Another Week Ends

Nick Cave, the Problem of Good, Thérèse of Lisieux, Kerouac’s Prayer, and Dads Who Don’t Know What to Do

CJ Green / 6.10.22

1. Simply because of how frequently we cite it, Nick Cave’s Red-Hand Files is often sort of sheepishly linked to toward the bottom of this weekend column — but this week’s entry is so good it should really be read first. When a fan asks the acclaimed musician, “In your opinion, what is God?” he responds with the following:

God is love, which is why I have difficulty relating to the atheist position. Every one of us, even the most spiritually resistant, yearns for love, whether we realise it or not. And this yearning calls us forever toward its objective — that we must love each love. We must love each other. And mostly I think we do — or we live in very close proximity to the idea, because there is barely any distance between a feeling of neutrality toward the world and a crucial love for it, barely any distance at all. All that is required to move from indifference to love is to have our hearts broken. The heart breaks and the world explodes in front of us as a revelation.

There is no problem of evil. There is only a problem of good. Why does a world that is so often cruel, insist on being beautiful, of being good? Why does it take a devastation for the world to reveal its true spiritual nature? I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know there exists a kind of potentiality just beyond trauma. I suspect that trauma is the purifying fire through which we truly encounter the good in the world.

It’s one thing for someone to write like this and quite another for someone to write like this in the weeks after his son’s death — his second son to die tragically in the last decade. It’s impossible to say exactly why this “potentiality beyond trauma” might exist, but it seems to be there nonetheless. I’m reminded of Sarah Condon’s parting prayer in her incredibly candid talk about grief: “I wish suffering for you,” she said, having experienced it acutely, because “at the heart of suffering really is hope, and at the heart of hope is Jesus.”

As for Cave’s note, I find it particularly moving that he paired it with a watercolor entitled “The Love of God,” by Georgiana Houghton—a Victorian-era medium who professed the spirits of the dead were guiding her work.

2. Next, here’s one from Christianity Today, by J.D. Peabody (also a middle-grade children’s book author, heads up parents), about perfectionism and the pitfalls of self-sufficiency. Peabody writes as someone who, in middle school, bought his own Bible and proceeded to highlight all of the verses about personal responsibility, which, I mean, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t. But:

Pursuing the path of taking “full responsibility” for my sin only pushes me toward despair, because I find that the problem is deeper and more pervasive in me than I can begin to address (“Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” — Romans 7:21). I am unable to discern my true motivations with certainty. The more I dissect my confessions, the less adequate they seem, pulling me further down the rabbit hole … [Christ] went to the cross precisely because we are all incapable of taking full responsibility for our own sin.

He goes on to discuss Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way,” her approach to faith that strove for childlikeness and complete dependency on God. Considering this, Peabody writes, “I can’t hold the shield of perfectionism and the shield of faith at the same time.”

Perceptively, though, he also admits how difficult dropping the “shield of perfectionism” can be:

Removing the Armor of Me became my all-consuming mission. This quickly took me to a place of self-loathing, because I discovered just how tightly I had wrapped my armor around me and how difficult it was to step out of it. I became highly frustrated and ashamed over my lack of progress. The anxiety over attempting to change intensified. I felt this huge responsibility to fix myself, and I couldn’t do it.

3. As Peabody says in his conclusion, faith takes time; you often feel like you’re going “10 miles out, 10 miles back.” But faith can also be forced upon you amidst dire circumstances, during times when it seems like the only option left (per Nick Cave, Sarah Condon, above). This is roughly the story of Kay Lynn Northcutt, who, writing in the Christian Century, explains that after she fell severely ill,

I’d never been so grateful to be specifically Christian — with a Savior who specializes in broken bodies, massacred hopes, and disabled futures. Relegated from well-being and the places where I mattered, I turned toward brokenness and Jesus. Faces of the broken bodies I had ministered to in the decades of pastoral ministry began to surface. Even though I was solitary at home, I wasn’t alone … Whether broken in body or crushed by grief, we are never alone. We are the blessed and beloved broken body.

4. In their newsletter last week, the Paris Review highlighted a great quote from their wild 1968 interview with Jack Kerouac. When Ted Berrigan, the interviewer, asks if he has any rituals or superstitions before he gets down to writing, Kerouac responds:

I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me “unbalanced” after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another “ritual” as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?

5. Let’s say you’ve read Genesis. And let’s say you’ve wondered what it was that Cain offered to God, which God rejected, and which caused Cain in an enraged outburst to kill his brother Abel. All we know from scripture is that it was “fruits of the soil.” But this week the Babylon Bee reports new evidence suggesting it was — and shouldn’t we have known — kale!

A peer-reviewed paper by Oxford archaeologist Dr. Wesley Wallace details the discovery of a stone etching depicting a piece of kale next to a frowny face. The carving itself dates to the 6th millennium BC. “The etching is a pictograph,” said Dr. Wallace, who discovered it while on a dig in eastern Iraq. “The pictograph makes it very clear that kale is not appreciated.”

More [primordial] humor includes the New Yorker’s “History of Group Projects,” which features a letter from Eve to Adam: “I love sharing garden duties with you. But it has to be just that: sharing.”

I also had a laugh reading this one, from Reductress:Inspiring! This Woman Listened to Five Hours of Advice and Then Did What She Was Gonna Do in the First Place.

6. With Father’s Day on the horizon, here’s an excellent link for the dads out there (and the moms, too, I guess, and now that I think about it, adult children…). What it amounts to is a catalog of fathers trying their damnedest to be good and failing miserably. “I didn’t know, I don’t know, I still don’t know — these are the modern dad’s refrains,” writes Daniel Engber. Meanwhile the writer Keith Gessen reports, in his new memoir, that his precocious three-year-old son reminds him regularly that he’s falling short: “Dada’s not nice”; “Dada, I love you even when you do something bad to me.” Similarly, the novelist Michael Chabon reports of his own “latent dickitude” in his family home. As a dad myself, I felt terrified reading this because some variation on the theme seems imminent/inevitable:

[His memoir] describes one time when Chabon’s 14-year-old daughter had just gotten a new haircut and looked to him for approval. His mind was somewhere else and he failed to muster a response. “For a moment her eyes went wide with fear and doubt,” he writes, before turning the narration on himself: “What a dick!” … “She had a crack in her now, fine as a hair but like all cracks irreversible,” he writes.

I was shocked by my own thoughtlessness, and ashamed of it, but the thing I felt most of all was horror. Horror is the only fit response when you are confronted by the full extent of your power to break another human being.

It’s unhinged, but relatable — parenthood unhinges people. I’m sure that every mom and dad has known the fear of messing up their kid. That tension isn’t gendered. But a father’s fear of power — his sense that he might cause some catastrophic damage — may have its own distinctive vibration, one that tweaks the limbic nerve.

7. Given the aforementioned, parenting might be seen in a somewhat gentler light; it is, after all, tough. This reality is taken up in a new episode of the podcast How to Start Over, which addresses the prevalence of adult child-parent estrangement. Admittedly I didn’t listen to the entire episode (one has only so much time), but of what I heard, the following exchange was much appreciated:

Khazan: I follow all these TikTok accounts that are vaguely therapeutic. And they’re all: If a person makes you upset, even one time, cut them out of your life. The idea of honoring your mother and father is not anywhere on there. Have you had any personal experience with estrangement or tensions with your adult children, and how that impacted your research or your thinking on this issue?

Coleman: Well, yes, sadly I came to this topic through my own personal experience. I was married and divorced in my 20s. And my daughter — whom I’m now very close to — there was a period of time in her early 20s where she cut off contact with me for several years. She didn’t talk to me, didn’t want to spend time with me, and it was easily the most awful, painful, hurtful, disorienting, guilt-inducing thing I’ve ever been through. But slowly, over time, we were able to heal the relationship, and we’re close again. So once we’d reconciled, I decided to write about it.

Khazan: To what extent should adult children be accepting of their parents’ flaws, or should they be? And I’m wondering how parents can do the same for their adult children, because I feel like a lot of these tensions come out of expectations.

Coleman: I think it has to do with the way we think of identity at this point. Currently, it’s sort of what you were saying about TikTok and — not to trivialize adult children’s complaints about their parents — but we feel like if we dislike something in somebody’s personality and they’re not willing to change, then somehow the healthy thing to do is to cut them out.

Often there’s not enough due diligence on either side. I often tell parents to write a detailed amends letter where they do acknowledge the things that were problematic about their parenting, because in some ways, doing that is a really important path toward self-compassion. It allows them to sort of see it all on the paper and kind of tolerate that as a reality. The saying “What stays in the dark, grows in the dark” is often true of our relationships in terms of our own mistakes with our children.

Strays:

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