Friday, January 25, 2008

One of those days (Reprise)


I guess I'll take another look at yesterday. It was a 24-hour panorama, and I have offered a gloomy 2-minute snapshot of the thing, meaning that for 23 hours, 58 minutes, I have been blind.

Blind. "Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness." (Jesus) Bad eyes--bad, dark days. Good eyes--maybe something else.

Pollyanna played The Glad Game, and we have come to use her name to belittle people who intentionally choose an optimistic view. Pollyanna wore these words on her brooch (with fictional attribution to Abe Lincoln): "When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." Could the same be said of what I look for in a day? Was Pollyanna really that far off base, or are do I just feel safer in my cynicism if I blow her off as a cheesy Disney character?

So here is another view of the same day I described yesterday. No less true, just seen through a different glass, less darkly.

I woke up--dry, safe, beside the woman I've loved for the last lucky 13 years, whose warmth radiated onto my skin under the thick covers.

I took a hot shower with running water and soap. I chose from an assortment of clothes and found something in good repair, nearly clean, warm enough, that I liked.

I went into the overstocked kitchen and drank two large glasses of clean mountain spring water from the tap. I opened the cupboard and spread my very favorite food--Laura Scudder's peanut butter--onto two slices of bread, adding a half banana to each and rolling them into tacos for breakfast. I threw my favorite apple (Fuji, the big ones from Costco) into the bag and headed for the door.

My daughter, Brielle, opened the door to the great room, walked over in silence, and opened her arms to me for a giant tiny embrace. "Bye-bye, Daddy. I'll miss you while you're at work today." A few seconds more of her squeeze and she slid to the floor and disappeared again into the hallway.

I stepped out of the house I own (with a nice 30-year fixed-rate mortage) and into a world of white. Three inches of snow had covered the trees and everything else. I breathed it in.

Having heard the forecast, the car--still going strong after 200,000 miles--was already chained up. I drove to the highway, which was in excellent repair and well plowed. The snow-covered mountains at dawn were a freezing delight, like ice cream for the eyes. I listened to my favorite band, Jars of Clay, on the CD player half the trip and then switched to my favorite radio station, KVCR, our local NPR. I got a call from my brother about our childhood friend who was in grave danger after complications from a C-section, asking me to pray and invite others to pray. I did.

I made it to work late, but didn't get in trouble. I was paid well for doing a job I love, and it was a minimum day because of finals. I grabbed lunch at a local taquería that makes a killer veggie burrito. After school I helped our best and brightest students hone their speeches for the weekend's Academic Decathlon.

I swung by the public library and checked out eight books free of charge, then drove to the urgent care center, where I hung out with Brielle and Rachelle. Brielle's right eye was barely open after her faceplant into the log while sledding that morning--but she was an angel despite that and her three-hour wait to be seen. Rachelle was still sane too, and happy to see me. I paid a $15 copay for Brielle to see a licensed physician and have X-rays done. Both doctor and X-rays told us we had nothing to worry about.

I went to the auto parts store, where they exchanged a broken set of tire chains without any questions. Rachelle and I met up and ditched a car, allowing us to carpool home. We made it up the snowy road safely without putting chains on. Passing a car that had gone over the edge, I thought about how fragile a package is life, and prayed thanks that mine was being delivered safely home today.

We arrived at the home of my in-laws, who had been willing to watch the twins while Rachelle took Brielle to urgent care. They were well-fed, well-loved and happy to see me. I smashed my head on their countertop, but neither head nor counter were seriously damaged. I made an idiot of myself in front of Rachelle's folks with the ensuing tantrum, but they have still not threatened to take their daughter or granddaughters away from me. I also made an idiot of myself in front of my daughters, but Ashlyn, at least, got a laugh out of it.

I drove my family home.

---

Questions I'm asking myself:
  • Which of these stories--today's version or yesterday's--will readers prefer?
  • What is it that makes me so attached to yesterday's version when today's leaves my soul in such a better place?
  • How can I reconcile or balance the need for realism, and compassion for real suffering, with the benefits of focusing on the positive?
  • Which of these do my kids need my help seeing more of?

5 comments:

dludington said...

Thank you Michael for reminding us of our daily blessings. You truly are gifted! Diane L.

Blissful Begonia said...

Warm wishes for recovery to all injured during "one of those days."

Your questions made me think of Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" in which, toward the end of story, the narrator, Pi, reveals that there are two versions of his outrageous survival story: the one with animals, and the one without. Either version is wildly far-fetched and grotesque in its own way.

Pi asks the men investigating his story: "So, tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals."

The investigators both say the prefer the story with animals.

Pi: "Thank you. And so it goes with God."

In an interview for NPR, author Yann Martel said that when people have experienced something of significance, as Pi does in the story, what they want most is for others to acknowledge what they have gone through. Thus Pi offers two versions of the story; he wants someone to accept his story--either version.

Martel said that there are many possible interpretations in life and that facts are the ground upon which we build the truth of our lives. In all stories, we cannot choose the facts, but we can choose what we do with those facts. He asserted that the more we believe in, the richer our lives. Martel went on to describe a sort of postmodernist theology, but those implications aside, I'd like to suggest that regardless of which version of your "one of those days" story one prefers, both are equally important.

Human life isn't a two-dimensional experience. It's three-dimensional, like a turning globe, and it looks different depending on one's perspective.

Likewise, the life of faith is not a two-dimensional experience. Sometimes we think that the life of faith somehow cancels out the bad things that happen to us--or at least ought to numb us a bit to them. However, the life of faith is neither devoid of pain nor without the balm of grace. It is both the day in which incredible physical and emotional pain was experienced and the day on which blessings were abundant.

What it means, I think, is that we cannot afford to ignore the darkness and suffering that are a natural part of the human existence; nor can we afford to go through those experiences without gratitude for the grace that carries us through all of our days. Both versions--the one with animals the one without; "one of those days" and the reprise--are true, and they co-exist. I prefer the two versions of your story together, side-by-side. To me it seems they each ring all the more true in contrast and in connection to each other.

Thank you for sharing and making me ponder these questions.

Michael J. Bennie said...

Thanks so much for that, Blissful. Jesus Himself was known as both Prince of Peace and Man of Sorrows. Incidentally, "Life of Pi" is the last book I read. I found myself wholeheartedly believing the story with the animals, and even a tad peeved with a couple of my friends who thought they'd been had throughout the book, when they found out the "real" story at the end. "HOW COULD THEY POSSIBLY FAIL TO BELIEVE *THE* STORY?" I complained. (NPR interview w/Martel is at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=878087)

Your point has much to say to us as we interpret God's role in suffering. Many seem to think that either God made the suffering happen because it was part of a higher plan, or that He must not be the All-Powerful, All-Good God people imagine Him to be. Your comment puts the lie to this either-or fallacy.

I'd like to invite readers to Blissful Begonia's blog at http://blissfulbegonia.wordpress.com. She speaks from experience on this point, and her writing reflects the reality of pain "in the balm of grace."

jmaritz said...

Interesting that I can relate far better to the original post and found myself laughing at parts (though obviously not all was laughable). I like Blissful's point that together, they tell a more complete and accurate story.

One of the fringe benefits we got by moving to Mozambique is the realization and appreciation of how good we have things: not only materially, but in health, family members still alive, variety of life experiences, access to information, and education. It's easy for me to feel happy and blessed when compared to others with less, but it's also a somewhat selfish perspective, because while I'm dry and fed and can visit the doctor when I need to, my neighbor is struggling to survive.

So maybe a Pollyanna view is good in keeping my attitude positive, but only so far as it doesn't drown out my empathy for the very real suffering next door (or the kid with the shiner, the mom in ICU, or the victim of an accident). The Man of Sorrows wasn't thinking of His own discomforts, but of the heart sufferings of His neighbors. Give me the sorrow that compels action on my part to make life better for others.

Oops, maybe I don't want to make that last statement. I just might be taken literally, and I kinda like the comforts I have right now.

Michael J. Bennie said...

I too "related" better to the Oscar the Grouch post than to the Pollyanna one, in the sense that it was more automatic to me to tally the day's losses than its blessings. It took much more discipline to sift through the day seeking its beauties, yet left me with so much more energy and hope, resources I need in order to make a difference in this beaten-down world. Fixating on the world's sorrows can paralyze me. But ignoring them as much as I did in the second post would bury my head in the sand beyond relevance to a bleeding planet.