‘We have not been granted the luxury of abandonment of all hope, our cross is that we must live with uncertainty.’ (CS Lewis)
We are mentored by our favourite screen faces, which do everything so loudly, cleverly and colourfully that we lose our ability to hear, and become conversationally deaf. You notice it when you have stumbled on a great idea and try telling someone about it but within moments they have changed the subject and are talking about something else, probably themselves. You quietly realise that they were not listening at all—at least not hearing. Love is not like that, it is so interested in others that it is ingenious at entering into the speaker’s inner world and allowing itself to be immersed in their imagination and thoughts. Soon it is asking questions—real ones—not just contrived ‘showing an interest’ questions. This person has seen what it is that made you so excited.
On the screen a man in a dark suit and shiny tie stands in front of a gigantic digital image of a swimming pool. His voice is clear and easy to follow as he relates the latest achievements of Australian athletes at the London summer olympics where the summer is not really a summer and beach volley ball is played by fully-clothed contestants on sand that has been specially shipped in from a beach. It is a night of poetic ironies.
Amongst his audience of millions is a family of four: a husband, a wife, a son and a daughter on the outskirts of a large country town in Australia. While the athletes are making the most of their English summer, this family is rugged-up for an Aussie winter in a wood and gyprock cottage with the chill staved off by fiberglass bats in the ceiling, curtains draped over a long glass wall and a gas heater burning furiously.
In here the winter is unable to make much of an impression; but out there, the tidy, shiny world of the screen looks cold to the man as he watches from the comfort of his deep blue corduroy lounge where he sits and leans his head on his wife’s lap. Across the room, his year-eleven son is at a desk half-engrossed in song-writing and half-watching the action. The year six daughter, at the same time as watching what is happening on the screen, moves from her lounge chair to a carpeted floor and back again, doing push-ups, crunches and splits whilst maintaining a running commentary with the rest of her family about the goings on in the pool and the gym.
On the TV now, four bare-chested Aussie boys walk from from the pool, hard bands of muscle rippling and water dripping as the camera closes in and a young woman’s voice asks a question. They hesitate and look at each other—their faces saying, ‘It was only a heat’. But the celebratory tone of the journalist’s voice indicates that this has been a big win.
Then a cheeky-faced boy leans forward and talks to a black stick of microphone that the woman is holding out. Water falls from wet slabs of hair as he speaks. Finally, as he and his mates are about to walk away, he grins and does a happy birthday call-out to his sister. The boy is suddenly ‘real’, the spell is broken and something touches the father and his family in the lounge room.
The screen story changes to a grainy and mood-filled montage of beautiful music and close-ups of faces looking dreamily at sunsets, forests and beaches. The boy in the lounge room groans loudly and explains to his father that it is all about a car, and sure enough, as he speaks, a gleaming piece of metal and plastic on wheels trundles over a rise. Before they can recover from this travesty, another flow of digital imagery takes the stage: happy and colourful teenagers, children and families—all dancing—in lounge rooms, on train stations and in office spaces. And hovering overhead, a shiny metallic eye: the logo of a so-called Reality TV show.
It is getting late. The wife and the two children go to bed and the husband is left in his lounge room with a coffee, his olympic screen and a head-ful of images, which have arranged themselves as a kind of gallery in the room of his memory: his wife with his head in her lap and her gentle hand touching his face; his son laughing at cheap ads whilst writing a musical score and the daughter in her sheer exuberant curiosity about this olympian extravaganza of dancing, somersaulting and swimming. Then there is the metallic eye and the anti-climactic motor vehicle: the first making his blood run cold and the second, kind of banal, but harmless. The contrast makes him think of another night when he himself was the young son of a husband and wife.
It’s a moonlit summer night in the outback and he and his three brothers have gone to bed in a massive bedroom with a four metre high ceiling and walk-through French windows that open onto verandahs on two sides. The boys are wide awake and conversing from where they sleep on steel-pipe-and-wire shearer’s cots. Fingers of moonlight touch the sheets of some of the beds and a gentle breeze flows. For a moment the talking stops and silence allows them to hear a gentle rustling of leaves. The boy in the man remembers the leaves and the tree and the look of its silvery dance when the moon is out.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s another summer night in the same bedroom. Once again he and his brothers are all wide-awake, talking softly. But this night is about a different sound: they await the faint engine noise of an old holden coming up a long, sloping and scrub-covered ironstone ridge, followed by headlights lancing into blackness. So far they have heard nothing and are beginning to worry that their father, who has been in town all day, is taking longer than usual.
The mother sits in the room with them, reassuring them. Ironically, the darkness helps, for her chair is actually a wheelchair and the boy imagines that there is no such chair and that she is a normal mother. But the slowness of her words reminds him of two things: she is dying and she is defiant. Every word carefully and thoughtfully spoken even if obviously slurred by the force of her struggle.
Then kittens are suddenly walking in through a window and jumping on the boys’ beds. Water pistols are filled and a mad game of prancing and leaping kittens versus grabbing, squirting and rumbling boys spills out over beds that are half in light and half in darkness: sheets a mess of wet fur, claws and tiny kicking legs. Now it stops as quickly as it started and it’s quiet—apart from the sound of purring. Something is here, a numinous presence, carried inside this pouring silver moonlight, bent down from heaven and touching each one.
The man in his lounge room—where the screen no longer flickers—remembers this moment as a sweet gift. For, despite the fierceness of the mother’s battle, her defiance was not some ferocious Nietzschean super-woman’s fight to (as Bertrand Russell said), ‘build her life upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair.’ The man (her son) knows she would have scoffed at such hard-core fist-shaking. Her defiance was a sweet defiance, and confident that all the unleashed miseries of hell were an even greater reason to stand with the god of ‘Green Pastures’, of ‘Mary’s Bethlehem Babe’ and of ‘Red Dust and Box Trees’. The last title being a new one, which this son of this mother ascribed to her god many years before.
For, he reasons to himself, why should brutalities against the innocent cause us to join hands with the very thing that hates their existence? If we are not careful we become like a man, who, having reached a bitter conclusion about ife, will now go to any lengths to defend that conclusion because of the horror that he might be shown to be wrong. Hence, the breezy, cheerfully diabolical and un-embarrass-able man of the world who is secretly terrified of the fact that someone might know he was once innocent. His bankruptcy never exposed until, in an unguarded moment, he looks into the eyes of naive childhood and feels something like scorn.
Whilst reminiscing, the man recalls a poem he has written in an unpublished manuscript of his called The Black Box.
‘Why do I find myself repelled
by the sweet innocent sunshine?
I have not come for answers
Have not come for words
I repent in dust.
Why do I find myself repelled
by the sweet innocent sunshine
In these eyes?
I repent in dust
I cry out to the Lord.
It is hard it is hard for the oldness
This ache of never before
Has drained my ocean …
Drowning in the pride of Eden
Drinking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
I have not come for answers
Have not come for words
I have come for you … my saviour
I repent in dust.’
‘Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods where they get off, you can never be a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of faith.
The first step is to recognise the fact that your moods change. The next step is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers, religious readings and gathering together are such a necessary part of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. As a matter of fact if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?’
It’s hard for a young man to take himself seriously in public. For example, to express grace towards a friend at a birthday party or a wedding: he risks being portrayed as pretentious or a kind of teacher’s pet. Nevertheless, the boy who will never risk being laughed at, will never be a man. So get over it.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake – 1794
In a street of warm sunshine and thundering semi-trailers carrying smelly sheep, is a house numbered twenty one. It has a little rose garden, a red iron roof and a bull-nose verandah, which blends easily into its neighbourhood of well kept sandstone cottages, well-cut lawns, chimneys and quaint window trimmings. Everything in this town is lovingly chiseled, manicured and moulded. Even the bridges—except for one lonely foot-bridge strung across a weir—look so solid they might have grown out of bedrock. In this very Australian place, Europe has asserted its loving self upon all things earthy, stone and painted: Germanic Europe that is.
Inside the house: a parrot whistles and talks incessantly on the back verandah; a phone rings frequently but no one seems in a hurry to answer it; a young male voice sings, and others laugh or tell a joke; a back screen door squeaks open and a visitor with a Wessex accent joins in on the laughter and then begins to speak in that quiet and steady tell-tale streaming chatter of gossip. Then the voice suddenly goes quiet and changes to concerned and kind.
A man resting in a bedroom near the back door has a sudden urge to try to overhear what is being said and then laughs at himself. Then in quick succession, the visitor leaves, the singer ceases and footsteps are heard walking about in the kitchen, which is close to the man’s bedroom. A tap runs, there’s a dull clunk of metal on ceramic, and since it is late in the day, the man concludes that this is the one rostered on to cook dinner.
The man adjusts the position of a heat bag underneath his back, pushes a pillow up behind his neck and lifts the screen of his note book computer. He tries to write, but his imagination is somewhere else. He recalls countless other moments like this, year-in and year-out, when he was welcomed into the life of this house with it’s young men and young women in this very neighbourhood. All of them launching out on a spiritual trek, which CS Lewis describes as ‘attempting to rip open an inconsolable secret that hurts so much we then take revenge on it by calling it names like nostalgia, romanticism, and adolescence’. Some of that pain, mixed with joy, is already apparent here, but the cynicism-that-wants-revenge, not yet. Normally that is reserved for middle-age.
His reverie is interrupted by a knock at his door and then the face of young woman telling him that dinner is ready. He climbs carefully down off the bed and walks to the dining room where an immaculately prepared baked dinner awaits. Everyone wants to know how his back is going. Grace is said and then they eat, quietly and thoughtfully at first and then the one who laughs starts the others off and they forget their troubles.
Over the next seven days he attempts to listen and to live inside their worlds as closely as he can, for he is—as he tells them—’supposed to be of some use’. And they are pleased that he has come, for, they admit to him, that they have heard it said on the grapevine that not much is expected of them. In fact, that mostly trouble is expected and they are the horse with the long odds in some race to impress God.
As the days, long conversations and moments of out-poured hearts, pass, he notices that they talk glowingly of one particular middle-aged business lady who owns a coffee shop just around the corner. And one afternoon he is taken there for coffee. A young and feisty one from the house works behind the counter and is soon joined by another (who does not work there) but who can’t resist getting behind this counter which they feel is ‘theirs’. The man wonders what the boss would say, but is quite sure she would laugh and love it, for the music in the pretty house and in this shop have met.
He feels so at home, he might be sitting in someone’s lounge room in this rare breed of shop, which doesn’t seem like a shop at all. Hand-knitted woollen rugs hang overhead on cross beams of solid timber and customers sit at tables made of slabs of wood. And everything so close that it’s impossible not to literally bump into other human beings—to hear their voices, to smile and to touch and be touched. A film director might concoct such a lovely place for a scene in a movie.
He now understands why his friends feel such an affinity with the lady and her shop. That inconsolable secret longing lives here and will not be made to feel ashamed. His young friends are not the only ones who sense that this town is more than just a pretty place with good coffee. It is as the song says …
Later that night, as the man curls up under warm blankets in his bed, he—the one who has come to help—feels proud of this little household of ‘lovers of their neighbours’ who are struggling with their own human frailty, and he knows that he himself has been deeply blessed by each one of them and their friends and wants to be a better man tomorrow.
Parents must be careful about the way they handle the instinct to shelter their children from criticism, from—in your face, no way of denying it—failure, and from being confronted by the successes of friends and siblings. Yes, it’s cruel and cheap to cultivate a brutal culture of vying for the parent’s approval or to force them into competitions for love, but a certain amount of natural, robust competition is healthy and honest. If nothing else its refusal to accommodate itself to their young egos helps them to have a sane estimate of themselves and their abilities and, like the ‘wounds of the faithful friend’ in the book of Proverbs, steps on the proud egg-shells of that pathetic egalitarian jealousy, which is incubated in the ‘loveless and self-imprisoned’ souls of so-called ‘democratically’ grown children who really do believe that ‘all men are equal’. In short it prepares them for many ‘meetings with the universe’ that are ahead of them.
Equally valued and loved by God? Yes. And when it comes to government and law the dictum is useful for hospitals, parliaments and courtrooms. But how can it be true in that other sense when genetics, environment and the accidents of culture all conspire to deal very different hands of cards to every single child on the planet? To assume such equality is in fact cruel and does not allow for the complications of extra time and assistance or the special consideration, for example, that a visually-impaired child might require.
To attempt to manage these challenges and complications of love by dumbing everything down and doling out indulgent, scripted love-speak to every child is just plain lazy and a frontal assault on trust, honesty and respect: a disgraceful kind of condescension, like the emperor’s new clothes. But in this case, the emperor (the child) never asked to be a part of the deal. Children are not fools, they will know when mum and dad are not being on-the-level with them.
One of the greatest compliments a parent can pay their child is to be graciously transparent with them about their weaknesses and thereby assist them to manage these vulnerabilities and perhaps even grow through them and overcome them, and failing that, to at least have a sane and honest estimate of themselves. This gracious transparency applies not only to the child’s expectations of themselves but also to their expectations of the universe we live in, a universe that has spawned hundreds of proverbial sayings to prepare us to meet it. Make sure you teach some of them to your child: * life’s not fair * fortune favours the bold * the boy who will never risk being laughed at will never be a man * We can’t make you do anything but we sure can make you wish you had (US Army quoted by Ambrose in Band of Brothers) * The business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one and learn to be wise.(George MacDonald speaking via Raven in Lilith)
In the end, if the child never receives any painful feedback from a parent, they have no alternative than to conclude that this is a dishonest relationship, and respect becomes a casualty. On the other hand, if you grasp the process nettle, you as a parent will gain their respect and probably deepen in your respect for yourself as you honestly face where some of this is coming from in your own soul: deep wounds for example.
That leaves you with the challenge of how this can be best communicated. Such things are usually processed via a long, slow, intermittent conversation that might last two weeks or ten years, and the beginning point is usually only found when you decide to forget about looking for the perfect moment to ‘have the big talk’ and instead are happy to just waste time sitting on your child’s bed talking about whatever. Yes, you are approaching volcanic territory and you will need all your wits about you and there may be quite a few of these times of sitting and hanging out for random ten minutes, but this is not a time for something that feels like a ‘serious appointment’ this is a time for allowing your own helplessness and love to meet in a place of curiosity and grace. Both of you are heading into uncharted territory, so—because explorer’s are interested in everything—try to get over your concerned, fear-injecting, laser-beamed intentionality and begin like an explorer meeting another explorer (your child) and go from there. And don’t forget to invite the Paraclete to join you both on the journey.
It was probably Jung who said that ‘the greatest liability a child can have is a fearful parent’ and it was George MacDonald who said, ‘The quickest way to make a child bad is to try to make them good.’