Becoming Solid Selves in a Reactive Age

The Reactive Age

The hot topic this week is Brendon Eich stepping down under pressure for his 2008 donations to the Pro-Prop 8 side. He had a chance to recant but did not. 

While this event touches on lots of thing currently in play in our cultural conversation, what is common to both side is emergence of the emotional-relational-burn-victim-self who is fearfully reactive to the imagined damage done to their fragile self by another self being critical of them in particular or in general or even simply not being supportive of them.

I see this on both sides of the culture war. Christians are reactive to criticism. Sexual minorities are reactive to criticism and a lack of embrace. Politics on both sides are extremely reactive defensively jumping to justify their own positions and actions while looking for any possibility to frame the other side in a way that makes them look immoral, bigoted or stupid.

None of this is new of course. Maybe the amplification of a billion individual voices and a million demographic sexual, ideological, religious, political, vocational, avocational, etc. categories and the millions of opportunities to debate on Twitter, Facebook, comments sections. etc. have just made our already fragile, damaged, virtual-skin-self-boundaries that much more aware of a billion possible threats and the unreliability of so many of our traditional allies. Now that we have access to the minds of a billion people we are aghast at how flimsy our world of blithely assumed generalizations about them has been.

The Foundation of Human Fallenness

One of the most helpful insights I gained from CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce was we can locate the foundation of our fallenness in the tiny, common human interactions and relationships we live with every day. The first thing you notice about the shadows who board the bus to heaven is how quarrelsome they are. They can’t stand each other even when there is so little left of themselves. See how Lewis talks about this grumbler.

‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due her all right.’

‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’

‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’

‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman— even the least trace of one— still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’ ‘

The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences… it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. But come! Ye are here to watch and listen. Lean on my arm and we will go for a little walk.’

Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 76-78). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Lewis is tracking with Augustine in reflecting on the raising of Lazarus

The third example of death is Lazarus. A grievous kind of death it is, and is distinguished as a habit of wickedness. For it is one thing to fall into sin, another to form the habit of sinning. He who falls into sin, and straightway submits to correction, will be speedily restored to life; for he is not yet entangled in the habit, he is not yet laid in the tomb. But he who has become habituated to sin, is buried, and has it properly said of him, “he stinketh;” for his character, like some horrible smell, begins to be of the worst repute. Such are all who are habituated to crime, abandoned in morals. Thou sayest to such an one, Do not so. But when wilt thou be listened to by one on whom the earth is thus heaped, who is breeding corruption, and pressed down with the weight of habit? And yet the power of Christ was not unequal to the task of restoring such an one to life.

Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. Gibb & J. Innes (Trans.)

Lists of Sins

“Sin” has somehow been refined both by Christians and non-Christians as only distinct moral lapses that can be found lists of whatever moral group you participate in. The culture war is fought over what the common cultural list should include, if even we have one.

Joseph Bottum noted in observing the Occupy Movement that you could assemble a group willing to protest but they could hardly agree upon what they were protesting about.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for An Anxious Age?

In some ways, An Anxious Age really began when I was sent out to report on the protestors at Occupy Wall Street—and couldn’t finish the assignment. I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it.

Now, two years later, this book is my answer: Not just those protestors, but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives—together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

The trouble, of course, is that we’ve lost any shared cultural notion of what exactly that goodness might entail.

The post-modern decline of meta-narratives results in the loss of solid complainers leaving only a land of ghostly complaints.

 The New Denial

When enough of more-than-a-little-Stoic Christendom yet remained it was asserted that loudly expressed emotional honesty was the antidote to religious oppression. We were invited to express ourselves in all sorts of ways, verbal and otherwise and somehow this expression would make us more solid, more real, less “in denial” about the “truth” we felt about our hearts.

A world-of-expression plus Internet gave us a very noisy and more complicated world indeed. We now know that old generalizations about almost anything were facile approximations that withstand the bombardment of million million tweets. Letting a million flowers bloom seemed like a beautiful idea but when real flowers had to share real gardens we begin to see that a harmonious bouquet requires more management than we had assumed.

I was introduced to the “uncoupling” meme by @ErinBlaskie’s idealistic notions about how divorce without the ugliness. It is about having your Best Divorce Yet…

I’m excited that my husband and I are taking steps to stay as positive as possible through this experience and while a lot of it is sad, as one stage of the journey is ending, a lot of it is also for the highest good. So, if you see us posting family photos of us enjoying the park together in the months to come, don’t be confused.

This is what conscious uncoupling looks like.

This is true love.

I just can’t get the thought out of my mind that if you can pull this off why are you getting the divorce?

I imagine how this works internally for both of them subduing their reactions to each other is a whole lot of tongue biting, emotional stuffing, and keeping up appearances. Stoic-Christendom has come full circle into Stoic-detachment. It’s a Victorian tea party with short skirts and hookups.

Crossing the Streams

So what does it mean when on one hand we’re so reactive that Eich must step down, (I’m trying to think of a good example of stupid Christian reactivity, fill in your favorite), and yet we embrace a saccharine “keeping up appearances” because “divorce” is such an ugly word? The easily predictable failure on both fronts leaves us with the one terrible lesson that Walker Percy repeatedly tried to persuade of us, which is that while our knowledge of the physical world continues to accelerate our knowledge of “what is a human being” continues to diminish. We don’t know what or who we are even as the elite among us have more resources to strike out eating, praying, loving to discover ourselves again and again.

Hell is where Conscious Uncoupling Comes Undone

Lewis’ great insight of The Great Divorce was that God simply must inflame our re-activity. If we consistently fail to tolerate the actions and minds of other selves we share our homes and Internet with how in all creation could we possibly share connection with the great Triune selves who live together eternally in perfect intimacy never needing to “keep up appearances” or “make the best of a bad situation”. The eternal marriage of the trinity exposes our brokenness with sufficient volume to more than shatter our tiny egos.

The obvious yet ignored passage of the Bible is in Revelation 6

Revelation 6:14–17 (NIV)

14The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

15Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.

16They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!

17For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

When we imagine that someone or a group of people are somehow not approving of our actions, choices or ideas and this leads to organized protests, pass laws and even violent attempts at suppression we should understand that hell is a place made just for us because heaven would be even worse.

Solid Selves 

In the Great Divorce the initiates of heaven had to become solid enough to tolerate the grass.

As the solid people came nearer still I noticed that they were moving with order and determination as though each of them had marked his man in our shadowy company. ‘There are going to be affecting scenes,’ I said to myself. ‘Perhaps it would not be right to look on.’ With that, I sidled away on some vague pretext of doing a little exploring. A grove of huge cedars to my right seemed attractive and I entered it. Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied it. It belonged to that country and was as real as the grass. It could bend the stalks and spatter itself with the dew.

Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 25). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

How does one become solid in this world as we near the foothills of an even more substantive new creation?

The only way I know is to love with a thick assumption of a promise.

Detachment

At first love seems like the enemy.

For the conscious uncouplers it may seem first seem that love is what should be shown but the wounds of love are already what has caused the rupture in the relationship. Both sides feel that they have been insufficiently loved and therefore will refrain from the costly practice of love. Nice then is love’s substitute.

People are not dupes, however, and the practicalities not only of sharing a life, but even of sharing a child after a divorce, and even of having shared a story severed by divorce means a thousand reminders that “nice” is a fig leaf over a skinful of wounds. Love is too much to bear so we detach. In that detachment we can become more solid but we also become more isolated.

Attachment with a Promise

God’s attachment to us is uniquely expressed in the incarnation of Jesus. “lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb”. God moves towards us and is with us.

Jesus then moves towards us and as the revelation of his divinity and power become more clear our options narrow: love and worship him or kill him. Right here we see heaven and hell standing next to each other.

Love and worship of God in Jesus then means receiving a renewed self, a new identity that the age of decay cannot destroy even as our bodies perish. This new self has its inheritance secured by God in Christ (1 Peter 1) even while we suffer and learns to love at the cost of suffering just as Jesus loved us at the cost of his own suffering. This is the Christian life.

Christians Must Not Fear

Now as Christians no longer flee the public square we would hope they would be the most secure, most loving participants. Not fearing for themselves. Not fearing for their goods, economic security or preservation of their institutions. We would hope that they would be able to love and have at least hints of their love be evident to all. They would be solid in CS Lewis’ vision. They would be as Jesus was, pouring out himself living “your well-being at my expense” and the church would be seen in this way. The value of a church in a pluralistic setting is the amount of well-being it can pour into its community recognizable by its non-Christian neighbors.

In our Individual Relationships

This all begins in our individual relationships with the kinds of commands that Jesus gave. Forgiving 70×7, returning good for ill, being shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves, taking the lower seat, turning the other cheek, loving one another.

What this requires is a church, a group, a context of belief where Christ can be real to the individuals working through the messiness of all of their broken relationships. The Holy Spirit affords the power to forgive, leveraging the cost of the daily losses against the waiting inheritance of the age to come, knowing that the once lived life has only its shortest beginnings here.

Mabel

How different the life of Mabel looks from the images presented to us of “the good life”. Mabel looks like a dupe, but a mysteriously attractive one.

This is from John Ortberg’s book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”. It’s an amazing story he got from Tom Schmidt from pages 24-28

“The state-run convalescent hospital is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless and lonely people who are waiting to die-. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and it smell of sickness and stale urine. f went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.

“On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.

“As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new nurses arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf and alone,for twenty- five years. This was Mabel.

“I don’t know why I spoke to her—she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, ‘Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.’ She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, ‘Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.’

“I said, ‘Of course,’ and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, ‘Here, this is from Jesus.’

“That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomach aches, and then the cancer came too. Her three roommates were all human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was often overpowering.

“Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word-for-word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns.

“It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say….

“During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to *think about. The question occurred to me, ‘What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?’ So I went to her and asked, `Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?’

“And she said, ‘I think about my Jesus.’

“I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, `What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote. .

I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know … I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied…. Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old- fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.

“And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day, Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so. When I am sad He makes me glad. He’s my friend.

“This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening—and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?

“The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.”

Here was an ordinary human being who received supernatural power to do extraordinary things.

Here was an entire life consisted of following Jesus as best she could in her situation: patient endurance of suffering, solitude, prayer, meditation on Scripture, worship, fellowship when it was possible, giving when she had a flower or a piece of candy to offer.

Imagine being in her condition and saying,”I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . . . I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied.” This is the Twenty-third Psalm come to life: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

For anyone who really saw Mabel—who was willing to “turn aside”—a hospital bed became a burning bush; a place where this ordinary and pain-filled world was visited by the presence of God. When others saw the life in that hospital bed, they wanted to take off their shoes. The lid was off the terrarium. Then the turn came, with a catch of the breath, and a beating of the heart, and tears. They were standing on holy ground.

Do you believe such a life is possible for an ordinary human being?

 

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book writing, Devotional Reflection and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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