I’ve remarked here before that I am, by nature, a bit of a pessimist. I’m not particularly proud of this, but my default position seems to be to see the glass half-empty. I tend to expect the worst in life, for myself and for those I love, as a kind of protective mechanism—this, despite the fact that this strategy has proved to protect me from precisely nothing and, in fact, almost certainly closes off certain possibilities for joy and peace. Just this morning, in a conversation with someone about a person of mutual interest, I responded to an expression of hope and optimism in with something like, “yeah, well I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Half-empty… Always, half-empty. Sigh.
Later this morning, mere minutes from the above conversation where I yet again dumped cold water on someone’s optimism, I came across a wonderful article by Kelly Foster over at Good Letters: The Image Blog called “Reckoning the Marvellous” that beautifully expresses much of my own experience and aspirations as a “pessimist-who-really-wants-to-more-optimistic-or-at-least-realistic-enough-to-unreservedly-embrace-some-goodness-now-and-then.” It’s a meditation on “straightening up,” shifting perspective, and changing the posture one takes in a world containing both darkness and light.
You should read the whole article, but here are a few passages that really stood out to—and rebuked!—me this morning. First, Foster quotes a magnificent passage from a 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech by Seamus Heaney called “Crediting Poetry“:
It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir…. As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note…. Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat…. Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place, but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as the murderous.
What a wonderful way to put it—making space in our reckoning and in our imaginations for the marvellous! Not merely reacting, not simply responding to the people and events and words and actions that come at us each day, but making space for the extraordinary and the extraordinarily good.
And then this, in the context of a story about desperately praying for a happy ending in the case of an adoption:
I could even see myself clinging desperately to my own vigilant anxieties as if they could buoy me or conversely, as if remaining anxious and vigilant would somehow communicate to God, as if he was unaware, my utter seriousness and desperation for the need for a happy ending in this case.
I could almost see myself physically holding the tension, grasping after it, squeezing it in my hands, clutching it to my chest. I could almost envisage my anxiety as a pulsating cloud, a more powerful force for good or for a solid outcome than God.
My boyfriend, who is about as gracious and empathetic a human as you will ever meet, made a simple but profound point when I confessed my panicked visions to him.
“Maybe we have to make space in prayer for the belief that good things happen too,” he said, kindly, kissing my forehead and putting his arm around my shoulder.
Maybe we do. Maybe we have to surrender to that which is infinitely higher, better, and wiser than us.
Maybe we will do it kicking and screaming.
But I wonder what it would be like to surrender to love like that, to trust it fully and finally, to find the energy in swimming with that stronger current rather than always against it, to be always looking back, second-guessing, doubtful and unsure—to dive into rivers of mercy confident of being carried, thriving as they split the land ahead, overflowing their banks, making fertile space for all the marvellous yet to be reckoned.
I wonder too. What a beautiful constellation of images—overflowing rivers of mercy, fertile spaces, swimming along, being carried with confidence, anticipating “the marvellous yet to be reckoned.” Surrender, trust, straightening up, making space—maybe even kicking and screaming.
Who knows, perhaps the marvellous in some sense requires our reckoning. Maybe it waits for us to make the first move.
Image courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg. On a bone-chilling prairie winter morning that has many grumbling and complaining, I am choosing to “make space” for the marvellous :).
Thanks, Ryan. Good images. Good reminder.
Yes, your and Kelly’s intuitions here speak so clearly to what must be true, if Christ is to be believed. If Christianity is to be believable. Who would want to argue otherwise? And yet what change of heart and thought is required to protect us from the influence suffering and loss have on our dispositions?
Lately, I”ve been trying to “wrap my heart and head” around this saying of, St Therese of Lisieux.
“Everything is grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love. Everything is grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events, to the heart that loves, all is well.”
What a great quote to wrap our hearts and heads around. “To the heart that loves, all is well.” Thanks, Paul.
I read an article recently on how people of faith can engage the public sphere with integrity. The author noted how at times the chief hindrance to political solutions to public problems is the very work of political activists that bring the problems to light. Activists are reluctant to compromise with their adversaries because they view things in such absolute terms, and it is in their interest to paint the picture as dire as possible since that increases attention and donations. It reminded me of an observation I’ve heard in the past, one critical of Christian theology itself. In Christianity we define a problem, sin, and lo and behold we just happen to have the solution to the problem. All of which is to say it is good to reflect on the investment we have in the negative and the ways we and our movement may benefit from things being as negative as possible, or perceived as such. I like the notion of making space for the marvelous. For me, a tree is marvelous. The sound of my own breathing is marvelous too, as is the breathing of the one I love.
Very interesting… “to reflect on the investment we have in the negative and the ways we and our movement may benefit from things being as negative as possible, or perceived as such.”
I think this is often true in Christian theology. Many preachers and writers do their utmost to get people to believe they are sufficiently wretched so that they will repent and believe. I have heard people justify this tactic by saying that the good news seems even better when you appreciate how bad the bad news is. I have never thought much of this approach.
Re: the subject of the post, the ironic thing is that it is manifestly not in my interest, or the interests of those around me, to be pessimistic. It doesn’t protect me from anything (bad things are still painful, even if I tell myself they’re coming) and it doesn’t seem to make me embrace the good things any more joyfully. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Far better to seek out and make space for the marvelous—trees, breath, even frigid, snowy scenes like the one I see out my window right now…
A friend sent this to me yesterday. It’s from Henri Nouwen (not sure which book). I like the idea of waiting expectantly as a “radical stance in a world preoccupied with control.” I think Nouwen’s “trusting that good things will happen” is another way of making space for the marvelous.
What a powerful statement: “Living with the conviction that God moulds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear.”
Yes, this must be our conviction; thus the fundamental truth of discipleship is revealed. We submit to God so that we might exchange our fear for His love.
A secondary issue, to be sure.
In Mr. Heaney’s speech, “crediting poetry” he says….”Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat…I will accept Mr. Heaney’s assement of his own contributions as accurate but think it most innappropriate that he slag a venerable and holy prayer posture that is intrinsicly Catholic, in the process. For me, many Catholics I know, and I feel comfortable in assuming, at least the occassional monk, some of our most sincerely and deeply ‘felt” experiences of our Lord are manifest, “prie-dieu”.
I like to think that as the chief Rabbi experienced God, as Holiest of Holies, mediated through temple veil, the kneeler and a “Blessed Sacrament” prayer chapel offer the same intimicy and experience to the believer and represent the new posture of the “veil now torn”.
Respectfully, I offer that to speak of the this kind of worship as lacking in “redemptive effect”, “constrained by obedience” and “meagre in it’s heat”, to be quite frank, scandalously offensive.
Rather than view this kind of prayer as a consequence of Pavlovian conditioning, I know it to be a medium by which God is encountered. God is experienced.
To those who will now audibly sigh and say something like, “here we go again”, know that your concern is not entirely unwarranted and I do honestly sympathize.
Let it be said though, in my defence, that I think I have at least first made a sincere attempt to engage with this thread on its own terms and in so doing have helped established a better framework for a real exchange of ideas;real conversation.
If not a cause for outright celebration, certainly a reason for cautious optimism. 🙂
I know very little about Seamus Heaney, but I think he’s mainly focused upon his own posture toward the world in this passage. It seems to me that he’s reflecting upon his perceived need to “bear the weight of the world,” not “slagging” a “holy and venerable prayer posture.” Like all outer forms of worship and prayer, everything depends on one’s reasons for adopting them and the inner disposition one brings to them.
” Like all outer forms of worship and prayer, everything depends on one’s reasons for adopting them and the inner disposition one brings to them.”…
True. No arguement here. Yet from a solely Catholic perspective there is a real and intentional symmetry between the exterior, ritual and it’s postures and a truthful expression of our interior disposition. One mirrors and informs the other.
Mr. Heaney, who I’m sure I know even less about than you do, seems to be acutely aware of this relationship, yet unfortunately, to me at least, describes it in most disparaging terms.