Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tasting Bitterness

The only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-up... But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
To young eyes, the glory of adulthood lies in freedom. I remember my longing, as a child, to grow up and be free to do as I pleased. Now that I am indisputably a grown-up, I do take satisfaction in my freedom, and I would resent its loss - but freedom is not all. There are deeper glories than children know. The taste for sweet comes naturally even to babies and taste for bitter things is rarely developed in children, but I have come to find that the bitter can, after all, be a better kind of satisfying than the sweet.

All the things my father told me again and again when it seemed I wasn't listening, I hear them in my head. His and my mother's are the voices that converse in my mind, where I am ever a teenager, caught between a comfortable past to which I cannot return and the beckoning promise of freedom in adulthood, always just out of reach. "With freedom comes responsibility," my parents said, and so say their echoing voices, over and over again. It is more than a maxim: there is Truth inside.
I thought of it then as costs and benefits: freedom the benefit, to be gotten for as low a price as possible. I didn't know that responsibility itself could be something savoured.

I recently read Matthew Aughtry's discussion of this paradox in his analysis of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia:
"She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can." (C. S. Lewis, Narnia)
Lewis’ indictment of Susan feels apt for our own culture, which seems to idolize the idea of being young and independent forever without the responsibility that comes with independence or the sense of wonder that comes with being young...
Susan is not the only one of the Pevensies to make this critical error; Edmund also put more stock in being grown-up than in acting like an adult... Edmund betrays his family to the White Witch because he is enticed by her offer of rooms full of endless Turkish Delight... The Witch says that he can be the King when she dies and until then he will be a prince who “would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long.” Since the White Witch is immortal (or at least lives much longer than human beings), one can deduce that Edmund would actually be a perpetual prince, stuffing his face with dessert and never donning the true crown. Edmund’s temptation and Susan’s failure are similar: to be considered adults without accepting responsibility and to reign forever as a prince or princess without ever feeling the crown’s weight.

Glory is something that has weight. It is not flung about the shoulders as the superhero capes children imagine themselves wearing. We need muscle and sinew and deep moral strength to bear real glory, and those mean pain and patience and going forward when we'd rather not. We, like Edmund, are always tempted to sell ourselves out for candies. Eagerly we (I!) would trade in bitterness for sweet - not knowing that the price we pay for things is, oddly, its own reward; that the joy of adulthood lies not just in the freedom that beckons us as children, but also in bearing the weight of responsibility, in sacrifice, in the hurt that tears us apart and yet builds in us something of a value we can't yet know.

The biblical Joseph dreamed of reigning over his older brothers, who hated and ignored him. To his childish mind, the sweetness of the dream lay in his vindication before those who failed to value him. When he became king as an adult, the pleasure of being vindicated paled beside the satisfaction he took in the work, the weight of responsibility, and the opportunity to give good even to those who had hurt him. Joseph learned as a slave and a prisoner what he never could have learned as a prince: how to love past hurt, how to look past the present, how in suffering it is possible to see the face of God.

We all know, somehow, that we were made to be kings, but we grasp so little of what that means that we go willingly when drawn by the whispered lie that our destiny lies behind the protection of castle walls, that our satisfaction lies in desserts and playthings, and so we hide from danger and dirt and hard decisions and use our adult freedom to indulge childish longings for sweets. We become "perpetual princes", never the wise, battle-strong kings we were meant to be. Like Esau, we sell our birthrights and rage over the loss of muttered blessings.

I am not so grown up that I understand it all, nor are my tastes so refined that I am able to know and relish real Good. But I have come to taste that there is more, and to know that bitterness has its own flavour and its own joy. Even knowing this, I still don't want pain. I am easily tired in my heart, and I am strangely more quick to run from hurt than ever before. But I see in truth what I could only philosophize before: that all breaking is not empty; sometimes it's a shell that cracks, and there is a nut inside. I have yet to find the purpose in my own breaking. I am all cracks and wincing and tearing apart. But I am less a child now, and I have hope that there is a goodness in this bitterness that has come to me that is somehow more than the sweetness I desire.

Someday I will see Jesus, and I will know him by his scars. He is no far-off God, benevolently dropping down blessings in response to pious prayers. He knows my hurt as no god ever has ever claimed to know it. But we are bound together not only by his suffering. So I know his heart, too, loving past the hurt. Each of us, in our own wounding, knows the other. I will go to that One who sacrificed for me, but I will not go only as a child wondering at his gift to me. No, I will also go in the glory of adulthood, weak though I am, bearing my own sacrifice, and there will be no need to explain its paucity or inadequacy. He knows the cost of these things.
...that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death... (Philippians 3:10)

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:3)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:43-45)

1 comment:

joeyanne said...

Oh so beautifully expressed. I needed that - and it spoke to my heart in words I have known but bringing to them new meaning. One of my "new year's resolutions" this year is to embrace what it is I cannot change - pain or pleasure. You have given the key. Here is a path to true freedom.