I can’t remember precisely what his answer was, but it was not the enthusiastic one I had expected. I had gone to the university-hosted public lecture on C. S. Lewis hoping to be reminded of hope and beauty, of something from a readerly childhood that seemed so often to be slipping away more and more, buried under the pressures and workload of a Masters degree. And the question I had asked innocently enough was how we might proceed if we were on board with whatever project of Lewis’s the presentation was on. I can’t quite recall the specifics of the particular topic, but what I do recall is the speaker’s frustration over my question. He had very careful tiptoed around the figure of Lewis, skillfully defending him in terms which I suppose he thought relevant to university faculty and students. And there I was easily ceding his points, concurring with his defence and moving on to what was next. And it baffled him. He had come looking for a tough-minded dual of ideas. And there I was with my little white flag asking if we couldn’t just concede the dual and start rebuilding in the aftermath, start liking Lewis again.
I have been thinking of this incident lately because of something a wise friend pointed out with regard to a book I’m struggling to write. What she pointed out – and what I knew in some ways but hadn’t thought about thoroughly – is that my primary mode of engagement is adversarial, and the precise problem I have been having is that the adversarial mode is inimical to what I want the heart of my book to be, what is tender and vulnerable and hospitable and fragile. To be sure, my go-to justification is that one needs to be adversarial in order to clear space for those who otherwise might not be heard – the poor, the weak, and the marginal. But her observation made me realize just how addictive an adversarial mode can be, how it can so easily become a cycle of pugnacity and inhospitality that forgets to visit and often even crushes those very vulnerabilities and tendernesses one means to protect. Just as the speaker on Lewis was too wound up in his defensive stance to notice the hungry student who ought ostensibly to have been precisely the reason for his talk, so I, when I write, can become so interested in defence and ground-clearing that when I encounter someone or something in my heart saying “okay, I agree, what next?” I don’t know what to do. I’m so busy fighting demons, some real and some imagined, that I forget the reason behind it all.
It’s a little like the Biblical book of Jonah, which is quickly becoming one of my favourites. Jonah is basically the upside-down prophet story, the inversion of everything other parts of the Old Testament lead us to expect. There is of course the whole running away thing. But more subtly the conversion of Nineveh is also an inversion, because over and over again the Old Testament narrative involves prophets preaching to those who refuse to repent. But in Jonah it’s the other way round. Everyone repents – everyone that is except the prophet Jonah. And this is where the parallel comes in.
Jonah’s stubbornness at the end of the book is precisely what addiction to adversity looks like. The idea that no one will listen to him and that they can therefore expect the punishment of God is so ingrained in him that he doesn’t know what to do when the people do in fact repent. Returning to Nineveh, he had perhaps expected persecution, maybe even death. And that presumably he could deal with. But he met something far worse – the mercy of God – and in the face of that mercy he, like so many of us, had no idea what to do.
But in spite of this, the way God reveals Jonah’s sin to him is so beautiful, so gentle, so – almost lovingly humorous. He gives him a plant for shade and then allows it to become food for a worm – and it is through these small things that God appeals to Jonah. Indeed, what makes them so intimate is the way they reveal human vulnerability, as I shall explain through a bit of an analogous digression.
Arguably, the most frustrating things in human experience are not the big things but the little things. As someone who has mental illness, I can say that, strange as it may sound, there is almost a kind of – not comfort exactly – but perhaps familiarity in the big crises, the apocalypses. Indeed, for some of us, these may be the only situations we know how to survive in, so that we actively let our lives become a series or set of big crises. But what really get us – or at least get me – are the stupid little things, the difficulty getting out of bed, the negligence of showering and hygiene for days, the sheer plodding slowness of things that others can do with clarity in a snap. The daily confrontation with stupid little things that my body – my brain – keeps me from doing is what really makes me painfully aware of my fragility.
And this is what is revealed to Jonah, his own pathetic bathos – except God’s point is that pathetic bathos or not, it has worth. Jonah’s petulant concerns have worth in all their stupidity and fragility. And if this is so, how much more worth does Nineveh have, where people don’t even know their left hand from their right hand? Upon discovery of this bodied, creaturely fragility, Jonah’s choice is also mine: between pity and hate. Like Jonah sitting and awaiting the destruction of Nineveh, I can sit waiting for God to smite me, my human fragility, the thing I despise. Or I can have pity, somehow seeing worth in the petty wants and needs of my small transient life, even as there is worth in Jonah’s bathetic and selfish love for the little plant, even as there is worth in the fragile creatures living in the heathen city of Nineveh. But like Jonah, I tend to problematically prefer apocalypse and destruction – an adversarial context – over peace and growing things.
If the ongoing work of conversion is the daily and ever-so-slow alchemy by which we turn swords into ploughshares, I’m doing it very poorly. I know what to do with a sword, but I have less practice with ploughshares. Even when I do practice ploughing, I so often undo it all; at the slightest hint of threat, I almost by instinct heft my ploughshare up again, ready to return it to its former use – and more often than not the tender things, the fragile things, are trampled in the fray.
How can I – we – work on recovering from this? I have no idea, but I’m beginning to suspect it has something to do with prayer and friendships that can open spaces of protected vulnerability, guarded by other powers that keep one from having to pick up the sword oneself. Not that I’m good at these things – I’m bad at consistent prayer and am also a bad friend, either a melting bundle of needs or aloof, with the latter being preferable because it wounds others less. But perhaps I simply make such excuses because I’m too addicted to being adversarial, a creature of apocalyptic rather than ordinary time; will there ever be room in my heart for something fragile and small and weak and tender and also somehow beautiful? Will there ever be room in me to hatch the tiny humility of grace?