Today I attended a professional development workshop dedicated to creating Shakespeare curriculum, and as I sit in the airport waiting for my delayed flight, I’m full of all kinds of exciting ideas and plans. I know that when I get to work tomorrow and start planning my lessons for next week I’ll find my way back to the reality of how overwhelming it is to teach 300+ students, but for this moment, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future.
I’ve been noticing this excitement growing, over the past few weeks. After surviving my first semester as a full time teacher, I came back from Winter Break not exactly dreading my job (which was a huge improvement on how I felt about it before the break.) After February Break, I came back to my classes with some really fantastic ideas about future curriculum—not quite excited about teaching, but definitely not dreading it. And after the advent of my upper school acting club last week and the dawn of my school-wide devising project, I would say I’m actually bordering on looking forward to classes. (Which is a big deal.)
But what is an even bigger deal, I’ve realized over the past couple of weeks, is that for the first time in my entire life, I am thinking about my career. This might seem like a pretty odd thing for someone with a masters degree to say—why get the masters if you’ve never thought about a career, one might ask. Of course I’ve thought about a career in a theoretical way; in the misty, cerebral way that all millennials think about these things, wandering from decision to decision because we’re not quite sure what else to do with ourselves. But this year I am finally seeing my path laid out in a way I can realistically follow.
This has caused me to start simultaneously questioning, and also receiving assurance. I spent a large part of the last few years searching for roots. I remember saying, “I’m just tired of not putting down roots—I want to know where I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to be doing.” I think I always thought that roots meant a place—a city or a house that was mine, that I could invest in, that I could belong to. And of course a husband and potentially a family to go with it. But over the past months, and especially the past few weeks, something has changed in me, and I realize that I have begun to grow some roots. It’s just that the roots are not at all what I expected. Instead of being a place, these roots are a seed of creativity—opportunity and expertise in something I love, and a way to map out the journey.
Looking back, I can see that the Lord led me to pursue the things I love, because I certainly didn’t do it intentionally. All of the decisions that led me into theater education were practically unintentional, in my blind wandering. It wasn’t until I was actually in grad school that I suddenly realized: OH, I’m good at this. The first time I knew I had real, tangible intelligence was while talking with my advisor at NYU. I know how crazy that sounds, but life is a trajectory not just of opportunities, but also of self-esteem and self-confidence. And, like in many things, I was a late bloomer.
But back to this idea of roots. Maybe it’s crazy, but it just occurred to me—tonight—that perhaps, right now, my roots are not in my home, but in my career. Which probably sounds scary, like I’m about to be that insane loner career woman who isn’t open to relationships because they’ll slow me down (and I’ll probably get a phone call from one of my siblings telling me that I shouldn’t shut myself off from relationships just because I don’t happen to be dating anyone right now. Don’t worry, sibs, that’s not what I mean.) I think a “calling” simply means the place where one is, and the place where I am right now is a place where I have the opportunity, the energy, and the inspiration for some pretty exciting teaching and arts adventures.
Of course I’m still invested in the people around me, and in my church, and in my family. But as I am about to turn 27, I have begun leaving behind much of the unsureness that accompanied me up till this point, and instead trusting my training and my instincts. I am growing excited about the opportunities and the dreams springing up. For the first time in my life I know what I want for my career and I know how to get there--and that is very exciting.
Every now and then I run across someone waxing eloquent about who Jesus was, saying that Christianity today has warped his commands. The argument usually goes something like: If only Christians would stop creating divisions, and focus on the fact that Jesus himself preached love. Jesus was a great teacher who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and not to judge anyone.
Yesterday the sermon text at my church was John 6:25-59. Here is an excerpt:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (53-57)
From time to time I come across a passage that knocks me right out of my Christian lingo comfort zone and reminds me of the absolute absurdity of what I believe. I don’t mean absurdity in the sense that it isn’t true—I mean that if it’s not true, it is completely absurd. The words above are not the words of a great teacher: they are either the words of the Son of God, or an insane man. There is no in-between.
Others have said it before me, but Jesus left no room for in-between on purpose. As CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall as his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
A friend of mine recently posted a blog in which he spoke about how he was coming back to his roots as a Christian after a long time away, and starting to get interested again in the person of Jesus. I read his post eagerly, excited to read his musings. He spoke eloquently of Jesus’ work as a theater artist (all those parables make me thrill to be walking in the footsteps of the greatest artist of all). But as I continued reading, this friend began the old claim: that Jesus was a great teacher who told people to humbly be nice to each other. I wanted to throw my head back and groan, because that is death; to patronizingly agree to write Jesus off as a nice guy. It's just not possible. Not if you really know what he said.
I could spend some time talking about how Jesus actually spoke about Hell more than any other person in the Bible, or recount all the times he intentionally confused those listening to him and rebuked both his friends and strangers. But what actually struck me most, in thinking through both the sermon text and the phenomenon of this whole nice-guy-Jesus thing, is just how attractive Jesus was. Utterly, bewilderingly attractive. So much so that the people to whom he said all these things about eating his flesh actually got in boats and chased him across the sea to find him. So much so that not just his band of devoted followers (who were getting nothing out of it except sleeping in hostile towns and eating grain from passing fields), but also tens of thousands of people constantly followed him around like hungry dogs. So much so that the leaders of the land trembled at the power Jesus displayed.
The only way to reconcile the utter devotion and awe people felt toward Jesus with the insanity and knife-like sting of his words is his crucial blend of truth and love. It appears over and over and over, proving that Jesus may not have been nice, and he may not have been gentle, but he was sure as hell honest (pun intended), and his honesty both destroyed and healed people all in one fell swoop. He told the woman at the well about her sins, and while her cheeks were still flaming scarlet he told her that her sins could be forgiven if she drank of his life-giving water. He asked Peter three times if he loved him, and while Peter was standing there hating his own cowardly guts, Jesus gave him both forgiveness and work to do: to feed his sheep. Every single word in the gospels—and in the arch of the Biblical narrative as a whole—rips wide our desire to pretend we can categorize Jesus as a great (read: benign) teacher and simultaneously presents us with the alternative truth.
It’s good for me to be reminded of this often. I have known Christianity my whole life, and the absurdity of the Biblical claims gets lost on me. I think it’s good for us as Christians to stop trying to defend our faith, once in a while, and be honest about the fact that if Jesus is not God, we’re screwed. We want to defend ourselves by dressing up our religion in a wardrobe of banality, so that it might be socially acceptable. But it’s just not. The man who said, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me,” had better be God, because otherwise he was an insane person who was making some kind of weird cannibalistic claim that is actually pretty creepy.
Let yourself feel the full weight of that panic bordering on horror, today. If your Jesus is simply a nice teacher, he can’t carry the death that this world reeks of, and he certainly isn’t the God of the Bible. We believe incredible claims, friends. We serve a God who loved us enough to be honest and terrifyingly mysterious. Don’t ever forget it.
(Artwork: "Alpha and Omega," by Gerald Ivey)
During this time of year I am especially aware of what it means to be embodied. As I meditate on the mystery and horror of a God who became flesh—with all the humiliation and pain it involved—I am ultimately brought back to its glory. Eventually, despite the flesh’s embarrassing weakness and, worse than that, its debilitating plainness, this time of year brings me close to the reality of the veiled beauty and utter mystery of the union between body and soul.
My ninety year old grandmother, who is frail and bedridden, asks me to cut her fingernails almost every time I go over to visit. She has been asking me to do this for her for close to eight years now, and I have to admit that my willingness has gone through many stages. It’s not always easy or pleasant to cut her nails. For many years, I almost dreaded the task. But recently, I have developed a new willingness, and even eagerness to do this for her. Her mind is often very distant, and as her conversation skills have diminished, it’s become harder to connect with her on an intellectual or emotional level. But there is something that remains in the simple act of physical touch. Something that I can’t identify or exploit, but remains constant nonetheless.
As I crouched next to her today, breathing with her, that constant came unbidden. Holding her papery hands in mine I felt the brush of her trembles, and my own body felt young and strong beside hers. The aroma of the room and the slow clip of the nails framed us. I was closer to her in that moment—her brittle nail clippings falling into my skirt—than I’ve been for a long time. We said nothing, and we needed nothing said. The reality of the body is that quite often, it is capable of bearing that communication even better than the words I might form, especially with a grandmother whom I love but don’t know how to talk to anymore.
So much of my world is intangible—speaking with my parents and siblings over the phone or by text, watching friends’ photos slide by, entering the virtual world of a movie. I forget how my physical self hungers for nearness until I am reunited with those I love most, and then I want only to be in their presence. Just to look at them and watch their lips move fills the lost part of me that I often set aside. I know there is no real magic encircling our physical bodies, but it feels like magic sometimes to listen to my mother’s heartbeat or touch the shiny softness of my cousins’ hair. To sit beside my brothers or beg a friend for a back massage.
I think often about the distance I place between myself and those I long to be near. I treat the distance like it is inconsequential, and content myself with the fact that I have the capacity to stay in touch over long distances. But it’s not the same. It’s the difference between the way it feels to watch a good movie and to move in a room full of actors who are listening. One is the best kind of voyeurism; the other is life itself.
I have not lived very long, but I’ve lived long enough now to know that God will take me wherever he wants, and my work is to find those close by, as well as far off, who will make up this winding adventure. The balance on my hands is not just one of work and pleasure or joy and grief, it is also one of body and soul, intellect and instinct. The longer I live and the more I long for the physical presence of those I am no longer near, the more I take comfort in the promise not just of soul but of body as well.
Because how could we be if not for the frail and embarrassing reality of this union? Only the divine could come up with something so simple and paradoxical. Connected by something as inconsequential as nail clippings—what grace is found in that.
More than once, over the past five months, I’ve stepped into my shower at 5:45am and said to myself, “Calm down. Take a breath. Be thankful.”
It was sometime in November—supposedly the hardest month of a new teacher’s year—that I began praying for strength just for the next moment. Not for the next day, or the next week, or to get me through until Christmas break—no. I found myself needing to make it bite-sized, in order to be able to swallow it. Strength just for the next moment.
And now I am here, on Christmas break, having survived the first semester, and I realize that I have been learning not just to focus on the next moment during difficult tasks, but also to focus on the next moment of joy. That, I have found, is even harder than the former.
I started realizing the necessity of this early in the semester. Overwhelmed by my students and all the tasks I had to complete, I found myself spending weekends with the anxiety of the coming week looming over me. It was difficult to enjoy my time off because I was worrying about when I would be back in school, anxious that I wasn’t prepared, even though I’d done my work. By October I knew it had to stop. I had to find a way to compartmentalize, or I would let anxiety overtake me.
So I started asking myself a simple question. How are you right now? I asked myself on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee. The answer was obvious: Pretty good. Warm, relaxed, content. Over the next months I continued asking myself that question, forcing myself to take the days moment by moment, focusing on either what I needed to do right then and there, or being thankful that nothing was required of me.
And then the question crept into more stressful moments. How are you right now? I’d ask myself as I got into the car to drive to school. The answer still came back the same: Pretty good. What was required of me in that moment was simply to drive to school, nothing else. How are you now? I’d ask myself on my lunch break at school—one of my most anxious times. Pretty good. Taking a much needed breath. And then, even, How are you now? as I stood before a classroom full of students. Pretty good. Keeping the students’ attention or not, having to discipline or praise them, the answer always came back the same. There was strength enough for every moment.
As I have an extended chance to catch my breath, during these two weeks, I am taking a deep dive into thankfulness as I remember what last Christmas was like. I had just graduated from my masters program, and I had absolutely no job prospects. Leaving to go back to NYC after Christmas took a whole different kind of courage, and I will always keep those cold winter months with me—months of waiting, and scraping by, and being poor and thankful. My thankfulness was at an inverse to the money in my pocket; the more God provided when it didn’t seem possible, the more I felt paper-thin in his abounding grace.
That prayer was answered, but the distinctive thing about God is that he doesn’t stop teaching, ever. He took me out of the frying pan of unemployment and cast me into the fire of this high pressure job. He bent me double in learning to trust his provision, and in the same year he has slowed my heart to the steady pace of moment-by-moment. And through it all, he is fixing my eyes on the promise of just enough strength for the next task.
It’s a lesson worth learning. Even when this job is over, and I move into something that is (hopefully) a little less intense, this way of living is life-giving. I don’t need strength for next year, or next week, or even the next hour. I am not there yet. I need it only for the next moment. I pray that as I enter this new year I will continue to move slow—my emotions and prayers washing through me—as I continue to learn how to calm down, take a breath, and be thankful.
This December marks the fifth anniversary of Carved to Adorn. In celebration of our blog, we've compiled a list of our favorite and most liked blog posts!
To Post of Not to Post: The Great Facebook Lie
On Confession, Predestination, and Living Inside the Question Mark
God With Us
Fear of the Label: Being a Christian and An Artist
Let's Talk About Sex
Cynicism: The Way to a Girl's Heart
Dear Middle Schoolers
The Unnaturalness of Goodbye
Mother's to Daughters: "I am Beautiful"
The Dangerous, Threatening Search for True Beauty in the World of Australian Ballroom Dancing
When I Fell in Love
Thoughts on Cinderella: What is Strength?
The Grief of Singleness, the Grief of Marriage
Returning: Prayer in the Face of Suffering
Let's Talk About Sex: Part 2
Heaven and My Female Body
The Five Year Question
More Thoughts on Calling
Pandora's Curiosity, Eve's Willfulness, and Spiritual Misunderstanding
A great man died.
And yet, though my tears have been falling all day, part of me doesn’t quite know why I’ve mourned him so much. Brett Foster, one of my writing professors at Wheaton College, was a beloved teacher and a kind man. Still, I did not know him well.
I want to memorialize him with my words, but I don’t think he’d mind at all if I used this opportunity also to be self-reflective. In fact, I think he’d be amused. If he could, I think he’d sit down next to me at the kitchen table, look over my shoulder, and say, “Huh. Yes, why is that so?” He’d chuckle softly while my fingers tap lightly on the keys. And he’d probably take a sip out of one of his mugs (because, at least as long as I knew him, he never used a thermos.)
It’s fitting that the death of this man who taught me everything I know about poetry (which, by no accident of his own, is still not very much) should drive me to write. It’s fitting that the man who, along with the team of other soulful and soul-filled literature professors at Wheaton opened my heart and my mind not only to words but also to work, should bring me back to words.
And I say it again: I did not know him well. Other than the class I took with him, the office hours of encouragement, the every now and again hello on campus, and the almost five years since I left that place, I have nothing. My grief feels almost voyeuristic—as if it does not belong to me, and I have little right to the tears that keep coming. I don’t even remember his words. In memory, all I have of his classes and his person is an impression and a feeling. And the desire to create.
It’s there, in the center, that I find my grief. I didn’t need to know him well for him to have an impact on me. I am a teacher now (though I never would have believed it) and I am already starting to understand that it is not the words you say that they will remember, but the way in which you said them. It is not the point you are making, or the facts you spout, but the way they feel about the work. B Fost, as we lovingly called him, was the perfect example of this. Sometimes, in class, he would be mid-sentence when I suddenly realized I had no idea what he was saying. His words and his point were so convoluted that the thread was knotted somewhere long since tripped over, and the class was lucky to catch up to him and pull him back to the present. On papers and poems, his writing was so cramped and hard to read that half of it was lost to the netherworld.
But all I ever wanted to do in that class was try. His enthusiasm was infectious. Half the time I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway. And, tripping over his threads and my own, I found in his energy a lifeline to my own interests. I shot from that class into other classes, encountering both professors and authors I liked more. He smiled and nodded, and asked me how I was doing, and asked me to stay in touch.
More than anything—more even than the curiosity of his own BMX past that kept freshmen audiences interested—the man could write poetry. Poetry that both met you where you were, and nudged you gently forward. Just as he himself did.
All I can claim is the memory of empowerment, and the introduction to something new. My grief is nothing to the grief of those who truly lost a friend and family member. But in the wake of his passing, Dr. Foster has reminded me that there is no limitation on sorrow, and the roots of a life go deep, and they go far. This man, this poet, this great friend of a theater ensemble I love, gave me a gift of knowledge that I will always cherish, and if he gave it to me, who took only one class with him, I can only imagine how many more received far greater gifts from his life.
As he wrote in his own poem, Isaiah 43, he certainly went out singing.
I don’t understand why there is a shoe in the middle of the girls’ bathroom. Just one single shoe. Who’s wearing the other one? And I don’t understand why someone is chipping away at the window frames. It’s your bathroom. The teachers have their own, so if you make a mess on the floor or overflow a toilet, you are the ones who will have to get your feet wet while you pee. I guess I understand that your brain might not yet be capable of comprehending that.
I don’t understand how you can make faces and refuse to listen, but then come up to me at dismissal and tell me that you love my class. I don’t know why the twenty-eight of you can’t figure out that if you would just shut up and listen, we’d be able to get up and play games. I don’t know why I can trust you to work together for four minutes at a time, but not five—never five—or the entire room unravels and you lose your minds and jump on top of tables and hang from pipes.
I totally get that this is all about relationships; you have to like me to listen to me. I’m sorry I’m so bad at hitting the Quan.
I’m sorry I still don’t know all your names. I’ve decided that my brain can only hold 200 names, and I might just never learn the other 120. To be fair, some of you still can’t remember mine, and you only have eight teachers.
I don’t understand how I can have so much love for a bunch of kids who drive me crazy. I think it has something to do with the fear I see when I look into your eyes—underneath all the attitude, and the giggles, and the bravado, I see that first introduction to fear curled up behind your retinas. Sometime in the last year or two you figured out that there are things in the world that you can’t control, and your parents (if they’re around) can’t control, and even your teachers can’t control. It terrifies you, and for the first time ever, you’re trying to figure out how to avoid or cover over or disguise that fear. I have bad news for you, my scared little ones: that fear is going to be with you forever.
I know you can’t cope with the fear. I know you can’t cope with whatever is happening in your homes, or with your friends. So I will cope for you. We may not learn advanced acting techniques, or achieve all of my lofty educational goals. You won’t learn how to be an amazing artist in my class—you have high school and college to discover that. But you will know two things for sure: that you are safe in my class, and that you are loved. And that is the starting place, as storytellers and as artists. I will teach you to open your hearts and to be joyful, and if that means we watch “What Does the Fox Say” at the end of class, then so be it.
This is middle school, which means I’m catching you at a time when your hands can still be pried open, and no matter how much you pretend to hate your life, you’re still listening. I know you all secretly want that super star artist of the day award. I know that for some of you, school is the safest place in your entire world.
I can remember what it was like to be thirteen, and to have a great reason for every stupid thing I did. I remember the complicated relationship I had with my parents and teachers, and I remember what it felt like to be so young and yet feel so old. Hang in there for another ten years. It gets better.
Being a teacher is so much messier than I thought it would be. But so is anything worth doing. And if you have to be down here in the mess, I’m glad I’m here with you.
I’ve been putting off writing about my transition to teaching, mostly because I just didn’t know where to start. There have been so many changes—moving cities, starting work full time, being thrown headlong not just into teaching but into teaching high risk kids—that my head has been spinning and hasn’t really stopped since I began this adventure on July 30th.
I realized today that I needed to get something written, though. At some point it’s more important to just put fingers to keys than to have the perfect blog. And then I realized: that idea pretty much sums up my life right now. Throughout the last two months I’ve been learning, more than anything, that sometimes life hands you a season in which you just have to learn how to survive.
I mean that in the best possible sense. So much about moving to Boston and beginning my teaching job has been wonderful. I love the city of Boston, I love my new apartment and roommate (and dog!), and I love the pace of life in this city. I love the school I teach for, my fellow teachers and administration, my students, and I know I should be doing what I’m doing. And yet I also recognize that this is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Some of it is a natural exhaustion—teaching so many students every week, while creating my own curriculum, is overwhelming already. But what I wasn’t anticipating was the lack of buy in—many of my students are still unconvinced about why theater is important to them and whether or not they’re going to enjoy my class. They are pushing back, and often going into school in the morning feels like going into battle, me standing alone against 180 students. Overdramatic, of course. But an accurate summation of my feelings.
This will change. Every teacher says that the first year is the hardest, and that the first two months are the worst. Students are pushing back against all their teachers, testing boundaries, and mine are especially skeptical because this is a new program. I am confident that this will not be my teaching experience forever. Even yesterday, one of my fifth graders stopped me at dismissal and said, a big smile on his face, “Miss Snoke, I LOVE your class.”
And I’ve seen the lightbulb in some of my students’ eyes. Students who started the year combative or morose, trying their hardest to tell me with their actions that they didn’t want to be in my class will suddenly watch me with interest, raise their hand and open up about their experiences. Take a risk to stand in front of the class or play an improv game. I try to treasure these moments and recognize them, try to hold them against the weight of the feeling that I’m taking one step forward and twenty steps back.
It occurred to me just this morning that I am in the midst of a micro-metaphor for life. The unfortunate thing about the head and the heart is that no matter how clearly I know something in my head, I cannot force my heart to feel it. The unfortunate thing about going through something hard is that even if you know it will not be hard forever, you still have to do the hard thing. The effort of daily silencing the cacophony of doubts, fear, and plain old distaste is monumental, and it’s exhausting.
But that is what life is. Thank God that there are seasons of life that are less effort, but it remains true that life itself is difficult and hard and requires the reminder that it cannot and will not last forever. Just as I know these months—or perhaps this entire first year—will end, making way for something better and more beautiful, I know that this season of life is a reminder to me that what I see in this world is not the only reality present, and that I have to take it on faith that the efforts and the pain and the stickiness will eventually give way to something much better. The beauty and difficulty lies in finding the balance. I am grateful for the moments of joy, when students suddenly buy into my class, or tell me how much they like it, while always keeping in mind that the hard reality of teaching these students is not all there is. In the same way, I think we are called to fully invest and delight in the ups and downs of this life, while also remembering that this is not all we were created for.
I know in my spirit what it would be like if all of my students wanted to be in my class—if all of them were engaged, and working together, and building trust. We see pieces of what this world should be like, and it’s right to mourn the fact that we don’t see it as a reality. It’s okay to admit when something is hard, and it’s essential to recognize that we alone are not enough. But I rejoice through the difficulty because I look forward with confidence, even when all I can do is put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps that’s what I should be doing more often, because it reminds me that I am only one person. I am here not to singlehandedly change the world, but to play my part faithfully. In the good, in the bad, daily living through the grace of waiting until my head and my heart both know the joy of a reality I was created to desire.
It would perhaps make more sense to begin by talking about apologizing, and conclude by talking about forgiveness. But I'm pretty sure that until we understand true forgiveness, we are incapable of true apology.
As I said in my last post, one of the worst things about forgiving someone is knowing that even if that person apologizes, she has very little idea of what she's being forgiven for. Unless the exact same thing has happened to her in the past, how could she know? She is the perpetrator, I the wronged. I have felt the brunt of her wrong, not she. An apology is an easy thing in comparison to the wrong I've endured.
This reality is true in a broader, cultural sense, as well. We carry wrongs deep in our consciousness for generations and generations. Most of the time, no apology is even attempted, but even if it were, how could it help? White people will never understand what it felt like to be a slave, to have that identity embedded into one's idea of race and culture. Men will never understand what it is like to be a woman, to always be the "other," to have to try to assimilate in order to be treated as equals. And on and on, through every wrong done, large or small, enacted upon millions of people or by one friend to another.
Yet, as I said in my previous post, we must forgive. So we must also apologize. And just as we learn to truly forgive because of our growing understanding of our own need for forgiveness, we learn to apologize and to accept apologies by the same token. It is so much easier to create divisions—to assign blame and put up defenses. To remind each other that no matter how many times apology happens, it can never make up for the wrong. To pretend that we—whether on an individual or cultural level—are blameless. To grow strong through our self-righteousness.
But that is not true forgiveness. True forgiveness is accepting an apology for what it is, with all its holes and flaws, with its imperfections, and holding it up as an example of what it means to love. Love is so deeply embedded in forgiveness that they are sometimes confused with each other, but forgiveness is not blind love—it is the clearest sighted of all the variations of love. Forgiveness lifts up an apology to the sunlight and smiles a little at the inadequacy of it, and then takes it anyway. It recognizes that no one is blameless, least of all oneself.
And the beautiful thing about apology and forgiveness is that because we are human, we are, in fact, united through the process. The person apologizing to me may not fully understand what he has done to hurt me, but he certainly understands what it feels like to be hurt. I am reminded of a beautiful quote from Diane Setterfield's novel, The Thirteenth Tale:
He didn't know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said, and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. “I know,” he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.
It's too trite to say that we must forgive because next time, we may be the one asking for forgiveness. But the root of that is very true. We don't forgive as a safeguard against any future wrongs we may commit—we forgive because we are connected to each other. We are human, and we are wrongdoers, and we are wronged, and we are all forgiven, by God and by each other. And though the way in which we must ask for forgiveness is never quite right, it is all we can do. Thankfully, it is enough.
I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It began when I saw an old silent movie a few weeks ago, the plot of which revolved around someone who committed a pretty massive crime that needed to be forgiven. After seeing the movie, I was aware of just how angry I was. How quick I was to reject the forgiveness extended to that character. And I began to ask myself: what does it mean to forgive?
We are not a forgiving culture. In fact, I can't think of any cultures that have been. Grace simply does not come naturally. And one of the problems is that when it comes to forgiveness, there is a whole mess of feelings and ideas vying for dominance.
One of the most difficult things about forgiveness is that the question of blame becomes so important. If I have a wrong done to me, I should be given an apology, and I should then forgive. But because we are human, this spirals into fractals of complication, and there is seldom an occasion when pride does not come into the picture. The times in my life when I have been most reluctant to forgive have been the times when someone offended me so deeply that he or she didn't fully understand the crime.
Yet what troubles me most, in situations where I must forgive, is the hardness of my anger—the “them verses me” mentality that I let myself descend into. It's as if I have never done anything wrong in my life, as if I am of a completely different sort of human than the person who wronged me. I want to divide humanity up into Mother Teresas and Hitlers, assigning everyone a slot either on the side of good or evil. It would be easier that way. I could feel secure and safe in the knowledge that I am on the good side. I don’t want to admit that I have the capacity to commit wrongs, large or small. I don’t want to admit that I have within me the same stuff that is the stuff of great evil.
But there is a voice in the back of my head reminding me that we are none of us white knights, riding against the dragons of this world. There are things I understand about myself partly because of the creeds and words in the Bible that I have devoted my soul to, but also partly because I'm just plain honest with myself. So many of my decisions and beliefs center around an awareness of the evil in my own heart, and I believe that when we are truthful with ourselves, we all know that there are no good guys and bad guys. We are on a trajectory, not opposing sides, and until we come to that realization, I’m not sure forgiveness is possible at all. We must acknowledge the wrong that was done, admit that it was not okay, and extend grace anyway.
Of course, there are those who will try to take advantage because of grace. As my brother Joshua pointed out in a recent conversation, this is an abuse of trust. “The division is not in the ability to do wrong, but in the ability to truthfully ask forgiveness,” he said. “Ignorance is understandable, but willful abuse of trust is different.” We must be wise about those who continue to do harm through supposed apologies, but we must also stop turning a blind eye upon ourselves.
It’s so much easier said than done. As much as people pay lip service to forgiveness, and remind each other that it’s impossible to move on until forgiveness has occurred, it’s just so hard to forgive. It’s the hardest thing in the entire world, sometimes. And forgiveness always feels inadequate, because the person who needs to be forgiven never really knows exactly how much they’re being forgiven for. They haven’t had it done to them, so how could they? They will never know what it cost to forgive them.
And still I go back to it: I forgive because I have been forgiven. Greatly forgiven. There was nothing at all easy about that forgiveness. It shook the sky and the Godhead. When Jesus was walking around on earth he didn’t paste on any band-aids. He turned over tables and told people to shake the dust off their feet. But he also told them, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) There it is: the reminder that as much as we want to set ourselves up as the innocent party—as much as we sometimes are the innocent party—we have the capacity within us to forgive because we know the depths of our own depravity.
There’s no forgiveness without those depths, and forgiving does not necessarily mean trusting someone again or pasting over the wrongs done in the world. Those evils need to be exposed and dealt with. But forgiveness does mean having a clear picture of the state of our own selves, and understanding that the muddle of human existence is filled to the brim with people who need forgiveness.
As hard as it is to admit, we all need it desperately—and must therefore extend it.
Tomorrow: thoughts on apologizing.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton