Doing, Being, Asking

Broken Bodies and Unanswerable Questions

This one was written by Kurt Armstrong:

Six years ago a friend of mine hired me to replace the front steps of his house, and two days into the job, when I got out of bed in the morning my left knee was so stiff I could hardly bend it. I hadn’t crashed or fallen or hit it with a piece of lumber so I popped a few Advil and finished the job. But my knee was sore for weeks after the job was done, so I checked with my doctor who sent me to get an MRI scan.

I had no history of trouble with my knees – no sports injuries or bad falls, and I’m not a runner. So I’d never had this kind of test. An MRI machine is a car-sized banging, growling, rattling diagnostic tool that can produce images of soft tissues. Before the test began, the technician gave me a pair of yellow hearing-protection earmuffs. I climbed up onto a flat, white table, and the technician put a brace around my knee to isolate it.  She said, “This shouldn’t take more than 40 minutes or so. Try to lay as still as possible. It helps us get the clearest images.” I tried not to move.

I’m not used to doing nothing. I would very much like to have taken a nap – I’m very good at naps. But the machine was way too loud for me to rest. I almost always carry a book or two along with me wherever I go so I can read a few pages if I arrive at a meeting early, or if someone stands me up. But I didn’t bring my book. All I could do was lie there, and wait. Don’t do anything; just be still.

My mind wandered. I thought about my work schedule, about the long list of people I had some sort of pastoral role with, people I should visit. I thought about meetings I needed to schedule, events to start planning. I thought about my kids, about their schools, their friendships. I thought about a writing project I was starting to work on. Actually I’m making this part up. I don’t remember what I was actually thinking because I couldn’t jot any notes or write lists. I just had to lie there and do nothing. Just be. Meanwhile, this giant, diagnostic robot barked and banged, mysteriously taking pictures of the cartilage, muscles, tendons, and ligaments in my knee.

And suddenly I found myself crying. I think “found myself crying” is an apt description. I wasn’t thinking about especially sad things while all this was going on, and I wasn’t that anxious about the test itself or worrying about the condition of my knee. I wasn’t suddenly contemplating the fact of my mortality, no more than I usually do. Just a routine test on an average day in the Manitoba Health Care System, and there’s me, on my back, trying to keep my body still, crying. “Some people fall asleep while they’re doing this,” the tech had told me, but she didn’t mention anything about some people crying.

Turns out I have a small tear in the meniscus in my knee. It flares up a bit every couple years. I have a letter telling me I can schedule a fairly straightforward reparative surgery sometime if I decide to get the procedure done. I still don’t know how the injury happened. Bodies wear out. Hair goes grey, or thins, or falls out. Knees get stiff, hands get arthritis, tumors form in our bodies in places we never really gave much mind to. Memory gets a bit foggy. The metabolism shifts down a gear or two. And a middle aged man cries during a simple MRI. We are, all of us, getting older. Even the youngest among us is aging. This is what happens. This is where we live. This is our world.

Not long ago a young dad I haven’t spoken to in about eight years called me to ask why terrible things happen to people. Why do kids die, he asked? What kind of world is this? That same week I listened to a podcast where a self-described “futurist” spoke about the necessity of colonizing planets beyond our solar system: never mind a colony of Mars, we need to get out of the solar system he said, because in something like five billion years the sun is going to explode into a red dwarf and will burn Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, and then some to a crisp. Five billion years, and all this will be gone, vaporized in a great exploding, radiating mass of subatomic particles.

So what’s the big deal with a bit of torn cartilage in my knee? While we’re at it, what’s it matter that we live in a world where children sometimes get sick and die? I love to contemplate the size and scale of the universe, to play futile games where I try to get my head around some of the numbers – billions of galaxies, each one holding billions of stars. I can write those numbers down on a piece of paper – that’s a one with eighteen zeros after it, give or take a few hundred billion stars – but I don’t pretend to understand them. I have a big, heavy book of photos of space – our solar system and beyond – pictures from various NASA space probes, and from the Hubble Space Telescope. My favorites are the colorful images of unimaginably enormous, unimaginably distant galaxies and clusters of galaxies, a tiny caption underneath, one of which  reads: “This Giant Elliptical Galaxy is about 450 million light years away from earth. It is 100,000 light years across, contains about 100 billion stars, and is roughly the size of our Milky Way galaxy.” I trace my finger across the page as I count to ten, and each second my finger covers the distance a beam of light travels will cross in 10,000 years. Who do we think we are, taking pictures of these kinds of things, never mind me tracing it with my finger? We shouldn’t be writing captions for these kinds of photos; we should be uttering desperate, trembling prayers. We shouldn’t look at these photographs; we should prostrate ourselves before them.

What’s going on here? The Psalmist asks: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” What does a tearful moment of stillness count for in this big ole’ universe? My knee doesn’t hurt any less because someone reminded me that in five billion years, all of this will be nothing. Would it be a wise pastoral move to tell the young man with burning existential questions, “Well, your life span is rather brief, as is that of the earth; besides, earth itself is just one of billions of earth-like planets, so what does it matter, really?” Before I can tell him not to get too hung up on the problem, he will definitely hang up on me. The everyday, humdrum details of even the most basic, boring, ordinary life don’t suddenly evaporate into nothing simply because life is short and time is fleeting. The five-billion year perspective might make this life look meaningless, but having carved out a few minutes of silence and stillness, it certainly feels for all the world like all this means something. It sure seems important, especially when it hurts.

Before the pandemic, I used to help organize a lecture series at my church, which meant that once a year I get to spend a couple days with some of my favorite cultural figures. Five years ago it was Marilynne Robinson, hands-down one of my favorite writers. She arrived on an unseasonably mild weekend mid-October, and on the Monday afternoon before her lecture I took her to a little ice cream shop in Winnipeg for homemade pumpkin ice cream. We sat outside on concrete benches, under the warm sun, surrounded by the beautiful colors of autumn, and we ate our ice cream cones and talked about books, language, some of our favorite writers, the strangeness of language and of life.

The lights changed at a nearby intersection, and a line of students hopped off a city bus and crossed the street. She nodded in their direction and said, “Look at all of those people, all of them with their sense of purpose and meaning, and their backpacks. So much to carry.”

I said to her, “If I look at the world with that much wonder and mystery and meaning, I might never make it out the front door of the house.”

“I have a suggestion for you,” she said. “Don’t leave the house.”

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them?” I grew up thick and heavy in Christian apologetics, a lot of arguments and answers about the existence and nature of God, and for a long time I enjoyed it all thoroughly. But for a long time now I’ve been much more interested in questions. The very first words God says to Adam after the great, cataclysmic fall of Genesis 3: “Adam, where are you?” It’s not as if God set him down somewhere and can’t seem to remember where he put him, like when I set down my tape measure and then spend 20 minutes looking for it. “Adam, where are you?” is a most unusual inquiry from an Ancient Near Eastern deity. Not: “Adam, what have you done,” or “Why didn’t you listen to me,” or “How could you,” but “Adam, where are you?” A question of longing, yearning, desire. Many of us who’ve gone to church since we were kids will never forget that we are fallen creatures – sinners – and I believe that’s true. Yet I am still surprised to read that the first thing that happens when Adam does exactly that thing he was told not to do, God comes looking for him: Adam, where are you? It means that when I get things dead wrong, that is the God I have to reckon with.

And these:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”

“Who do you say that I am?”

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Do you love me?”

We’ve all got real life issues, visible and invisible, small and large, and everything in between, and everyone’s got great big existential questions; urgent, pressing, real questions. In the face of our very real troubles, scripture offers us stories, poetry, wisdom, letters, cryptic prophecies, and a pile of archaic rules about how to eat and what to wear. And it also has great, big, timeless questions. I believe that scripture is the word of God, though I don’t really understand what I mean when I say that. But the Bible is not a golden book lowered from heaven by a golden chain. Never mind dowsing in scripture to find the answers; scripture may be the place to discover your most pressing questions.

Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer” exhorts his readers to “ask questions that have no answers.” So here in this time of uncertainty and anxiety, let me offer you this as a benediction: may God bless you with questions, questions that spark your imagination, questions that animate; questions that cut holes in the wall to let in fresh air, questions that unsettle you, questions that make your heart ache; questions that make great big spaces in your life for joy and for love; and questions without answers.

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2 responses to “Doing, Being, Asking”

  1. Pierre says:

    Ah Marilynne Robinson. What a treasure.

  2. Alison Mary White says:

    Amen. Thank you for the blessings~

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