On That Always Aching Wound

OH MY GOSH, I want him to stay little!” a little girl wails in a viral video that has been making its rounds this week. Sadie has just learned that her baby brother is going to grow up, and it’s too much to take in tranquility. The look of stunned injury on her face has garnered over 21 million views on youtube, and certainly some laughter, but I expect I’m not the only one who feels something else too: a sort of cold, sick loneliness, anyone? The unutterable tragedy that just when everything is exquisitely right, everything is emphatically wrong.

It’s not even funny,” said my sister. “Except that you have to laugh, or you’re going to cry.

Because somehow this hysterical sorrow isn’t ridiculous, isn’t misplaced. Somehow it’s just exactly what the situation calls for.

And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundre-e-e-e-e-e-ed,” Sadie sobs. It’s that kind of grief that can’t be fixed or forgotten. On the other side of it, something has been shattered forever.

Or has it?

In Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis has something to say about this, something that reads almost as if it was written for this exact drama – simply because this exact drama plays out in everyone, troubles all of us:

Fish Out of Water

Hence our hope finally to emerge, if not altogether from time (that might not suit our humanity) at any rate from the tyranny, the unilinear poverty, of time, to ride it not to be ridden by it, and so to cure that always aching wound which mere succession and mutability inflict on us, almost equally when we are happy and when we are unhappy. For we are so little reconciled with time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

In the bitterest book of the sixty-six, there’s this:

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts.

So if I could say a few words to Sadie, I would say, Little Girl, never grow out of your deep discontentment. “Wrestle with the Not Yetness of things. With the good, broken, incompleteness of everything.

As my friend Sam also says, It is what it is. But it is not what it shall be.

On Growing Up: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. There will be a great many things I wish to tell them, long before they are listening at all. That is the thing about the knowing you carry in the core of your heart: you can give it away every day of your life, but you cannot make anyone take it. And how will they know I was a child too, once? That what seems to them like a long age of dusty history was a short flash of years to me? That just as I started to figure it out, it was over?

I will write a letter. A letter from here, from 20 years old, from the barest bank on the other side of the bridge that only takes you halfway there. I will dedicate it to the children I may someday have. And to all the children that are mine in the Kingdom of Heaven.]

Children Running
My Dear Children,

You are vibrant with breath. You are bright-eyed and beautiful. When you take it into your head to do a thing, you do it, and the crimson pump in your chest keeps time.

It is called life, and it is a gift you could do nothing to earn. In addition to that, it is a gift much too big for you, like a too-large sweater with sleeves dangling into the spaghetti. You must grow into it. That is what it is about. It is about coming to a coming of age that is more than the number of candles on a cake, or of discarded calendars. Quite simply put, it is about growing up.

Do not imagine that growing up has anything to do with growing old. For we all grow old (and if you do not know this now, oh! you will know it very soon) but only some of us ever grow up. You must not think that because you are young, you cannot grow up yet.

Someday you will be old. And in that day, you must not think that because you are old, you have grown up already.

For to grow up means more than the putting away of childish things. It means also the putting away of adultish things, of the wisdom of the world that clings ever closer as old age comes on. And you were born with a great many adultish things about you. You must grow out of all of this. Out of power-hunger and hard pride and cynical un-love. Out of the shallow pretenses of wisdom. Out of fear.

There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood which we must leave behind,” wrote George MacDonald. “A childlikeness which is the highest gain of humanity, and a childishness from which but few of those who are counted the wisest among men have freed themselves in their imagined progress towards the reality of things.”

Child, you must grow out of willfulness and into the strong will. You must grow out of reasonable anxiety and into the reckless abandon of trust. You must grow out of good resolutions and into obedience. You must grow out of innocence and into purity. You must grow out of self-sufficiency, and grow into the deep, deep debt. Little children, you must grow out of the fool’s paradise and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I can say all of this to you with no lingering arrogance, for I was a child not long ago, – oh, such a little while ago! and I know all about it. I know what it is to be a new-comer to the wonder-filled world and the delight. I know what it is to be young and perfect and boisterous.

I know what it is to be at the center of my own universe and bitterly dissatisfied with my reign. I know what it is to be small and weak and overcome with vanity.

But more than all of that, I know what it is to be seeking after the good things with almost my whole heart. I know what it is to be fascinated and intrigued by glorious righteousness, and yet to shy away from the kind of giving up that is required. I know what it is to be holding something back.

Child, as long as you are holding something back, you are a child still, you have not grown up.

KnightAnd this is the answer to all the riddles: growing up is giving up. When you get there, you will know it. It is giving up your vast dreams, your lively freedom, your marked-up maps, your own way, your own notions about the way things are, and the way they should be. It is a bowing of the knee. And when the boy has bowed his knee before the throne of the sovereign, it is then that he feels the scepter of the sword come down on his shoulders and rises a knight, a slayer of dragons, a man of action. Because most of all, growing up is an action.

Let me tell you the way of things in the Kingdom of Heaven. The truth is not given to you all at once. That is not the way of the learning that really matters. Truth comes in like the rising tide: one wave a little bigger than the next. What is different is that the ocean goes on beating the sand regardless of everything. But truth must have your permission before it can wash any deeper into you. It is a stark, strong, beauty and it will not waste itself on the unready heart.

When there is a thing that you know you must do, you must do it. When you do it, you will grow. Immediately you do it, you will know something you did not know before. You will know it in your core, and it will change you. If you do not do it, you will not grow. If you do not do it for a hundred years, you will be a hundred years old and a hundred years wasted. There is no other way to grow up.

Until you have come as far down this road as I have come, I hope you will be able to look at me and know there are good things ahead, that the thin little road is worth taking, in spite of the steep ascent, and the tight, mysterious curves.

But if you obey soon and do not wait long to do the thing that is given, you will fast leave your childhood behind and grow into my brother, my sister. I hope you will not be satisfied with that. For I did not do as well as I might have done. I left so much undone, and took such a long time to do anything at all.

Fix your eyes on the Master. Make him your ambition and your finish line, your homecoming, your resting place. Together we will run the long course. We will race.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

After all, we are only little children walking through the snow and rain.

I tell you the truth,” said the Master, when he was walking among us to bear witness to the truth. “whoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter.” For this reason, we need someone who will call us “child” as long as we live.

Child! What I want to say to you is as near to me as my own breath: stay young, little children. But grow up.

Imagination As Love

Kid ImaginationImagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.

This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.

SharkThe young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.

Red Carpet
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?

Ten years in AfghanistanWithout imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.

Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.

In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

One of these stories in particular has served for mmiserye as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.

The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.

Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.

Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?

And God so loved the world.

That He gave His only Son.