Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Harsh Realities and a Gracious Universe

This is my second follow-up post to the post on my Moons having to do with God. By Moons, I mean things that one deeply desires and wants to bring into one's life. In my previous post, I looked at reasons why one might see the universe as hostile or indifferent to us and reasons why one might see the universe as gracious. I myself believe that the universe is gracious - in spite of having had a hostile worldview implanted in me as a child and in spite of difficulty, at times, in holding to a gracious worldview. One difficulty in holding to a gracious worldview is that of some very harsh realities. How do we hold to a gracious worldview when confronted with such realities as debilitating poverty, severe disability, and slavery? In this post, I will work with this question.

I believe that, although it is not easy, we can see the universe as gracious in spite of these harsh realities if we consider these areas:

  • People do attain incredible Moons in spite of very harsh realities.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to adjust one's Moon because of life circumstances.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to trust in an eternal perspective.

People do attain incredible Moons in spite of very harsh realities.

People have come through deep hurt (concentration camps, severe childhood abuse, rape, torture, murder of loved ones, debilitating poverty), preserving a spirit of faith, love, and forgiveness. Some have gone on from these atrocities to become writers, artists, entrepreneurs, community organizers, teachers. People with severe disabilities have done the same.

I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident at age seventeen (she is now in her sixties), and who has done work as a writer, an artist (drawing with a pencil held in her mouth), a singer, an actor, a community organizer, and a public speaker. She has also had a successful marriage. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby who was completely paralyzed after a stroke, such that his only method of communication was a system of winks with his one good eye. He wrote a book in this manner - spelling out each word with winks. I think of Frank McCourt, who grew up in dire poverty in Ireland, and who went on to become a teacher and writer. I think of Maya Angelou, who grew up in the South of the United States under a system of severe racial discrimination and who became a writer and an actor.

I do not know how I would react to this type of harsh reality. I do know, though, that there are people who continue to go for the Moon despite tremendous odds. These people keep their eyes on the gracious elements of life - the beauties of nature, supportive friends, things they can do and enjoy.

Sometimes it is necessary to adjust one's Moon because of life circumstances.

Sometimes life circumstances are such that certain Moons are not possible. I think of Maya Angelou's grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, who lived in a time and place where opportunities were severely limited for African Americans. Yet Mrs. Henderson managed to own and run her own general store, supporting herself and her family with her own independent business in the African American community. Mrs. Henderson may have been capable of a far grander entrepreneurial Moon had greater opportunity been available for her, but she went as far as the society of her time allowed her to go. She adjusted her Moon to what was possible for her and went as far as she could with the possibilities she had.

If one is an athlete and suffers an injury that leaves one disabled, one will need to adjust one's Moon. If one encounters serious financial set-backs, one will need to adjust one's Moon. If one is faced with caring for a severely ill family member, one will need to adjust one's Moon.

It is possible (though certainly not easy) to adjust one's Moon, to keep one's eyes on the graciousness of life, and to live in joy and thankfulness.

Sometimes it is necessary to trust in an eternal perspective.

Sometimes people encounter such horrendous life circumstances that we simply need to trust in an eternal perspective. Some people simply cannot, in this lifetime, even imagine aspiring to joy or to going for a Moon.

Sometimes life circumstances that one person may be able to handle can be too much for another person. I think of a story that Anne Lamott tells in one of her books. She speaks of a member of her church - a woman with a strong faith which had seen her through a life that included a good deal of hardship. As this woman entered her eighties, she started to go blind. Everyone in the church knew that this woman would face this new trial with the strong faith that was so characteristic of her - her faith would see her through. But this did not happen. The woman found blindness too much to bear. She grew depressed and withdrew from the church community, refusing to see anyone and finally dying in despair.

What happened with this woman? Why, after a lifetime of exercising her faith and seeing life as gracious in spite of difficult trials, was she unable to continue this attitude in the face of blindness? Of course, I cannot answer those questions. I can say, however, that when a church member can no longer sustain her faith, the church's faith will sustain her. The rest of us can have faith for a member whose faith seems to have deserted her. This is another evidence of life's graciousness. When life circumstances seem to have crushed an individual, others in the community can uphold that individual. Others can believe for that individual. Despite appearances, the faith of the community will see that individual through.

Slavery is an extremely dark area where Moons are impossible. A slave can have no goals, no plans, no will, certainly no Moons of his or her own. A slave can only carry out the will of his or her master.

This is brutal. The brutality of slavery is brought home by Ned Sublette in The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Ned speaks about the sexual relationships that white male masters forced upon their black female slaves. Ned says that we can't even use the word rape for this because there is no question of consent. On page 216, Ned says of a female slave, "The matter of her consent was irrelevant, because she could not refuse," then adds, "Because that's what slavery was."

Elizabeth Gilbert in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, makes a similar point. On page 69, Elizabeth says this about slaves and marriage: "The argument against slaves' marrying, simply put, was this: It's impossible. Marriage in Western society is supposed to be a contract based on mutual consent, and a slave - by very definition - does not possess his own consent. His every move is controlled by his master and therefore he cannot willfully enter into any contract with another human being."

Whenever some humans create conditions that rob other humans of joy in life, I would say that we are dealing with deeply serious sin. This is true of slavery and of employment conditions that keep people in poverty and require long hours of grueling work. People born into situations like these grow up expecting no joy from life and seeing no possibility of reaching toward a Moon. Those who create such conditions incur and inflict tremendous soul wounds.

It is also true that, when a particular society is occupied with survival or when a society has fixed social roles, questions of joy and Moons become irrelevant. Working or fulfilling one's expected role in society takes precedence, though joy is not necessarily excluded from such a life. Joy is simply not sought and not expected.

In situations where joy doesn't seem possible, particularly where life is brutal, I can only trust in an eternal perspective. I absolutely do not mean that it's okay for people to have brutal lives on earth because they will have a chance to experience joy after this earthly life. It is never okay for life to be brutal, especially when this is due to brutal treatment of humans by other humans. I do mean that I believe that our lives are larger than this earthly life, that this life is not the end of the story, and that graciousness wins out in the end.

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