It Doesn’t Always Get Worse: Thoughts at New Year’s

Happy New Year’s from Shasta’s Fog!

This New Year’s I’m celebrating in the best way, brilliant sunshine bursting through floor-to-ceiling windows at my favorite coffee hotspot downtown, a buzzing atmosphere for family and friends enjoying embarrassingly late brunches. (Travel tip: there’s free parking in downtown Lancaster on federal holidays!)

On the first day of the year, I’m taking a few moments to breathe in the newness, and as I open my planner, I notice a new scent.

I smell violent adventure.

In many ways, the year ahead looks very hard, full of change, decision-making, exploring new opportunities, meeting new people, networking.

It all sounds adventure-y, yes. But also terrifying for this self-proclaimed introvert.

Despite the fact that it’s easy to writhe under the day-to-day grind of vocational service, sometimes it’s easier knowing exactly what the next twelve months hold, vocationally.

If you find that you don’t have that luxury this New Year’s Day, I offer you this observation gleaned from the endless stream of running podcasts I listened to driving back and forth from Ohio for the holidays. #midwest #roadtrips

Lindsey Hein, interviewing ultramarathoner Jessica Goldman, asked her about mental fortitude on the trail: “How do you navigate the ultramarathon mentally? What makes a person able to conquer distances of 100 miles or more?

Goldman responded, “One thing I repeat to myself is, ‘It doesn’t always get worse.’”

When you’re in mile 20 of a 100-mile race, you may be feeling awful, your legs screaming at you. When you look ahead to the fact that you have 80 miles left to go, there are two options. You may be tempted to think that you don’t have enough in you, and that if this is how things are going now, there’s absolutely no way that you can finish, because you cannot handle it if things continue to go downhill. (Heh heh.) Or, you have this option: you can glean from the experience of Goldman and others who know that sometimes it doesn’t always get worse. Sometimes life-giving running rhythms develop in the back half of the race, and it’s only in those first 20 miles that you experience mind-numbing distress.

Take this as a running tip and also as a booster for your New Year’s day. Perhaps this is the year in which your lived experience collides with never-before-experienced wellness.

Because that, my dear readers, is hope.

Hope is flexible. Hope is open to new experiences. (Truly, hope believes that new experiences are in fact possible.) Hope trusts that God gives wisdom for navigating new places and people. Hope believes that the power of Jesus gives us everything we need for a godly life. Hope is humble and ignores the awkward feeling of trying to do things differently. Hope is ambidextrous, employing multiple modalities for seeking spiritual and mental health.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote: “The world indeed is full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I think Tolkien points to a hopefulness much needed in our world. (Even though as I’m blogging, I’m at the same time reading at Peter Hitchens article over at First Things called “Vice and Fire” that questions the religious ambivalence of Tolkien’s work and also prophesies the cultural effects of religious indifference promoted by George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hitchens brings clarity to the way in which Tolkien and Martin create nonreligious fictional worlds which have no need nor vision for the spiritual; indeed Hitchens writes that Martin’s “fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.” So on second thought, perhaps Tolkien’s hopefulness doesn’t go far enough. What fair-ness, for example? And what, really, is its undergirding? Human wistfulness? Sentimentality? That is the last thing we need.)

As you step forward into growth this new year, I pray that the hope you encounter is real and true, creational and cosmic, impossibly larger than human sentiment.

In 2019, perhaps Isaiah is the prophet we need:

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

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Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

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And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

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