This is not how things are supposed to be.
That’s what comes to mind when I read news headlines these days. Maybe you feel that way too, when you consider the world’s brokenness and confusion, the pain and suffering, and sense a crushing weight of hopelessness. Maybe we don’t even have to look that far — maybe the brokenness is within our very selves, but we don’t know how to fix it, and we can’t help but think: this is not how things are supposed to be.
Instinctively, we know this. And so we look for a way out. The answer lies in affecting change through politics, we may reason. Or maybe we can just shelter in place with the like-minded, behind our ideas and ideologies and then maybe, we think, we can somehow manage to avoid being sullied by the things of this world. And we should, certainly, cast our votes most carefully, and do our best to cultivate mutually enriching and virtuous relationships with our fellow pilgrims. But is it enough? And more importantly, is that the ultimate answer?
I’m a big believer in the idea that God has you (and me) on this earth here and now for a reason. He knew you’d be raising your precious children in the internet age. He knew you’d be navigating an increasingly coarse and sexualized society, marked by the mixed-up, upside-down ideas that once-upon-a-time were, simply, unthinkable. He knew you’d be attempting to live a holy and sacramental life in a post-Christian society. He knew.
Which means that you and I, with all of our faults and insecurities and hopes and dreams, were born for such a time as this. We can say with measured confidence, like the inimitable Saint Joan of Arc, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” Oh, it’s true — men and women and moms and dads in generations past didn’t have to contend with drag queen story hour at the library, open hostility to traditional and historically-held sexual mores, or the veritable plague of smartphone addiction and the subsequent cultural loneliness and isolation, particularly among teens. What is a person to do amidst such darkness?
In Madeleine L’Engle’s excellent novel A Wrinkle in Time, teenager Meg Murry travels through space and time with her younger brother (and a friend) to rescue her father, who’d been captured on another planet. Meg is, or so she feels, nothing special. And yet somehow, it falls to her to battle and defeat IT, the evil force that has been holding her father hostage and which has since taken over her brother, Charles Wallace.
As Meg finally comes face to face with IT, contemplating how she might defeat such evil, she discovers that she can’t do it through hate — because IT knows all about hate. Suddenly, the answer dawns on her.
That was what she had that IT did not have…
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?…
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you…
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
What if the best antidote to chaos, evil, and confusion in our own world is, simply, to love?
I recently saw a 2017 interview of author Kazuo Ishiguro, in which he was speaking about his 1989 Nobel Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day. In the context of describing how we resemble the novel’s protagonist, loyal English butler Mr. Stevens, Ishiguro made the remark that people typically inhabit “small worlds.” If you’ve read the book, you know the significance of this idea.
And yet we prefer to talk about being world-changers, dreaming big dreams, making a difference. There is an expectation, a cultural emphasis on the big things, an indignation that though warranted, dead-ends in frustration when we discover we can’t snap our fingers and fix all the problems.
The beautiful thing, though, is that we can love. We can be busy with the work of loving our families and the people around us. We can choose to steward our time and attentions in such a way that we are focused diligently and primarily upon the duties that God has given us, the sphere of influence that we have received as a precious and unique, unrepeatable gift. We can truly, and without abandon, fully inhabit our small world.
Preparing meals for the family dinner table (nourishing both bodies and souls), meeting a friend for coffee, engaging our children in meaningful conversation, reading good books: each of these hidden, mundane and delightfully quotidian things in actuality (and against modern common “wisdom”) fortifies the culture, and properly reflects the incarnational and personal attributes of Christ. To be fully present and committed to one’s vocation, to choose love over both indifference and despair, and to seek after the good, beautiful and true — this is what it means to be fully human, to be created in the image and likeness of God. It is God, after all, who is writing not only my story and yours, but also the world’s. And the history, the politics, the injustices and the truth-twisting and the brokenness, these things remind us that we are made for so much more than this world, but also that for now we are here, in this world. Jesus was here, too.
In mothering my own eleven children, who range in age from 19 years down to two, I daily grapple with the idea that they are growing up in a world largely hostile to their God, their faith, their values. And I somehow must not only accept this fact, but then equip and inspire them to face this opposition with both courage and charity, truth and kindness. Am I doing this well? Have I given them the tools and hearts to rise to the challenge, to love well and stand for truth and maintain faith? Oh, how I hope so, imperfect as I am. I am increasingly finding comfort in the idea that I am called by God merely to love and train them. Here and now.
And really, what other choice do we have? Perhaps the worst, most insidious byproduct of focusing so much on the world’s dysfunction itself, is the opportunity cost — and it is steep. What would have happened if L’Engle’s Meg, instead of looking and loving, had merely focused her (justifiable!) hatred and disdain on IT? Would little Charles Wallace have been saved? The truth is that you only get one life. Your child is only adorably-four-years-old once. Time will, inevitably slip away — who can say how many days we have? We can’t spend it angry and fearful. We simply can’t. There is so much richness and beauty to be found, if only we will humbly receive it with open hands, from a good and generous God who promises a life of abundance. Life in all its complexity and splendor, both the happy times and moments pierced with sorrow, is poised to bear glorious fruit if only we will trust in Christ. And have faith.
Of course, it won’t be easy. We are surrounded by significant cultural problems, parenting children today isn’t easy, and it’s become clear that our culture will not support our mission of bringing the Good News to a hurting world. But Fyodor Dostoyevsky once remarked that “the world will be saved by beauty.” And when confronted by evil we can, like young Meg Murry, choose love.