Friday is moaning
and Sunday is laughing,
but Saturday is silence.
I breathe the deep stillness of both
the cross and the empty tomb,
but the disciples and the women
knew only the pit of having had Him
and being left with nothing, and silence
weightier than existence,
that broke the earth
and rewrote it backwards and forwards.
Silence that fills lower and higher--
pouring out of a sepulcher
that calls forth my adoring wonder.
(Last two lines inspired by The Valley of Vision)
I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions, but this year, since January, I have been giving a lot of attention to the cynicism present in my heart and my mind. At first, I was startled by its very presence. I have always considered myself an optimist, attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. There should be no room for cynicism in my heart, especially as I continue to grow deeper in my faith.
But of course, this is not the case. As I have been observing, my heart is steeped in cynicism and fear. Over the past few months I have noted this with dismay, marking the crippling outworking of it in my life. I tell myself that whatever it is that I want, I won’t receive it or it won’t come to pass, because good things just don’t happen to me. I don’t walk in the rosy light that so many seem to walk in. I struggle.
Even a snapshot look at my life should reveal to me how ridiculous this is, but it doesn’t. Today my pastor preached on greed, and Matthew 25, speaking to us about money. Such a touchy subject, but one that Christians have to hear, and I felt my recent convictions about cynicism stirring in my heart, because I think my cynicism is often just a mask for selfishness. Especially when it comes to money, but really in everything, I truly own nothing. Everything has been given to me, and yet in my heart I deeply believe that I am entitled to what I think I need. On my birthday, a few weeks ago, I jokingly told my family that this was my name-it-and-claim-it year. As I get older, and figure out what I want, I want to know that what I want will happen. That I’ll be taken care of.
I don’t want to be rich. I’ve never wanted to be rich. I just want to be comfortable. I don’t want the best job. I just want a job with health insurance, where I feel that I’m using my talents and skills. I don’t need a month in the Mediterranean every year. I just want a few weeks to dip my toes into the ocean. And these are not bad desires. Comfort and security often lead people to a place where they can be loving and useful to others, and where their skills are truly used for good.
But my absurd cynicism rears its head and makes these desires more important than they should be. My cynicism is born out of selfishness, but it’s also born out of fear. It’s a way of buffering my heart against failures. If I care too deeply, or want something too badly, I will be hurt when it’s not given to me. But if I cynically tell myself not to get my hopes up, I won’t feel the sting when it doesn’t pan out. I live in my crippled shell of fear, with selfishness textured in, because I don’t understand that every moment of breath is a gift.
My pastor described God as a billionaire taking fistfuls of money out of his pockets and throwing it at people. We live in the midst of the incredible gifts thrown at us--and I don’t mean the money or the comfort or the security. I mean the way the train runs around a bend and comes to a stop in front of me, and the yellow daffodils nodding at me on the kitchen table, and the glancing eye-contact I shared with a woman I passed on the street yesterday, and the heavenly smell of coffee brewed on a rainy morning. We live among splendor, every moment of it rubbing up against pain, and the tension of holding the sorrow of the world in one hand has to be balanced by the joy of holding the beauty of it in the other.
I don’t want to imprison myself in a shell of cynicism. I don’t want to be afraid to trust, and to love, and to risk. I want to give generously, of my money, and my time, and my prayers, and my love, even if it’s not reciprocated, as hard as that is. God has given me common sense so that I don’t squander my gifts, but he’s also given me a world to explore and to love, and to help. He has given me so many good things, and there is no time for selfishness or fear or cynicism.
My acting teacher Mark Lewis used to say: “Everyone should have their heart broken, and break someone else’s heart. At least once.” We are obsessed with safety, especially the safety of our hearts. We pack ourselves in so tightly that we can only ever look forward to the next thing, because maybe it will be more satisfying than the hollow isolation of the present. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t make us any safer, and it’s certainly not Biblical. So this year I am resolved to continue to watch my heart, to pray that my cynicism is slowly carved out of it, and to open my eyes to the momentary blessing of each day.
Last night I had the privilege of performing at a benefit that raised money for The International Justice Mission and Restore International. It was a great night, with good art, and good discussion. Unfortunately, I also had the privilege of inviting an unwelcome guest back to my house.
As I was undressing in my bedroom, late at night, I pulled my dress off and casually glanced down at my stomach. And there, just above my bellybutton, was a bug. I am terrified of ticks. So of course, my first thought was TICKOHMYGOSHTICKOHMYGOSHTIIIIIICK. I dropped my dress on the ground, and brushed at it with my hand. But I knew it was not going to flick off, because I knew it was a tick. And it was.
Now, what I thought I would do in this situation is very different than what I actually did, and that is a very good thing. My first experience with ticks was when I was 12 years old, and we had been hiking in the woods of New Jersey. Someone in the family found one crawling up their leg, and then my mom found one in her thigh. This experience severely traumatized me, and I have been worried about getting a tick ever since. (Understandable that I would be obsessed with this worry, seeing as I have also been convinced several times through the years that I have a tapeworm living in my intestines.)
Despite my fears, however, I have never actually had a tick. Until last night. What I thought I would do was to scream, and then panic, and then run downstairs and wake my mother up and make her take care of it. I can’t deny that for a moment, I did consider waking my mother up. But I didn’t scream. And I didn’t panic. And I decided, as I stood in my bedroom, that as a capable 23 year old woman, I could fix this problem all by myself.
The calmness with which I then proceeded to act is, in retrospect, very impressive. I picked up my clothes from the floor and checked them for more ticks. I checked the rest of my body for ticks. I checked my hair several times (because that would be the worst. At least with the tick on my stomach, I could keep an eye on him.) Then I went to my computer and looked up “how to remove a tick.” WebMD was very helpful. I read that you are supposed to grasp the tick as close to the mouth as possible and pull gently until it detaches itself, making sure it doesn’t leave anything in your skin. And then you’re supposed to save it for further identification. And I did all these precautionary things calmly (and quickly), with the little guy calmly sucking away at my stomach.
Finally, I went downstairs to the bathroom. I got out the tweezers, and stood in front of the mirror. In crisis situations, I like to give myself a pep talk. “You can do this,” I told myself. “You can DO. THIS.”
I have since looked at pictures of ticks online to try to identify the type, and what I have found out is a) it was a fairly large tick (about 1 centimeter) and b) it was not bloated at all yet. Both these things combined made it much easier to get him out of me. But in the heat of the moment, all I really knew was that when I grasped its neck with my tweezers, it immediately began scrabbling its legs against me, and I could totally feel its suckers inside my skin.
And this is where I would like to congratulate myself. I let go of the bug and looked up, saying out loud, “Oh my gosh. I can’t do this. I can’t DO this.” But did I put the tweezers down and go wake someone up for help? Did I dissolve into tears or scream in panic? NO. I did not. I steeled myself, grasped it again with the tweezers, and pulled, despite the wiggling legs and the terrifying sensation of a sucking bug sucking me. The more I pulled, the more it became about defeating the horrible thing, and less about the grossness of the situation. And that is what enabled me to keep pulling until it detached itself from my skin.
Because I am a woman, and women are strong enough to remove ticks from their stomachs without help. And even though those were not the thoughts going through my brain (it was more like, “get it out get it out get it out come on come on come on GET. IT. OUT.”) I am proud to say that I rose to the challenge, when the crisis came. And I wholeheartedly believe that most women (and men) would do the same.
Turns out that little tick was almost as persistent as I was. After I got him out, I set him down on the counter and stabbed him through with the tweezers. But then I got a cotton ball and cleaned the area of my skin he was sucking, and as I was putting some polysporin on, I looked down…and there was no tick on the counter.
That was the moment to panic.
After frantically searching, guess where I found him? Yes. On my shorts. Trying to suck some more of my blood. Needless to say, this time I completely mangled him and washed him down the sink. Identification be damned. That thing needed to be gone forever.
And that is how I discovered that the roots of my courage go down much deeper than I knew (at least in the bug department). And I also discovered that ticks are persistent. And incredibly disgusting. So next time you go into or near the woods, check yourself for ticks. And if you find one, don’t be afraid. You too can defeat it, and live to tell the story.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard