For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a messy person. I distinctly remember being a second grader – my desk, in which we students stored our textbooks and folders, was comparatively more disorderly than that of all my fellow classmates. The same was true in sixth grade, when we graduated to lockers. In high school I lazily used one notebook for several subjects. In college and afterwards I often struggled to negotiate living standards with roommates who believed in a place for everything and everything in its place. And today, as a thirty-five-year-old living alone, I can easily go for weeks or months without cleaning, using the sporadic parties I host as motivation to at last put things in order.
It’s hard to admit that I’m an untidy person. We live in a world that is not kind to the slovenly. When I was young, my mother would often lose her temper upon seeing the clothes tossed carelessly about my room, just as she did not permit me to go to school with an untucked uniform blouse or knees socks pushed down to the ankles (“Your appearance is a reflection on me,” she said). My father would exhort me to be orderly as he was; twenty years later, when he visited me in my current hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, he took it upon himself to scrub my cabinets while asking, “How can you live like this?”
Admittedly, their criticisms did not incite me to embrace the virtues of neatness; they only made me more defensive about my own way of being. I can live like this just fine, thank you very much. In school I received excellent grades; I completed a PhD and became a tenure-track professor. A young woman who I am mentoring recently moved into my spare room and thus far has no complaints about my habits, though we’ll see how long that lasts. In any case, I’ve basically managed to function – so what if there are piles of papers stacked on my desk?
I am well aware that this attitude does not harmonize well with the dominant culture. Minimalism is ever more popular; countless self-help books and TV shows discuss the virtues of de-cluttering. But I inevitably feel a sense of unease when I enter a magazine-perfect home. Questions play in the back of my mind – how much have this space’s inhabitants had to throw away in order to achieve this environment? Did they give up anything valuable? And, what important but unsavory truths might they be hiding, even from themselves?
I have taken a six-month hiatus from writing for this blog. The reason for this is a moral one. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I will say that I’ve spent the past six months in a fairly grave state of sin – serious enough that writing for a Catholic blog seemed too hypocritical, even though I was engaged in many other things that were more hypocritical. I have caused unnecessary pain to people I care about. I have done things that, five years ago, if I’d heard of someone doing them, I would have been outraged. “How could they possibly do that?” I would have asked indignantly. While I may tolerate messiness in my external environment, I wanted to believe that my soul was well-ordered. Alas, it is not.
“How could they possibly do that?” is a question I’ve asked multiple times. I asked it as a college freshman when, during my first week of classes, I saw a plane fly into a building on live television. I asked it two years later when I saw young American soldiers my age get shipped off to invade a country that, to my knowledge, had done no wrong and posed no threat to anyone. I asked it in my mid-twenties when a con artist deliberately used deception and flattery to fool me into giving him an embarrassingly large sum of money. And I ask it today, when I read about heinous child abuse committed by priests for decades in the very diocese where I grew up – crimes that the institutional church, wanting to preserve authority and an image of neatness, attempted to stow away in a closet.
But today, I can no longer indignantly scratch my head at human cruelty. Most of us do not commit such dramatic offenses as the one that get reported on the news. But petty acts of selfishness, small failures to see the world from the point of view of others, can add up over time to cause serious harm. Given the right circumstances – particularly if we ourselves have been hurt – we can easily find ourselves doing things we never thought we’d do.
As a professor of English literature at a small college, I teach students who crave order neatness. “Is this a good character or a bad character?” they ask. When we read contemporary Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a brilliant account of the Biafra War, they were appalled to see how someone who is compassionate could also be an unfaithful spouse, how an innocent child could become a rapist in times of war. They could not understand how Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its violence and incest and rape, could be considered a modern epic, a foundation myth. They had little patience for Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things; they couldn’t bring themselves to care about the characters’ struggles – how could a mother say cruel things to her children and then still claim to love them?
But the fact is that loving parents do say cruel things to children each day. We hurt each other as we love each other; we strive to become better but fail again and again. Maybe my messiness, just as much as others’ neatness, is an attempt at control, a desire to hang onto things that should be discarded. Alas, one of the consequences of my actions has been a certain stripping away; I have lost some things I will not get back. But this does not make my world more ordered, either internally or externally. The disorder, with its accompanying anxiety, remains.
Christianity tries very hard to divide good from evil; we dream of a day when the wheat and the chaff will be unequivocally separated; we imagine a heaven where all will be well. The difficulty of this is that, unlike in polytheistic religions, where different deities embody different human characteristics, we stand before one God whom we believe to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and good. Thus, we are left like Job, astonished, awed by the existence of wrong and suffering and pain – a problem that no theodicy I’ve ever encountered can explain away. No matter how neat we try to make our environments, this is the world we have. We live with Job’s unanswered questions; we look at the world – and ourselves – with his awe.