Anyone Who’s Played a Part

Hope on the Road of Despair

Guest Contributor / 2.19.20

This one comes to us from Ken Wilson.

On the road of despair, and only on the road of despair, does one find hope. At least that’s my experience.

My life, what is the point? I still ask myself that every day – or rather, I hear the question and variants thereof echoing in my head, nagging and enervating me when I’d rather they just shut up. I have better answers now, personal answers: A dear wife to love and cherish, friends I know would be sorry to see me gone, and many more joys – books, mp3s, upcoming performance tickets, and, what’s important, little opportunities to love and serve – than I deserve. “God has put me on this Earth to ____, and at the rate I’m going, I will never die.” Fill in the blank with “read x list of books” in my case; my ace in the hole, if I want one, is that the list keeps growing. There is plenty for me to do, and plenty I want to do.

But the question still harasses me, both on an intellectual level and as the cry of my heart – do I really believe in God, and should I? There is a classic Lou Reed song I first found comfort in in my late 20s and early 30s, at a time when I often wasn’t any too happy to be alive. It’s called “Sweet Jane.” It’s the final stanza that I love:

Now some people like to go out dancing
And other people like us, they gotta work
And there’s even some evil mothers
They’ll tell you that life is just made out of dirt,
That women never really faint,
That villains always blink their eyes,
That children are the only ones who blush,
That life is just to die.
But anyone who had a heart
He wouldn’t turn around and break it.
Anyone who’s played a part
He wouldn’t turn around and hate it.
Sweet Jane, sweet Jane . . .

Some hear “hate” as “fake,” but it comes to the same thing. What it comes to is, “Yes, life is worth living. Your life is worth living, and loving.” Note the litany of child-like, capital-R Romantic ideals that are challenged but reiterated here, beginning with the now politically incorrect notion that women might sometimes be vulnerable in a way especially touching to a man’s heart. I’m honestly not sure what to make of the “villains” line, but he’s referencing good and evil, that I can tell. And that priceless line, “little bitty children are the only ones who blush” (spit out in my as-it-turns-out-tainted memory with typical Reed-ian “If-you-don’t-like-it-you-can . . .” – let’s go with “lump it,” though Lou would put it in stronger terms) was a tonic and a “Yes!” for someone who still embarrasses easily.

Those evil mothers and those taunting voices – we can ignore them. It’s an affirming song, affirming of one’s place, however small, and of the day-by-day banality but not insignificance of one’s experience. There are “no little people,” as the title of an old Francis Schaeffer book has it. Futility is a hoax. Just go to work. (Or go dancing.)

Which brings me to novelist, memoirist, and retired New York City rector Frederick Buechner, whose Quote of the Day in my inbox recently made my heart race with a similar joy. I’d picked up a Buechner book at a low moment at a church retreat some months back, when I was supposed to be in a small group talking about God’s grace in my life, and when, thumbing through it, I ran across a half-remembered quote from Eliot’s Four Quartets, that was the moment of grace I really needed that weekend. I should have run right back to the group and read it aloud:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

This clueless waiting I could manage. Not more than that, but that was enough. Reading that, my faith wasn’t exactly renewed, but my spirit was strengthened. I had, for the moment, enough.

The passage speaks of the via negativa vouchsafed to many great Church Fathers and Mothers, and the weak draught of that same despair and confusion and blankness has been graciously granted even to me. No one’s genes, and no one’s circumstances, are the same. No one’s praise and acceptance—despite, despite, despite—is the same then, and each therefore is unique and irreplaceable to the God we seek. Just say, “I want to believe,” and you gladden His heart. I get to do that. Unbelievable, almost. But this recognition, this knowledge that we all have something unique and significant to give God, and that giving it is our ultimate end and greatest good (“the chief end of man” – Westminster Shorter Catechism), is what best gets me through the toughest moments, when the pain seems pointless – “It’s useless, Lord, my heart won’t get any softer” – and destructive instead of instructive. 

Anyhow, the retreat was hard, like they usually are for reasons I understand yet can’t overcome, but that quote was worth twenty of them. Now here’s the Buechner:

If we didn’t already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation, we might be tempted to guess one sort or another of spiritual hero—men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way. If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren’t the ones he picked out because he felt they didn’t need the shot in the arm his commendation would give them. Maybe they’re not the ones he picked out because he didn’t happen to know any. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting the ones he did pick out.

What intrigues me here is his use of the word “commendation” for Jesus’s “blessed.” This isn’t commendation in the sense of offering praise, as I understand it, but of pronouncing someone or something “suitable for approval or acceptance.” These qualities, these willed movements of the heart, we are told, receive an excellent rating from the most excellent source:

Not the spiritual giants, but the “poor in spirit,” as he called them, the ones who, spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive, like the Prodigal telling his father, “I am not worthy to be called thy son,” only to discover for the first time all he had in having a father.

Not the champions of faith who can rejoice even in the midst of suffering, but the ones who mourn over their own suffering because they know that for the most part they’ve brought it down on themselves, and over the suffering of others because that’s just the way it makes them feel to be in the same room with them.

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones who hope they will be someday and in the meantime are well aware that the distance they still have to go is even greater than the distance they’ve already come.

Not the winners of great victories over evil in the world, but the ones who, seeing it also in themselves every time they comb their hair in front of the bathroom mirror, are merciful when they find it in others and maybe that way win the greater victory.

Buechner goes on riffing on the Beatitudes, reminding us that anyone who’s played a part wouldn’t – needn’t – hate it, or find it lacking. More confirmation.

I had the great privilege of visiting the Holy Land recently, and ironically while I was there my faith was at another low ebb. (I had brought along a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s stoic Meditations, half for solace, half as wry, are-you-listening, God? protest. Apparently, He wasn’t impressed!) It was beyond wonderful to be in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, a place that had always lived in my imagination. It was a dream, a thrill, a time of moment-by-moment amazement, and the camaraderie was to be treasured, but I was also in a lotta pain a lotta the time – like when people were crying for joy taking Communion by the Sea of Galilee, which was beautiful, but I was just trying to make it through, feeling almost completely cut off, devoid of that sense of meaning and significance they were feeling, and self-centeredly asking, “Where’s mine?” What puzzlement – “Why now of all times, God? Or am I only talking to myself?”

Cue Van Morrison: “It ain’t why, why, why / It ain’t why, why, why / It just is.” While in Jerusalem I had a chance to pray three times at the historic Wailing Wall, where generations of seekers and pilgrims and, especially, devout Jews, have pushed written supplications, laments, praises and “thank-you’s” into its ancient crevices, and I did the same. That meant a great deal to me. My last time, there was a guy there just . . . wailing. As someone later told me, his might have been a ritual lament. But even so, he wasn’t faking it. And he sounded like I felt. Lamentation loves company, and that was a gift, another validation. 

It’s not necessary to understand, is what I’m trying to say, only to accept. From Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross to the little Irish guy with “the yarrargh in his voice,” as the late critic Ralph J. Gleason put it, there are marvelous exemplars that ease me into that time-honored attitude of resignation without leaving me in easy despair.

So, I’m not required to feel my faith, or to understand. I find, however, deep in both heart and mind, that I’m oriented to try, to try to believe – and the fact that I am so oriented, that I have that proclivity and that inclination, I take, as so many actually wise people have taken their own predisposition, to be a sign. Halfway through the trip, I began remembering the G. K. Chesterton line about how the atheist has no one to be grateful to. (“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”) Even at the worst of it, I knew to be grateful, and mostly I could be. God must be here, I said. And He was.

“There is only one thing I can do,” says the perennially searching but newly believing Binx Bolling at the end of Walker Percy’s comic but poignant 1961 novel The Moviegoer: “Listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along.” That I can, and love, to do. Yes, there is good, thoroughly good and sufficient, reason to live.

Image credits: Zevulun (edited), Christiansay