Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Truth, Beauty & Tragedy: How to Be Happy
“Jack, take your hands off of your ears.”
“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”
This is what shoppers strolling down store aisles could overhear recently. Alas, the four year old had acted up; alas, Mama had to intervene with a reminder of behavior expectations. But the child had realized that with hearing comes accountability. If I can’t hear you, you can’t hold me responsible.
And the hands clamped tightly over the ears.
I get the instinct.
I haven’t been swiping an imaginary monster along grocery store shelves knocking products out of place, but I’ve certainly wanted to power down communications coming at me fast and unrelenting. There are days when I feel I can’t take hearing about another iota of tragedy. Once while I was breathing through the nauseating misery of a panic attack a loved one asked what was wrong.
“The Holocaust,” I said.
I meant it.
An image had planted in my mind from a fragment of an Oprah show seen years before featuring a tour of the World War II horror, Auschwitz – the shoes…the piles and piles of shoes, so human, creased on top where a foot had bent – and one tiny little red pair…
I get the instinct to clamp my hands tightly over my ear, to turn my grimacing face away. Even as a news junkie (especially as a news junkie?) sometimes I have to limit how closely I follow unfolding events.
I can probably affect something as intimate as your blood pressure level right now.
Russia and the Ukraine
Scandal, addiction, bankruptcy, cancer
“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”
I know, dear friend. I know you don’t. And there’s good news in the world, too, after all –
The ice bucket challenge
Donation of a kidney
Rain after a drought
Here’s the twist: the second list may lower your blood pressure or make you smile, but it won’t ultimately make you happy without the first list. I’m not advocating the tired “you need evil to appreciate the good” theology – there’s no such thing as a “felix culpa”, a happy crime that’s blessed because you appreciate the good more.
No, you need the first list in order to be truly happy because we humans can only be happy when we face the reality of evil. We can’t be happy without the truth. Despite being surrounded by the truth of ugly facts – genocide or beheadings or crowded refugee camps or grotesquely contagious diseases – we have the inner impulse to reach also for the truth of reality, of existence, the Truth that transcends current events, that tunes the music of the spheres and absorbs everything into the unity that is Triune love.
To avoid the truth – whether of current events or the transcendent reality – is to construct a scaffolding of denial constantly in need of repair and maintenance. If you live attempting to ignore the retch-inducing evil of this world, you will consign yourself to living constantly in fear – more fear, in fact, than what comes from facing current events or theological questions or past experiences or worries for the future.
“But I don’t want to hear…”
Sometimes the well-worn, familiar refrain says it best, as Pastor Martin Niemöller so famously wrote and spoke:
In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
There is a deep, gnawing dread when we deny the truth that stalks us, insisting to us that we untie the blindfold. But if I can’t take hearing about the facts of the world I live in, how will I pray for its transformation? If I seek out mind-numbing busyness, how will the Holy Spirit show me where to serve? And if I hear the facts only so that I can attempt to add them to my pile of pieces as I attempt to solve the puzzle of the Apocalypse and how things will ultimately end, then I am not living beautifully – I am living miserly, attempting to guess tomorrow’s weather so that I can gain from the forecast, regardless of who is suffering today. This day. Right now.
Denial never brings happiness – neither does distance, or distraction. We are a global neighborhood now. And while it’s tempting to mistake cynicism for wisdom, Christians are called to be the least cynical people on earth; not the most naïve, or the most chipper, or the cheeriest – simply the least cynical, because we dare to look into the abyss of the evil in our world or the evil in our own hearts and we still dare to say that that evil is not the last word.
God is the Creator and all Christians are artists – not called to paint over ugliness but rather to be a means of its melting and molding into something beautiful. “See, I am making all things new” is the context into which we must submit the 24-hour news cycle. And we have this example set in front of us: Jesus Christ, whose beautiful actions in the midst of ongoing suffering and evil lived the Truth of beautiful reality into the facts of the day around him.
Bear witness to atrocity. Weep with the suffering. Then choose actions of beauty, grace and redemption. Christ lived a life that turned “but I don’t want to hear…” into “tell me your story…” so that you and I can uncover the story of redemption on the mural of our world.