Listen To Article
By Kate Kooyman
I woke up in a panic last night, smelling smoke. I read once about how house fires can start in your chimney if you live in an old house, even days after you have a fire in the fireplace. We had a cozy little glow in our fireplace last week, which my brain recalled in a flood of anxiety.
It started with me wondering if my blanket just smelled weird. Then I was sure my mind was playing tricks on me. Then I decided to get out of bed, and the smell got stronger and stronger as I went downstairs. I couldn’t see smoke, but I could smell it everywhere. I woke up my husband. I raced around the house, feeling walls and envisioning how quickly life can change.
He opened the front door, and said, “It’s coming from outside. It’s not our house.”
Then a different kind of panic started — one in which I was not the protagonist, but still a participant. Is the fire department there yet? Should I call 911? Is there a family that needs help somewhere in my neighborhood?
I did call 911, and the operator assured me that there was a house fire several blocks away from me; in the freezing, dry air, the smoke was drifting easily.
I hardly slept all night — the smell, the panic, the unknown loss, the realization of my helplessness. How tenuous life can be.
2017 was, by everyone’s every standard everywhere, the absolute worst. This whole year I think we’ve felt the panic that comes with knowing there’s an emergency, and having no idea what to do about it. It smells bad, it’s somewhere close by, it’s going to change lives. And we can’t seem to stop it.
I’ve become used to a sense of agency that seems to have disappeared. I have Congress on speed dial. I show up to rallies. I write, and petition, and pray, and nothing seems to work. 2017 has been a year of powerlessness and dread.
Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. . . . At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing which we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes, or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we had laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love. Since my human dignity, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this . . . teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it.”
My human dignity forbids me to close my eyes.
Which makes me mad, since I’ve been considering a 2018 resolution that dials me out a bit more. Some kind of media management habit that allows me to stay just so much in-the-know that I don’t let it ruin my day — the slaves in Libya, the famine in Yemen, the destruction of Honduras, the children without healthcare. I want to know, but I don’t want to feel it so much anymore.
My human dignity forbids me to close my eyes. If 2017 has left me with one thing, it’s heavy-eyelid, soul-dragging weariness. I’m tired — tired of outrage, tired of fear, tired of disgust and anxiety. I’m tired of explaining to my child what “no indictment,” “Islamophobia,” “deportation” means. I’m tired of how flimsy the partition has turned out to be, and of how constantly the “vast and horrible thing” seems to make headlines.
I’m not sure what to make of Teilhard’s suggestion that I should strive to adore all this suffering, or worse, that God is within it. I know it is not a notion that has roots in my own culture of faith. Those of us who, like me, have been formed more by platitudes than pain, more by safety than by Scripture — all this suffering causes an impulse to avert our eyes. We aren’t sure where to look.
Teach me to look, Lord. Teach me to see you at work — not just in the joy, but also in the suffering. Teach me to trust less in the flimsy partition, and more in the empty tomb. Teach me to love you in spite of my powerlessness, to see you in spite of my tears, to trust you in spite of what seems vast, and horrible, and all-too-real. Forbid me to close my eyes.