Those other deaths

April 14, 2012

“The feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me not happiness, but a kind of slavery… nobody talks about it as such though.” – David Foster Wallace, in a 2003 interview

Lately I’ve gotten to write several reader reports for fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a happy ending.

In a few of the manuscripts (and a few published novels) I’ve read this semester, the author chose to resolve the story by having their protagonist get what they want (and modern “happily ever after”s are often bizarre…they involve things like divorcing boring husbands or dropping lousy friends). There is little sense of sacrifice or humility; it’s all about “finding oneself,” which sometimes is just another way of saying “doing what I want to do.”

As readers, do we admire these characters, or do we just like them because they give us permission to live like they live? (I could ask myself this question about a lot of things…the shows I like, the blogs I read, the music I listen to.)

I wonder if admiration is important in literature anymore. Of course, it’s not like every protagonist should be admirable; often characters teach something true about life or about humanity by being ugly. But it seems like too many novels (and memoirs) today are trying to celebrate ugliness, to call the slavery that Wallace talks about above freedom. (By the way, it’s crazy cool to me that a greatly respected secular novelist like David Foster Wallace so closely reiterates the Apostle Paul’s words from thousands of years ago.)

I don’t know how my own writing project will end, but I don’t want it to be just about my character getting what she wants. I’m not sure how to write an admirable character (that is, at least not cheaply admirable), and I think a big part reason why is that too many of my own days are about getting what I want.

Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that if I were to indulge myself less, I would be missing out…that if my day became less about me, it wouldn’t be as full. But Madeline L’Engle (and Jesus before her) reminds me that it’s just the opposite really.

“I must never lose sight of those other deaths which precede the final, physical death, the deaths over which we have some freedom; the death of self-will, self-indulgence, self-deception, all those self-devices which, instead of making us more fully alive, make us less.”

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

P.S. I also just read that one of DFW’s favorite books was The Screwtape Letters…That is really unexpected and exciting to me. More motivation to re-read it this summer.


We wake eternally

April 6, 2012

Atop a mountain in Ukraine, 2010

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—”

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

I cannot imagine the pain of crucifixion, public humiliation, or deep betrayal. I cannot imagine watching my friend being arrested, or my son dying in front of me at the hands of the government.

I can imagine, I think, the despair and the confusion  some of the disciples may have felt as they heard that Jesus—the man who had promised them new life—was dead.

Surely they were heart-broken, but I wonder if any of them were angry too. Not just at the Roman soldiers, but at Jesus, for not being who they thought He was. And maybe at themselves, for being foolish enough to believe Him.

Today, His is the death that makes us able to hope, but the disciples didn’t know that yet. For three days, Jesus was just dead. On Easter, I think we see a glimpse of the front of the world, but Good Friday reminds me that most of the time, we, like the disciples, only see the back.


Death, be not proud, John Donne

 Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


October 19, 2011

Last Saturday ago morning I rode two hours in a car to reach a little bit of fall, and it was worth it. Tracy, Erin and I went to pick apples. Along the way, we picnicked in the shade, trampled over acorns, and wandered through sweet shops.

But almost the whole time we were there, I couldn’t get a stranger off my mind—a little boy who drowned in a river recently.

I had been thinking about him since I read the news, and my own reaction had surprised me. For some reason, the thought of someone drowning in a river just seemed absurd to me in that moment. And when I think about it enough, it still does.

How could a river, made of water that we can bend down and run our fingers through, take away a little boy’s breath, words, and smile? How could the rocks bruising his arms and the water rushing into his lungs—these material, tangible things—somehow leave him lifeless?

Of course, this is an old question. The relationship between body and soul is a mystery that we have wondered at for thousands of years. I have read about it, discussed it, written about it…but it became something more urgent when I learned about this little boy.

I am beginning to better understand a passage I read last semester in Crime and Punishment. Sonya, who has seen too much suffering for a girl her age, hesitates to speak of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:

“‘Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany…’ she uttered at last, with effort, but suddenly, at the third word, her voice rose and broke like an overtightened string. Her breath failed, and her chest contracted.”

Sometimes resurrection seems too far removed from our daily experience, and too painful to speak out loud.

When, like Sonya, I can’t seem to get the words out, the Church Creeds help me. Saying the Creeds is a sort of submission, a participation in something beyond me. I recite these words that I do not quite understand:

“I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come.”

To deny the reality of death—to refuse to mourn a loss—is dangerous and usually impossible. Father Scarlett reminded us that funerals should be sad occasions. But, though we mourn, “we do not mourn as those who have no hope.” And our hope is not in flying away from this world to sit on a cloud all day, because death is not about escape, it is about renewal. In the end, all creation will be made new.

But until then, we wait. And as Harriet Beecher Stowe reflects in her book The Minister’s Wooing, waiting in the midst of sorrow can be strange. There seems to be a disconnect between the tasks we must keep doing and the truth of what has happened:

“How strange this external habit of living! One thinks how to stick in a pin, and how to tie a string,—one busies one’s self with folding robes, and putting away napkins, the day after some stroke that has cut the inner life in two, with the heart’s blood dropping quietly at every step.”

The Resurrection of the dead means a lot of things, but this week it was a reminder that bodies do matter. When the mother of the little boy who drowned asked to see her son’s lifeless body, her request was not foolish. And now, when what she wants more than anything is to hold him, she is simply being human.


“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” John 20:27