie. To be clear, John is speaking of the very reasonable fear of a just judgment–a guilty fear, not the fear of ordinary pain or loss. And the perfect love that’s capable of casting out that fear is the love of God demonstrated in Christ’s propitiation. This is wonderful news for the world, and my friend Jim gives an excellent treatment of the subject here.

But I think I do not go too far in saying that fear, when brooded over too long by an overstimulated mind, is the enemy of love. It cripples relationships, poisons joy, steals hope, and confuses emotion to the point where you honestly don’t know what you feel.

So what is the solution? Some sort of let-love-have-its-way scenario? Bursting into song and dance on a mountaintop like a Disney princess? Maybe it’s just recognizing that the supreme level of control sought by those of “freak” status is just an illusion anyway. Terrible things will happen, despite your best efforts to secure yourself against all shock and alarm. You will be blindsided–if not by the thing you’re guarding against, then by something else. That’s what “blindsided” means: you don’t see it coming. And the energy you’re spending on maintaining a defensive system would be better spent on loving the people around you before they’re taken, which they most certainly will be at some point unless you’re taken from them first. Yes, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. They’re worth the fear and discomfort and uncertainty and vulnerability–wonderfully worth all this and more.

…And That’s Just the First Twenty Years!

There’s a particular sort of joy that’s unique to the beginning of a marriage, when you look down at the unwritten page of your life together, pick up a pen, and start to write. You move into your first one-bedroom apartment. Gosh, look at all that space! You take the antique table you bought with earnings from a waitress job, put it in the bay window, and stand back and marvel at how perfectly it fits. You mesh your stuff with his stuff, shelve your books side by side, hang your clothes together in the narrow closet. You learn that he likes the toilet paper roll to hang the opposite way to what you’re used to, and you immediately switch to his way because you love him so much. You get the apartment in order and regard it with awe. This is your space, at least for the duration of the lease. You no longer have to end each evening with one of you going home. This is your home now. It didn’t exist before you made it.

You can’t believe how blessed you are. He takes such good care of you! He knows you better than anyone and he still loves you—and considers himself as blessed as you know you are.

Challenges come: little irritations and big decisions, financial upheavals, a pregnancy with complications, no money. And that’s just the first year! Now is the time to show what you’re made of. Will you trust God and follow him, the way you said you would when everything was golden and the future was just an idea?

A few years ago I read Michael Pearl’s excellent article about the three laws of reaping and sowing. Basically, you reap what you sow, you reap after you sow, and you reap more than you sow. “We have sowed a little faithfulness to God,” Pearl says, “and he has multiplied our seeds and returned them one-hundred fold. We have loved him a little, and he has loved us much. We have honored him feebly and he has honored us royally.”

Greg and I have seen a disproportionate abundance of blessing in our own marriage and family. I look back now on some of our early ideas and actions and just laugh. We weren’t materially wrong, just young and inexperienced. But we knew we were young and inexperienced. We knew we didn’t have all the wisdom we’d need, but we did know enough to fear God and follow his way, and trusted him to provide the wisdom we didn’t yet have. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).

I’m amazed by pictures of us as newlyweds. Greg’s hair was redder then—it’s almost auburn now—and our faces were so youthful. I look at my husband now and I see lines of wisdom and humor around the eyes, and they’re precious to me because I was there when they were written. I understand his hot keys, and he understands mine; sometimes we run interference for each other, sometimes just offer silent sympathy. Someone in a crowd says something absurd or infuriating; I catch Greg’s eye, and without a flicker of changed expression we understand each other. We can get through the moment because we know later we’ll laugh or commiserate together. We dream together, brainstorm together, work together, sharpen each other like iron on iron. He’s my lover, fellow laborer, best friend.

Of Passion, Patience, and Strawberries

So it turns out that the part of the human brain responsible for good judgment is the last to mature in a young adult. This is both reassuring and terrifying. Reassuring because it explains so much; terrifying because teenagers are so…well-equipped. Watching them make decisions is like watching Curious George fly a Learjet.

Things were simpler when my kids were small. There was so much about their environment that I could and did control, though always with a view to readying them for future independence. We’ve raised them to believe God’s Word, honor his statutes, trust his providence, and guard their physical and emotional purity. So far, so good; I’ve seen promising results. But ultimately they will decide for themselves, and already the period of transition is here. They spout their own opinions, make big purchases, go places without us. In a short time, they won’t even live under our roof. They could do anything.

Just now I seem to be surrounded by teenagers—my own three, plus hosts of others in whose futures I take a friendly interest. I find I’m a lot more sympathetic to young love than I once was. I don’t know whether I’ve become mellow or merely soft, but whatever it is, it probably has something to do with all that romance writing.

I feel a metaphor coming on…

Last spring we grew strawberries. It’s backbreaking work and I don’t know if we’ll do it again, but we got a decent crop and learned a lot. Did you know that most commercial strawberries are picked when drastically underripe so they can be shipped without spoiling? Few of us have tasted a strawberry as it should be. I was in my twenties before I learned that strawberries are supposed to be red all the way through. The only ones I’d ever seen were faintly reddish on the outside and white on the inside. Letting the fruit ripen on the plant gives it a rich, jewel-like color and a wonderfully developed flavor.

When you grow your own, you can let them get as ripe as you please. But it’s hard to wait. You see the berry on its delicate little stem; it’s the right size and shape, and it’s red. But to know whether it’s truly ready, check the flesh right around the stem cap, under the sepals. If that flesh is still white, so is the inside of the berry.

I confess: sometimes I picked them anyway—not because I was greedy and wanted to eat them all that very day, but because there’s a downside to waiting. A lot can happen in twenty-four hours. That beautiful, nearly-ripe fruit could be ravaged by a pill bug or a bird. It could turn brown with fruit rot. I might go out to the garden tomorrow and find a promising berry ripe but damaged, or lost altogether.

But when you do pick an underripe berry, it will never be what it should have been. It’s compromised from the get-go, and no amount of regret or hindsight will enable you to fit it back to the stem.

Teenagers are a lot like nearly-ripe strawberries. They’re the right size and shape and often appear ready on the outside. But a superficial scan is not enough. You must look closer. There are signs of immaturity for those with eyes to see. The course of wisdom is to wait—but with youth as with strawberries, waiting is hard.

As mortals, we have good reason to be impatient. We simply don’t have time for all we want to do. And while we’re waiting, things can happen. Feelings change. Circumstances knock you upside the head. People die. Some opportunities, once lost, are lost forever. There’s a temptation to grab what you can and hold on tight. At forty-one I feel mortality looming, and impatience is a sort of desperation at times. The pressure is worse for the young, just coming into full strength and beauty and power, taking the first sip from passion’s cup, all sweetness and torment. Impetuosity is the very nature of youth. It’s the key to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. There are so many points in that play where death and heartbreak might be averted, if only the hero or heroine would stop and think, accept wise counsel, or simply await further developments.

For a Christian, there’s another dimension of patience, that of trusting God’s providence. But here, too, there’s a caveat. As C.S. Lewis says, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” So behind the question of whether you trust his providence is the question of whether you trust his character.

I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s good time. On the contrary! It’s just that I don’t want my children—or any of the young people whose lives at all overlap with my sphere of influence—to short-change themselves with green fruit. I want them to have the richest romantic experience God made possible, the sweetest, most vivid of berries. It’s worth the wait, so very, very worth it.