One of the things my daughter was looking forward to when we moved from the west coast back to the prairies was the opportunity to join 4H and have her own sheep. For those who don’t know, 4H is a kind of farm club where kids learn how to raise calves, sheep, etc. And so, this past weekend I found myself at my daughter’s 4H sale. Saturday was the big day when her sheep was paraded before the judges and then auctioned off.
Because there are lots of kids with lots of animals there is a lot of waiting. During one long stretch of time between events, I struck up a conversation with one of the boys ahead of my daughter in the line up. Most of the kids had named their sheep, so I asked the boy what his sheep’s name was. “Supper,” he said. I tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress uproarious laughter. You had to admire this kid’s realism. He knew what was coming. Later, while sitting in the stands, I relayed this story to my wife. A woman turned around and said, “Yeah, that’s my son. The first few years he raised sheep he found this day very hard. There were lots of tears when he had to say goodbye to his sheep. But with each passing year he’s gotten more and more used to the reality of things—and this year, he just decided to name it for what it would be. Supper.”
What was initially little more than an amusing weekend sidebar has let to a bit more reflection since Saturday—especially as my daughter has struggled a bit with the reality that her sheep is gone and isn’t coming back. Of course, on one level, it is utterly unremarkable that a kid would move from being devastated by the discovery that the sheep he just spent months feeding, cleaning, trimming, and loving is destined for someone’s dinner plate to accepting it and calling it for what it is. But is also kind of, well, sad. It speaks to a kind of loss of naiveté, or innocence… or something. “Reality bites,” the saying goes, and there’s some truth to this. Perhaps we grownups take so much of the painfulness of reality for granted that we forget that it was not always so—that there was a time where it hurt to learn that things we loved were gone and would never return. That the world was the kind of place where things we cared about were regularly taken from us. That this was normal.
Last night my wife and I watched a Canadian film called Away From Her (adapted from Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain) which poignantly and agonizingly tells the story of a couple’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a brilliant film that, on an altogether different level, also addresses what it looks like to come to terms with reality. The film is a heartrending portrayal of what it means to live in a world where the things we love are slowly, painfully, inexorably taken away. Where we have to stand and watch love walk away.
In one scene, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) is given a tour of the facility his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) will be soon be calling “home.” We watch as he absently listens to an efficient and cheery administrator talk about the comfortable accommodations, the games and puzzle rooms, the dining room, the library, the hallways with “lots of natural light.” He follows her around through hallways of disheveled faces and vacant stares with a dazed and defeated look on his face. For the administrator, it is “normal” that these fading human lights are penned together in an institution where the rooms have numbers and where “attendants” look after them. For Grant, it is a horror that can barely be contemplated. The thought that his wife should come to live in this place is more than he can bear. He knows that these kinds of places have only arrivals, no departures. This is a “normal” that he cannot accept.
But, eventually, he does. Eventually, we all, in our own way, come to terms with “normal.” Reality as it is shows few signs of being willing to accommodate to human desires, after all, and so it is we who must do the accommodating. We do our best to push the dark thoughts out of our minds for as long as we can, but we know that death is always waiting. Sheep die, people die, everything dies. Nothing that matters to us lasts. We know how the world works, no matter how inventive we can be in trying to flee from the truth. Some fight reality longer than others, some flee farther and faster and longer, but no one finally escapes.
Many argue that religious faith is a flight from reality. God and eternity are mere inventions to console us in the face of a harsh reality where everything dies and is remembered no more, where most of what we care about will go unrealized, where nobody, ultimately cares what “normal” we might prefer. It is an understandable perspective, but, for me, an inadequate one. It doesn’t explain enough of the story. To say that our deepest longings as human beings—longings for permanence, relationship, security, peace, love beauty… for wholeness—have no connection with what is finally true about the world seems too simple a solution to me. A “solution” to the problem of the pain and heartache we experience with “the way the world is” that renders the deepest parts of our humanity as curious byproducts of overdeveloped brains with no connection to we what we can finally, truly hope for is no solution for me. I suspect this is true for many of us on an existential level, regardless of what we might accept intellectually. We live as if the things that matter to us, as if the hope and beauty and goodness that guide and lead us, are the final reality with which we have to deal.
So, we keep on keeping on. We wash and trim and love our sheep even though we know they are destined to be someone’s “supper.” We play games and read books and hold hands with loved ones in the context of institutionalized decay. We do these things and many others as symbols of our twin convictions that suffering is not meaningless and it is not final. We come to terms with reality, in various ways in to varying degrees, because we believe that our suffering, in some mysterious way, represents a sharing with the One who suffered that the world might be forgiven and healed (2 Cor. 4:12-17). We also refuse to accept reality as it is because our suffering is guided by the conviction that the “normal” that we must now come to terms with will not be normal forever—that one day a new normal will be ushered in by the One who makes all things new.