The Hard Truth…
Life is messy. Growing up is painful. As I face the end of my twenties, I find myself grappling with this in more sharp relief than ever. I cannot quite recall the actual day I woke up and realized that real life is not the way it works in movies. It feels now like I’ve known this forever, except that I can remember a far-distant time when I still thought life would be different. Like the far off echo of a voice, no longer present, that I used to know, recalling the wonder and amazement and brilliance with which I once saw the world…
I feel like I can’t talk to anyone about their lives anymore without it being a story involving tragedy, or difficulty, or hardship—At least whenever I reach the point of knowing someone well enough to know the truth about their life. Illnesses, anxiety, crippling psychological struggles, messy and failed relationships, no work, material insecurity, broken families, childhood wounds, etc. It becomes so relentless, I start to ask myself, “Where has all of this hardship been before? Why does it seem to be taking over the world all of a sudden?” And perhaps, on a cultural scale, things are growing darker and more dismal by the day. I know, however, when I am honest, that most of the personal trials I am witnessing now are not new: it is only in these last several years that I am seeing them for the first time. With adulthood, we can look back and recognize difficulties, sufferings, darkness that we were blind to as a child: even in the people we have known and loved in blissful ignorance all of our lives.
Somehow, the blithe innocence and dazzling wonder of childhood naturally anticipates that growth, that adulthood will only mean more of the beauty, and goodness we first encounter: a deeper, fuller, more dazzling wonder that is the lense we are born with in which to see the world. Some children have this “illusion” broken for them earlier than others, but we all had it to begin with. And then, instead of this picture, we all have that moment of realization, when the reality of the Fall hits the material of our lives, and we know the personal experience of biting that forbidden fruit from within it, per se: we experience having our eyes opened to the full depth of darkness that this bite has brought upon the world. This “unveiling” of the world, this “knowledge of good and evil” moment that dawns upon each of us, (sometimes gradually, over several separate moments, building upon one another), has been alternately titled “growing up”. We come to find, and sometimes we are told, that it is simply the natural progression of life; the bite is taken from our lives, the veil removed, and we suddenly find ourselves naked.
And yet we experience this as a shock. As something no one prepared us for. Because no one ever does. Because our parents, in most cases, are still sitting in the shock of the moment the veil was taken from them. And they are living in the aftermath of this, which looks a variety of ways that we are coming to recognize, as we grow into them ourselves: denial, in which we bury our heads in the sand, and try to ignore this shocking experience, try to keep going as if nothing has happened. Or skeptical despair, which allows this experience to harden us into a view of the world that forgets we once expected it to be different, and accepts this new vision as all there is. So we begin to live either as if the suffering and hardship aren’t real, or as if they aren’t in fact suffering and hardship. Both of which are grossly untrue.
…The Persistant Question
But in the face of this very real process, of “growing into adulthood” and finding the world a much scarier place than I thought it as a child, and before the “adult” responses have quite hardened and solidified themselves into my life in the form of denial or despair, there is another, first, raw, instinctive response that wells up in me, in the form of a question:
Why do we experience this “disillusionment” as a shock, first? -And, the closer we are to reality, the more honest we are, not only at first, but continually? Why does this experience of finding the world not simply good and true and beautiful continue to surprise us, every time we are hit over the head again with the fact? Why do we not get used to it? And inherent in this question is another one: we do not get used to this, because we somehow continue to expect something more out of life, something beautiful. But why do we expect this? Where do we get this idea, that things shouldn’t be hard? That suffering shouldn’t be part of life? I can’t remember anyone ever telling me this. Why do we never, really, truly, even when we want to believe we do, accept the fact that this is just the way it is? Somehow, no matter how many times I am scared or disappointed by life, it doesn’t cease to be a disappointment. Have you ever wondered at this? Does this not amaze you?
You might say that some people do: that some people easily take a cynical view of life, and reject the memories of the innocence of childhood. But I would stop you at the word, “easily”. Because even when we do get used to it, (because some of us do faster and more completely than others), why does it still remain an action, a work, something we have to do to ourselves, this “getting used to it?” When we finally convince ourselves that this sad condition of ours is all there really is to life, it comes as a disappointment to admit it: something we have to convince ourselves of. In other words, it doesn’t come naturally. It can get easier, as I said, with time, but it never ceases to be a work: to have something other to convince. Our heart, that mysterious piece of eternity and infinite longing buried in the depth of us, that we never quite know what to do with, or gain control of, responds, “Yes, but… I wanted– I expected, I thought—” and our efforts must be engaged, then, in deriding our heart for its wants, its expectations, its thoughts. Some of us get really good at this deriding. But this cannot erase the fact that we remain in the position of the defendant against an onslaught of desire that runs relentless as a mountain spring up out of the depth of our rocky hearts. Somehow, however much we hate it, our heart continues to want, and expect, and hope. Even when we come right to the edge of silencing it altogether, the action remains just that: a silencing of something real that cannot be denied its’ existence.
…So why is this? I am forced to ask myself what this relentless expectation of my heart means. I’m not alone in this question. A lot of people have asked this. Some have even taught me to recognize this question within me, before I could recognize it for myself.
“Who told us we’d be rescued? What has changed, and why should we be saved from nightmares?” Christa Wells writes, in her song grappling with loss and suffering. “Who has promised us anything? Why do we expect to be happy?” asks the beloved Italian priest and high school teacher, Luigi Giussani of his students. And I find myself puzzling with both of them, and a host of other human hearts, facing this all too deeply human dilemma: that I expect to be happy, that I am somehow disappointed, even scandalized when life continues to prove itself hard, and painful, and cruel.
I was speaking to a friend on the phone, who had been listening to a talk by a priest about suffering and faith, and she was musing, a year after the fact, about the pain and disillusionment of a broken relationship that she had waited six years to be realized, and had finally had for the space of a year before it fell apart. No one can make sense of these stories. I can tell you a lot of them, over and over again. Things that make life appear meaningless, absurd: like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
And so my friend says that the problem all along is that she expected things to be easy; that she thought things were supposed to work out; that she believed that we were not made for suffering, but for happy endings: that it was a lie that she ought to get what she wanted. And instead, now she is realizing that growing up means the process of having these illusions stripped from us, and recognizing that suffering is inevitable; that no one promised we wouldn’t get hurt, or that things ought to look, ought to unfold according to our dreams. In other words, skepticism: the denial, the rejection, the demonization of the original longing, the original veil through which we saw the world, the original impression of goodness, and beauty, and truth.
I listen to her, and I find a truth there: yes, life teaches us that sometimes, what we want cannot be given; that sometimes, what we expected to make us happy in fact only increases our sorrow; that things are not always what they seem, or what we expect. Suffering is inevitable. And hardship is real. But I find these true things tangled up in a mess of falsehoods that threaten to choke the true on the way through, and I have to take them all up in my hands, like a knotted ball of yarn, and dig, and pull and work at it delicately, until I can separate the two: we were made for happy endings; it is a good that we have dreams, and expect them to come true. And admitting that our expectations do not always realize themselves the way we expect does not make the expectations false, or evil… perhaps, if anything, not complete, or full.
How do I know this? My life, my experience, walks with her, and agrees with the analysis. Yes, this must be the way… it seems the only logical conclusion: life disappoints us. Therefore, my expectations are false. But then I recognize, in some of her assertions, the silencing, the wall-building, the muffling that this analysis requires of that little, stubborn heart, fed by the memories of a world that was so much more, and that still says, “Yes, but-” and I recognize it, because I too am a good silencer. Because saying “I shouldn’t expect” doesn’t answer my heart’s stubborn question, “Why?” Then why do I? Because I still do. And even when I’ve almost succeeded in making myself stop expecting, stop longing for more, it takes every ounce of my strength to do so. It does not come naturally. And this is a fact that I cannot ignore.
The answer of absurdity, of meaninglessness does not satisfy. Because it cannot tell me why I long for meaning so stubbornly, all the more when it is denied me. There is always that small, stubborn, persistent heart that will keep rising up to ask, “Yes, but…. Why?” Why did I expect this? Why am I disappointed? How can a purely malicious and capricious God teach me what good and true and beautiful is, so that I long for them so deeply? How would He be able to create what is so antithetical to what He is? And give it to me? And how could the “illusion” of goodness and wonder in childhood, if truly only an illusion, be so much stronger than the hard reality I now face, that it can stubbornly persist within me, in the face of the latter?
…The rest of the truth
And I am brought back to the fall, and to the biting of that fruit, and to the realization that maybe what appears to be an unveiling, a stripping away, a revelation, was in fact a loss, an obstruction, a distortion of something more original, more full, and more true. What if this “disillusionment” is actually the illusion? What if this unveiling does not leave us in the original nakedness of our nature so much as it strips us of the most necessary, immediate, fundamental layer of ourselves: the layer that allows us to see the world in it’s wholeness, in its truth, rather than through a glass, darkly. And what if this tiny, insistent expectation, the stubborn, “Why?” of disappointment that is so hard to quell, is all that remains in us of our original, child’s vision of the whole, true picture of reality?
Yes, we cannot ignore that suffering is a very real part of life. We cannot escape the inevitable growth into adulthood that reveals the layers of suffering hidden from our child’s eyes, that nevertheless infuse our reality. But it is the fact that this suffering claims to be all that is real that I am learning, more and more, to question.
Why does no one prepare us for this? Why didn’t our parents sit us down one day and tell us the cold, hard truth that our dreams cannot be realized, that “happily ever after” is an illusion, and not real life, and that we have to prepare ourselves for misery? Maybe it is because that stubborn little voice inside of them that they had been silencing for years still cannot be destroyed altogether, and continues to insist, when confronted with the new wonder of our child’s eyes, “Yes, but—” Maybe it is because, faced with our own innocent hope, it is harder for them to silence that little flame of their own that tells them hope is also true. Maybe they know instinctively that it is a mercy rather than an evil that we are born into the world in blissful ignorance and innocence; that our first experience of the world gives us the room to get intimately acquainted with the dreams and longings and aspirations of our heart, and to find them answered and fulfilled in the beauty of the world we encounter, until we are thoroughly caught up in them. This is, in fact, not a crime or weakness, but our salvation, when we reach that inevitable moment of adulthood, when the fall personally breaks upon us. This original acquaintance is what allows us to remember, and to hold onto the truth that the suffering, and hardship, and disillusionment are only part of the story, are only part of life: they cannot be all, because we have seen more. We have known something deeper, that however much we try to write off as untrue, and an illusion, remains a force, however weakened, to be reckoned with. And the One Who made our heart, made it to remember the years before we faced the storm, made it to “long for Eden”, as Tolkien reminds us, “soaked with the sense of exile”.
For some of us, this remembering comes easier than others. Some of us haven’t suffered quite so harshly. Some of us just have a more rigorous energy to hope. But there isn’t a single soul that doesn’t carry this spark, this stubborn piece of eternity implanted in the depths of our soul, drawing us ever on to more. It will always come easier to some of us, to believe in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. These ones of us simply have a larger obligation to appeal to the hearts of the others, to coax this life, this truth, this little spark back out of them.
I watch the face of my friend, bent over the tiny form of her newborn child, and I see something else: perhaps this is also why childhood is given us, not only for our own benefit, but for the sake of humanity as a whole, for the sake of our memory, to recall us. It is children who spur our hearts into motion, to shoot a renewed life into that tiny, beating piece of our adult lives, in order to awaken us to say again, in the face of a darkness that bullies us and wears us down: “Yes, but—” Goodness is still real. Truth still exists. Beauty is still present. And it is the children, fresh from the hand of Another ever more Young than our old, tired world, who are capable of reminding us of this. Because, in reality, we saw more fully, more truly when we were children. I believe, somewhere deep inside, all of our hearts know this, even if only because we want it to be true, and therefore experience it as a struggle to accept the “fact” that it’s not. And I am beginning to recognize that this struggle, however weak it may feel within us, is the strongest power we have: it is the source of our life. It is the eternal seed of God, planted to fight through the dirt, and the rocks, until it has broken through into the sunlight.
And this is why all the masters paint the spiritual life as a return, a growing back into childhood. It is a different childhood, no doubt. One that has seen and known the darkness. But one that chooses, that is led to remember that there are deeper things than the darkness, that cannot be wiped out so long as that piece of eternity planted deep inside of us continues to cry out, “Yes, but—”
(5/11/16 Footnote: If you want to think more about these themes, please read Doug McKelvey’s post on the RabbitRoom today. He captures perfectly and beautifully what these reflections of mine were seeking to point to! SM)