On Monsters

The Monsters Are Everywhere And Nowhere In Particular

Ben Maddison / 8.31.22

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that our horror movies reflect the cultural anxiety of our times. Pod people and zombies as stand ins for creeping Communism and blind allegiance to nefarious powers. Aliens as reflections of xenophobic neurosis and fear of the other. Vampires as analogs for the dangerous allure of unknown beauty and ill contained passion.

And of course, the ever popular “slasher” — ugly reflections of our human capacity for violence and our culpability in that violence via voyeuristic glee.

But not all monsters are neurosis. Not all monsters are reflections of our psyche. 

Not all monsters are make-believe.

“I’m hiding so the monsters don’t get me,” the little voice said from under the mint green living room console. The specifics of the trauma revealed by the statement are no one’s business but hers, but it’s a present reality of our daily life.

My wife and I have been “resource parents” (a technocratic — and unsuccessful — rebrand of the term “foster parents”) for four years. About a month longer than we’ve loved this little girl hiding in the living room. We didn’t get into fostering because we’re do-gooders (we aren’t). We didn’t get in this because of some divine call on our lives (there wasn’t). We didn’t get into it because we thought this would be fun or interesting or life-changing (it isn’t). We became “resource parents” out of desperation: because we didn’t like any of our other options. Because we’re selfish and it seemed like the best option at the time.

“I can’t come out! They’re going to get me,” she screams. As I am reassuring this tiny voice that she is safe, that the doors are locked, that the monsters are being held at bay, that God in God’s goodness is on her side, protecting her, protecting us — I think about why I became a foster parent.

If this self-interested act of “service” has taught me anything, it’s that I couldn’t guarantee a single one of the promises and reassurances and answers I was giving her. We’re not safe; we’re not in control; we have no idea what’s going to happen.

What would this trauma monster look like?

How would movie magic animate the dark, collusive, bureaucratic forces that resulted in this little girl’s fear, in our continued suffering, on her family’s continued separation, and the fracturing of so many hearts?

A single, easily identifiable monster would be easy.

After years of love and care, almost no one thought it would end like this. Soon she’ll be gone. There’s no more holding the monsters at bay.

Everyone we talk to offers the same litany to make us — and themselves — feel better. “It shouldn’t be like this.” “It is what it is.” “I’m sorry.” “You’ve done the best you can.” “You’ve given her an incredible start — changed her life.” “God is working something through this, we just can’t see it right now.”

I’m praying with all of my being that it’s not true, and at the same time, that if it is true, everything will be perfect. I’m praying curses on the system, on those who don’t get it, on those who can’t see what’s right in front of them. And then I turn right around and pray and repent and beg to know if I’m the one who’s wrong, if I’m the one with clouded judgment — if I’m the one doing this for all the wrong reasons. 

I cry out to God to rain down judgment on the wicked, while secretly praying — secretly hoping — that the judgment doesn’t fall on me.

If foster care has taught me anything it’s that all of us are monsters.
If foster care has taught me anything else, it’s that none of us are monsters.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, commends them to keep in focus the real evil of this world. It’s not the people who would persecute them, or the people who would turn them over to judgment; it’s not even the people who would try and convict and kill them.

The people — flesh and blood — those are not the monsters.

This has been a hard lesson to learn. Hating a person is easy. The straw man erected in your psyche is an easy target for anger, abuse, and outrage.

But the person — this being made of the same flesh and the same blood as you and me — that’s not the monster.

No, these monsters that hide in closets and wait under the beds, they are everywhere and nowhere in particular.  

It’s a system that prioritizes “rights” over well-being.
It’s a structure that dehumanizes some to re-humanize others.
It’s an idol that stands 100 feet tall that proclaims, “We have control. We can produce ends. We can control means. Measure. Judge. Decide.”
It’s a pagan deity more terrifying than any movie monster ever created that demands the violent fealty of its adherents and the ever-flowing blood of adult and child.

The monster is sin. The last groping clutches of that power that seeks to remind us that there is no hope, there is no light, there is no life, that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.

No silver bullet. No stake through the heart. No spell or prayer or incantation.

In many ways, we are all that little girl hiding under the mint green living room console, begging our parents to protect us from forces that will surely eat us alive. As the monsters get closer and the gnashing gets louder and the long shadow stretches towards us, we know the cry — “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

The hard truth is that evil is not flesh and blood.

Would that this horror movie might resolve with a Scooby Doo-like reveal of what is really behind the monster mask, a quip from Fred, a snack for Scoob, and a rolling of the credits.

But when the mask comes off, all one finds is one more person victimized and haunted by monsters of their own. Everyone is hiding from something, but that something is hard to quantify and seemingly impossible to overcome.

What can we do about the monsters?

“Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance to character, character to hope; and hope does not disappoint” (Rom 5:3-5).

I said years ago that it was so appropriate that she came to us during Advent, because what could be more Advent than this. An unexpected newborn who demands nothing but love and carries with her the front-loaded suffering of so many people. Alive to be loved. Whose future is both known and unknown. Whose hope springs eternal, even as the monsters and the darkness of this world encroach ever closer.

The here and not yet.
The manger and the tomb.
The darkness and the light.

I wish I could tell this little girl that monsters are make-believe. But instead, I write this, in the hopes that maybe one day she’ll stumble upon it.

The monsters are real, and they aren’t what you think.

The most frustrating thing about Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is that it works. We’d prefer an easy world of black and white, of aggressors and victims, monsters and heroes. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we get.

The thing about this world and its monsters is that a child was sent into it, a child was sacrificed to it — by it — and that that sacrifice revealed all we need, all truth, all life.

The same child who cried out in dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” just three days later would see the faithfulness and goodness of God. That same child who entered into darkness even though he was light — his light unable to be overcome by that darkness — would say, “I will be with you through the end of the age.”

I’m not sure it helps to hear it. And I’m not sure it helps to write it. And I’m definitely not sure if it makes anything better.

But my God, how I want it to be true. How I need it to be true. Please, God, let it be true.

“I’m hiding so the monsters don’t get me,” I whisper in the dark.

And the voice of a child — Mary’s child — says back: “They won’t. You’re safe. I’m right here.”

“Hope does not disappoint.”

That remains to be seen. However, I have a sneaking suspicion, as much as I don’t want it to be true, that he’s right.

“It’s finished,” he says, with a smile. “It’ll be okay.”

Please, God. Please let it be true.

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One response to “On Monsters”

  1. Pierre says:

    “It’s a structure that dehumanizes some to re-humanize others.” Brutal, but undoubtedly true. Thanks for this beautiful piece of writing, and blessings to your family in a time of trial.

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