What About Ashley?!
When I spent five days in a psychiatric hospital early last year, part of the program included art therapy. The art therapist had an oddly crooked hand, the fingers crabbed and curved, as though his hand alone was being absorbed by one of those 90s wavy time-warp effects used to denote the beginning of a flashback. He was gentle and casual, unflapped when one of us chose to sit in the corner humming or sit and stare half-comatose at a blank page rather than participate. I liked him a lot. But one afternoon, he grievously abused my fondness by offering only chalk pastels. I loathe chalk pastels. I loathe them with every iota of my precision-loving artistic self (and that iteration of self alone; I am precision-loving in very little else). I blanched, but persevered, as another woman and I were the only active participants. She rubbed out a hazy landscape, all soft blues and grays, blurred and indistinct. I strained to find the hard edges and corners of the chalk, in vain, as they crumbled to blunt little planes underneath my heavy hand. The therapist, sensing a struggle in his preternatural way, casually asked me how I felt about what I'd created, a doorway ringed in a spectrum of colors with geometrically patterned stairs receding toward it, but all of it uneven and smudgy; basically, what I typically do, but rendered, poorly, by a toddler. "I HATE chalk pastels," I said affrontedly. "They're so imprecise. I hate this, it's so messy." He paused and seemed to seriously contemplate my complaints. "Maybe you could, just... let it be messy?" He offered. This, dear reader, is when I broke. "No!" I sobbed indecorously, the floodgates breached. "No, I can't!" (Back when I relayed this to Steven he said "Wow, you totally gave him the breakthrough moment therapists dream about! That was the pinnacle of his career!") "Okay, okay," he said calmly. "Why do you suppose that is?" I proceeded to pour out the saga of my downward spiral, how obsessive thoughts about my children's safety had turned to obsessive thoughts about my own sanity and potential abuses of free will which had turned to obsessive thoughts about the nature of free will in general and feeling utterly unable to live in the tension of having it in the absence of certainty. Would someone kill my children? Would I kill myself? I didn't want to, but who would tell me for sure? Who knew anything at all FOR SURE?! He listened, frustratingly unperturbed by this roiling mess of free will, grievous transgression, napalmed babies, blood and guts and grief into which God has plunged his subjects, and which I found impossible to carry but also impossible to cede to what seemed a grossly negligent God. "I mean, is there anything God won't let us do?!" I wailed. He paused again, another of those exasperatingly contemplative pregnant pauses. "It sounds like all this is a theological question for you," he said. "Everything is a theological question for me," I wailed, propelled into a fresh gale of sobs. Dear God! What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I just chill and enjoy The Bachelorette like everyone else?! I launched into a cathartic spiel about how Steven and I had watched "What About Bob?!" in an attempt to buoy my ravaged soul a couple nights before I'd checked myself in. "There's this scene," I gulped, "This scene near the beginning where Bill Murray goes to Richard Dreyfuss's office for the first time and asks the doctor if he’s ever heard of Tourette’s. Richard Dreyfuss says yes, it’s exceedingly rare. Bill Murray unleashes a string of profanities. So Richard Dreyfuss asks ‘Why are you doing this?’ And Bill Murray says ‘If I fake it, then I don’t have it.’” That was when when started weeping, I tell him, which was not the effect watching What About Bob? was intended to have. It's an impossible way of living, deeply pathological, but I profoundly sympathized with the idea of going to absurd lengths in a futile attempt to stave off uncertainty. "I had a schizophrenic uncle," I gulped. "He was always doing crazy stuff, like once he burned his neighbor's fence down. And I think, what if I have the gene, and this is the beginning of my descent into schizophrenia? And so maybe I should, just, like, get it over with!" He smiled. "Like maybe you should just go ahead and burn your neighbor's fence down?" I laughed, we laughed, I cried some more. "Yeah," I nodded at him. "Yeah. But - how can I make sure I won't go crazy? Or flip out and kill someone? I don’t WANT to but what if somehow I accidentally did?!" He waited. "It sounds like - it sounds like you're not okay with having free will." Well, *hell no* I'm not, I thought. It wasn't this way, once - free will was not the incredible burden and covetous prize and uniquely human and notoriously abused capacity that it is. Maybe choices were easy, once. But were they?
Enjoy, be at rest, be at peace. Oh, and eat it all, except this. Except this: how seductive were those words. I wonder if, when Eve first grazed the surface of the apple, smooth as glass, alive with shifting shades of red and pink and yellow, she held her ear close and could hear a polyphony of murmurings, words just scintillatingly beyond the threshold of discernment, beckoning her to a universe of knowledge - forbidding, dangerous, entrancing. She had to know. But I no longer wanted to. Freedom had become a fearful thing to me. When the world became a place creeping with unbearable danger, I sought the four walls of a psychiatric hospital, with the relief of its regimented schedules, its endless stale decaf, its shoelace surrender, its 15-minute suicide checks. Free will cost us everything, and I couldn't take the weight of it anymore. Take it back, I whispered to God. It's the gift I didn't ask for, the curse I never wanted. It’s too much. It wasn’t worth it. You should never have given it to us, I snapped. There was nothing, it seemed, which could justify it, and further justify the reality that our only refuge is faith – faith in a good ending, faith that somehow that good ending will be all the richer for the suffering, faith that somehow redemption runs deep enough and heaven’s berth is wide enough to hold it all and make it all beautiful in its time, in His time.
Faith alone is certainty, Bonhoeffer said, and if that's not enough to make me break out in hives I don't know what is. I cleave to certainty, as though it could provide the salve I seek. It can’t, and it’s unavailable anyway.
But I know now: there can be no full redemption without it. The creation subjected itself to frustration, Paul tells us, "*in the hope* that it will be liberated from decay. In the hope, not the guarantee. And these things we hope for are unseen. “I am convinced,” Paul says. “I am confident in this,” he avers elsewhere. But nowhere does he say “I am absolutely certain in a way that is not utterly dependent upon faith.” As Lesslie Newbigin says of our quest to substantiate the promises of God by some absolutely reliable measure of truth that stands outside of faith in perfect objectivity, if such a thing existed (it doesn’t), what hubris and ingratitude it would be to say to God “thank you for the revelation of your word and your only Son, but I have other sources”?
The day I had to leave the hospital to venture out into the big wide scary world, I attended one last art therapy session. As we filed out of the classroom, the therapist looked at me. “You going home today?” he asked. I nodded. He smiled, nodded once. “You’ll be okay,” he said. I doubted it, still. The ground beneath me felt tenuous and tilting, but maybe a little less so than when I’d entered the code-locked doors, weepy and shaking and cowed.
We hope. We believe. We are confident. But we don’t know for sure. The same questions that rattle them rattle us, too. But faith alone is certainty. And earlier I neglected to add the second part of that quote: Jesus Christ alone is the certainty of faith. (Bonhoeffer was a master at quotables that rang with harmonies of symmetry and paradox). When I doubt this or that or the other thing (which is frequently), I sometimes ask myself, “But do I trust Jesus?” The answer has never been no. And by the grace of God, the answer will never be no. For all my doubts, wanderings, deconstructions and reconstructions, emotional fits, theological obstinacy, this remains: He who has promised is trustworthy.
And the rest? Well, maybe you could just, like, let it be messy. As much as it rankles my soul and I will never again touch chalk pastels except perhaps under strong external compulsion (I can’t imagine a scenario wherein this would arise but you never know… do not exploit the information I have vouchsafed you, dear friend), maybe I can just let it be messy, to “exist in that pressure point between needing an explanation and not getting an explanation”, as Andy Squyres puts it. It is alternately a space of crushing and a space of ecstatic freedom. I hate it, I love it. It drives me insane, it makes me live.
I’m not going to burn the fence down. But I must let our God, who is a consuming fire, burn through my distrust, my suspicion, my bristling fear that this life is not safe because no one’s really at the controls. And he lovingly dislodges me from every counterfeit hiding place, dissolves every idol of ersatz eternity to which I cling, til there is nothing left but Him again.
What about Bob? What about Ashley? What about you? Our lives are hid with Christ in God, the only safe place in the entire cosmos. Do I know FOR SURE? No. But I am convinced, I am persuaded, I am confident, I trust.