Resurrection Year: Learning to Live, and Thrive, with Life as It Is Given

Our Western cultural attitudes are not well-equipped for failure. We are a culture of optimists and fixers, holding fiercely to the notion that “pain is gain.” We want to believe that any problem can be overcome, any broken thing fixed, with hard work, a strong will, smart decisions, and hefty doses of modern technology. Christians can add earnest prayer and being “right with God” to the list.

Our faith in the potent combination of personal strengths and technological advances to help us overcome any difficulty is particularly apparent in modern reproductive decision-making. Couples facing infertility clean up their diets and their attitudes, agonize over why they are denied the gift of a baby (the implication being that if they can figure out why, then maybe they can fix whatever the problem is), try medications and yoga and acupuncture and relaxation techniques, turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and related technologies, and/or present a portfolio of qualifications to adoption agencies.

But what happens when we realize our problem might be unfixable? What happens when all those therapies and lifestyle changes and appealing adoption agency profiles and IVF cycles lead to nothing but the shattering realization that this particular dream is not going to come true? In his book Resurrection Year (Thomas Nelson 2013), Sheridan Voysey tells the story of what came next for him and his wife, Merryn, after they reached that heartbreaking conclusion.

Sheridan Voysey was a well-known Christian writer and radio personality in his native Australia, and Merryn a medical statistician. For 10 years, after Sheridan was diagnosed with a low sperm count, they tried everything they could to have a child, including several rounds of IVF, opening a file with an adoption agency, and lots and lots and lots of prayer, both private and within various Christian communities. They hit their lowest point on Christmas Eve 2010, after having closed their file with the adoption agency to try IVF one more time. (Despite their adoption counselor’s assurances that they would be a very appealing couple for birth mothers, months went by without a single call.) Their final round of IVF led, at long last, to a positive pregnancy test. After sharing the news with thrilled family members, they went for an ultrasound, only to find an empty gestational sac where they expected a beating heart.

“That was our last attempt at having a child,” [Merryn] tells the doctor.

“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry. That must be hard.”

“Yes,” we reply. “It’s hard.”

Ten years spent in the wilderness and no promised land.

Resurrection Year is an efficient book, telling the story of the Voyseys’ 10-year odyssey to conceive along with the “resurrection year” that followed in a little more than 200 pages. Given my own passion for the ethical and theological questions raised by reproductive technology, I longed for more details of how Sheridan and Merryn answered those questions. I wondered how Merryn’s telling of the story would differ from Sheridan’s; while he was heartbroken by their ordeal, his sadness seemed centered more on his wife’s suffering than on the absence of a longed-for child. The book also lacks narrative tension, the basic story arc evident to anyone reading the cover blurb and endorsements. Sheridan’s career anxiety occupies a fair amount of space in the final chapters, as his Resurrection Year manuscript is rejected by skeptical publishers; I couldn’t drum up much concern for his worries, given that I was reading about them in a book published by a major American label.

Those minor weaknesses aside, Resurrection Year‘s  intended focus is not the Voyseys’ 10 years of heartache, but on what happened next. And in that part of the story lies much wisdom about coping with life as it is given, not as we wish it would be. Most of the time, life’s shattered dreams themselves are short-lived nightmares. But how (and if) we manage to pick up the pieces has huge implications for the rest of our lives.

Merryn wisely understood the temptation to see their life as essentially over if their dream of starting a family never came true. “I have to have something to look forward to—a consolation prize. Otherwise I feel like I have nothing,” she says, just before beginning what they have agreed will be their final IVF attempt. Her “consolation prize,” she decides, is to “start again” by moving from Australia to Europe. From there, things fall into place for Merryn, as she secures a job at Oxford University and they plan stops in Rome, the Alps, and Paris before settling in the UK. Sheridan agrees, wanting to give his wife whatever she needs to find happiness and wholeness after their ordeal. But the plan exacts a steep cost for him, as he must leave behind a highly successful radio show in Australia to start again as a relative unknown in England.

Sheridan and Merryn’s faith is central to their journey. Journal entries and recollected conversations, between the two of them and with Christian friends and colleagues, center on questions of God’s will for their lives and the sacrifices they each make in accordance with that will (for Merryn, letting go of the dream of motherhood, and for Sheridan, leaving behind his high-profile career). Each stop on their journey toward a new life in England gives them tools with which to rebuild a fulfilling life. In Italy, the beauty of ancient art and churches helps them reconnect with a world beyond their insular infertility journey. At a Christian retreat center in Switzerland, they grapple with eternal questions around suffering and God’s will. In Paris, they rediscover the joy of a committed, lifelong marriage partnership. And finally, settled in Oxford, they buy a house, understanding that

There will be no bath time bubbles or giggles here….No chasing butterflies in the yard or nursery rhymes before bed. There will be no playing dolls or Tonka trucks, no computer games or dress-ups; no sleepovers, birthday parties, cakes, wishes, or candles. There will be no lunch boxes, shiny shoes or first days at school, and no tummy aches, grazed knees, or ice cream remedies. Just Merryn and me….Merryn and I sit on the stairs, the front door key dangling from my hand. From here we look down on the lounge room area, and the spot in the corner where the television will stand. On that screen we’ll see many Hollywood endings, where the dream comes true before the credits roll. In their own way, I guess, such fantasies point to heaven, where all the fragments are reconnected and the story ends well. But heaven isn’t here yet. Not all dreams become reality.

Ultimately, Resurrection Year is a story of submission—an uncomfortable notion for optimistic overcomers like us. But submission to what? Sheridan and Merryn might say their resurrection year required submitting to God’s will for their lives, that they remain childless. During a conversation at the Swiss retreat center, Sheridan differentiates between God’s “perfect will” and “permissive will,” suggesting that God might allow some suffering for a greater good. Merryn asks how some suffering, such as the death of a baby, could ever lead to a greater good that is worth such terrible pain. In another conversation, Merryn wonders if God chose to leave them childless rather than allowing them to have a severely disabled child that they wouldn’t have been able to handle. Was their childlessness God’s way of preventing something “bad” from happening? Both conversations left me unsettled. I do not believe that God parcels out or withholds babies according to some overarching calculus that makes sense only to God, and I bristled at the notion that a severely disabled child is a tragedy from which God might be protecting the Voyseys. I finished the book uncertain what, exactly, the couple believes about the problem of pain. Voysey says in his endnotes that these conversations do not necessarily represent their ultimate conclusions about the nature of suffering and God’s will.

Whether or not Sheridan and Merryn would say that their ordeal and the resurrection year that followed taught them to submit to God’s will, their story is a beautiful example of submitting to what is, of embracing life as it is given. They learned the hard way that the worst things cannot always be overcome, that pain is not always gain, and that some broken things are not fixable. They had the courage, born out of their love for one another and for God, to step into the unknown, to create a new life out of the ashes of their old one. Their pain is not vanquished; other people’s babies can still drive Merryn to tears. Perhaps they always will. But the Voyseys’ story reminds us that even as pain lingers, hope and the promise of new life linger also.

This post is part of a Patheos Book Club conversation on Resurrection Year

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

    You’ve given us a great gift in this review, Ellen. Thank you for such a careful reading. Would love to discuss your thoughts more over a coffee were our paths to cross. Thanks so much again.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Agreed! In this book you deal with two of my favorite topics for writing and wrestling: reproductive decision making/technology, and the problem of pain. If I ever make it to Oxford I will take you up on that offer to talk more over coffee, and if you are ever in the Northeastern US I hope you will do likewise!

      • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

        Deal. I didn’t go into the ethical deliberations of IVF in too much detail in Resurrection Year so as not to bore those who weren’t equally affected (the book is about broken dreams, not infertility as such), but, boy, those deliberations were there and took some time to work through.

        • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

          Those deliberations were the focus of my memoir and of ongoing thought and angst. I’d be happy to send you a copy of the book if you’re still interested in the topic (no pressure though…I completely understand if you and Merryn have moved on to other things!). Email me if you’d like a copy (click on the envelope under “Connect” above). But truly, no offense taken if another book will just clutter your shelves. I wish you the best on the success of Resurrection Year. I am also passionate about questioning our cultural tendency to believe all broken things can be fixed, and your book adds much of value to that conversation. I hope it finds a wide audience.

          • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

            Thanks for the offer Ellen. I’d love to read your book (we are well and truly over the issue, but it could be helpful for others who contact me). Very kind of you.

            PS: Your reading of my pain in our journey was insightful. Yes, my pain was watching Merryn go through what she went through rather than my own loss at wanting a child (which has never been as strong as Merryn’s). The book is really about two dreams: one, for a child (unfulfilled), the second, a career (fulfilled but then needed to be relinquished). Resurrection Year is about recovering from both broken dreams, hence the inclusion of my career angst.

  • David Hilfiker

    Given that all of us face the Great Unfixable, our cultural faith that “any problem can be overcome, any broken thing fixed, with hard work, a strong will, smart decisions, and hefty doses of modern technology” is almost bizarre. Ultimately, such a faith isolates us from our community in which ourfailure is impermissible. “If only you’d have done this.” “Maybe you can try this.” “It will make you stronger.” “It’s all for the best.” Anything so that the rest of us don’t have to face your failure which will ultimately be our own.
    Thanks to Ellen and the Voyseys.

    • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

      Beautifully put, David.

  • Robert Landbeck

    Resurrection year requires a Resurrection! But does anyone really want to share that direct experience of transcendence or just talk about it? For those who have dreamed of sharing it , the first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ has been published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from theology, tradition or history, this new teaching is predicated upon the ‘Promise’ [Word] of a precise, predefined, and predictable experience of transcendent omnipotence and called ‘the first Resurrection’.

    Redefining the very nature of marriage and human spiritual union and offering a new moral insight that addresses the most pressing questions facing both our species and our planet, this could very well prove to be the most potent catalyst for progressive change ever imagined. I’m testing this new teaching now for myself within my own relationship. For anyone with a pioneering spirit, check it out at http://www.energon.org.uk

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    To focus on God when the world would tell you there is every reason to reject him and focus on self and suffering, that is a beautiful story. It’s born of pain, but also borne by our Savior who is himself the Suffering Servant.
    Thanks for giving us this book review to remind us of these truths, Ellen. And thanks to Sheridan Voysey for sharing their story with us.
    Tim

    • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

      Thank you Tim.

  • Rev. Constance McIntosh

    I do not discount their pain or their journey but I have the same…reaction…to this storyline as I did to “Eat, Pray…and travel around Europe”. The majority of people in the world with shattered dreams and broken hearts can’t just decide to move from one continent to another with stops in Rome, the Alps, and Paris. Again, I know their pain and recovery are real…but very privileged and extremely uncommon…. I will not be reading their story because I know too well all the unpublished accounts where people get through with endless tears, ceaseless prayers of pleading to have the hope to regain hope…hope of the hopeless..and find resurrection in coming to understand that God is with them, right beside them…not fixing it or moving them to Europe, but simple there, being with them on the journey. Blessings, Constance

    • http://sheridanvoysey.com/ Sheridan Voysey

      Thanks for the comment, Constance. This is something I was very mindful of when writing the book – giving the impression that a couple of rich (in world terms) folks can solve all their problems by jumping on a plane and flying away. What about the single mum left to look after three kids alone? How could she follow such an example in recovering from her own broken dreams? Most likely she couldn’t.

      If you ever do get to read the book I hope you’ll see:

      a) that moving overseas was not THE answer to our broken dreams. I actually didn’t want to move given how well things were going for me personally. We had good friends and family in Australia too.
      b) that after what Merryn had gone through, it might actually be OK to have this ‘consolation prize’. She’d always wanted to work overseas and – ironically – not having children actually allowed us to do that financially.
      c) that the discoveries made along the journey could be made anywhere – even ‘at home’.

      Thankfully, no one who has read the book has yet remarked that our opportunity to travel snubs those who don’t have such an opportunity – which has soothed those original fears of mine. The lessons learned in Resurrection Year, I hope, are universal.

      Sheridan

      PS: Before Merryn and I left overseas we both read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book The Wisdom of Stability, which argues for staying home. (More here: http://sheridanvoysey.com/010-the-wisdom-of-staying-home). We wanted our move to be a considered one, facing the realities involved. I’d encourage anyone wanting to make a similar move to read the book first.


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