Monday, 23 June 2014

Heroically Cleaning Toilets

I should totally be a hero. I don't know if I've got the reaction speeds and durability to be a protagonist hero, but I could be one of those secondary characters that give the emotional and moral force to a story - like the old mentors that die in the first act, but without any beard. I would be that one dignified lone person who quietly but steadily leads the crowd in refusing to do what the antagonist wants.

I can imagine the moment of my fearless stand, making eye contact with all the people I'm going to inspire and spur to greatness, triumphantly demonstrating that while evil thinks it has won, there are still good people around to be reckoned with. I'm ready to take a place with the gutsy good guys who challenge death for the sake of righteousness. If called upon suddenly, I would stand up. I would be that awesome old man in Avengers who tells off Loki or the convict in Dark Knight who throws the detonator off the ferry.

Somewhere, I've got a flair for the dramatic, but it's mostly poetic. I hate any form of drama in actual daily life. Plus it's not like I'm facing a torrent of major ethical crises at the moment, so that also works against my being a hero. There was that one time I pointed out to my university prof that he had mistakenly given me too many marks on my midterm. That was a morally momentous enough of  an occasion to outweigh all the times I've neglected to clean the bathroom in favour of browsing Facebook, right?

I've just finished reading a work called Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney. It was recommended to me by an incredibly enthusiastic classmate who said it was the best book ever on crosscultural ethics. It very well could be; I was fascinated by it. But I was also overwhelmed. To be honest, I don't know if I can navigate the world of crosscultural ethics when plain Canadian ethics confuse me quite enough.

Adeney relates in his final chapter an account of an unarmed female missionary friend in Africa who literally ran up to a rape in progress and screamed angrily at the man to stop, all the while knowing that the man was a member of the secret police who regularly tortured people behind her house.

As a general rule, I am also an unarmed female. I am not in Africa, and I don't, as a general rule, scream angrily at dangerous men who torture people, but in a situation as ethically unambiguous as violent rape? Of course I'd intervene. We watch movies and imagine ourselves to be the superheroes; we're the ones who would have stood up; the ones who wouldn't have been taken in. I'm ready for it!

But I still don't know what I would have done if, while working at the Distress Centre, a caller had asked me for a phone number to an abortion clinic. Institutionally, I would have been obligated to give it to her. Socially, it was expected. To not do so would have been considered inappropriately judgemental and unprofessional. And in practical terms, a caller would be perfectly able to get the number without talking to me, anyway. I could have perhaps compromised by handing off the phone for someone else to deal with such a caller, but that would have been pure self-righteous legalism. Probably the only right thing to do would have been to deny her the number despite knowing that she'd get it anyway and that I'd likely be asked not to return to the DC. But is such a poor result worth such a sacrifice?

I told my cousin Aimee about my fear of this situation before I went for my first shift. I admitted that if it happened, I thought my response would probably be to just start crying. When I returned home afterwards, Aimee inquired as to how it had gone.

"Well, I didn't cry," I said. Thankfully, the situation never quite came up and so tragedy was avoided. One time my supervisor instructed me to repeatedly ask a frantic pregnant woman if she needed to go to the "hospital". For some reason, I didn't realize what I was actually offering her until the call was over. The woman, at least at that point in time, turned the option down. Perhaps God knew that I wasn't ready to consciously face a decision like that. Perhaps in this case, my ignorance was a merciful gift.

So you see, I have a problem. The problem is that I wax noble and philosophical, but mostly I just sit on my parents' couch and read books and write blog posts about it.

Luckily, Calvin and Hobbes can weigh in here with a word of wisdom. Calvin learned from his dad how to build character:
I'm not sure that's quite how it works, but there may be some truth to it. If we live our whole lives passionately pursuing happiness, then what makes us think we'll have the guts to voluntarily suffer when asked? A speaker at school said that he had been zealous to do grand and sacrificial things for God in the missionary field. He said the dialogue on the topic went something like this:

Him: God, I'm willing to die for you!
God: Really? That's cool. Thanks. But what I want is for you to go clean toilets all day at this summer camp.
Him: What?
God: Are you willing to do that for me?

He cleaned the toilets.

I'm due to head to China to teach English for a month come Wednesday. Partly I'm super excited, and partly I'm terrified that I am not going to do a God-glorifying job. I am concerned that I will come back and be disappointed that I didn't have the courage or the discipline to do better. Yet, at this point, there's only so much that I'm capable of.

Adeney remarks of his friend who jumped into the rape situation that, "There was nothing she could do, but she did it anyway." There's something oddly comforting in that notion, and compelling.

Thank God for working through us and for going before us. May he work through me, despite me, and teach me to do all the things that I don't believe I can do. In the meantime, if I really wish to be of noble service, perhaps instead of imagining grand heroics I ought to clean a few toilets.

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” Samwise Gamgee (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Difference Between Us

I like to fancy myself prejudice-free, but every now and again my “unconscious” sense of superiority is laid bare. So far in life, I do not have stockpiles of cross-cultural experience, but I do have experience with people less privileged than myself. I consider myself privileged; the objective analysis of my position is not the main issue. The main issue is how I relate to others who are not like me.

Am I trying to help lift people to my level of thinking and being? Because I am wonderfully gracious with gifts to give? I have found that for me, the most potent way to quash the sense of superiority that separates the privileged “us” from “them” is to realize that, but for the grace of God, I would be them.

My family has made good choices; as a result partly of this, we have peace in our home and food in our fridge. I am well educated, involved in my church, and usually feel quite secure.

My dad’s side of the family is of Mennonite heritage. They came to Canada in the 1920s because things were not going well in Russia. My great-grandfather and his wife were “bitten with the emigration fever” and left for Canada a few weeks later. His father and siblings had asked him to stay in Russia and help bring in the harvest – one last harvest – and then they would all leave for Canada together. My great-grandfather declined to help in order to leave right away. He and his wife and kids made it to Canada; by the next year, the door to Canada from Russia had been closed. They never saw their parents or siblings again.

It was not until just a handful of years ago that a family reunion was able to reconnect our severed family: those in Canada and those finally arrived from Russia. I was not at that reunion, but my dad told me about it, with a rather dazed look in his eyes. He spoke of the vast differences between the two sides of the family and the stories they had been told by their long-lost cousins. They were still poor farmers, living difficult lives. My dad said they were uneducated and set in rigid, old fashioned ways. “If my grandparents hadn’t left when they did, had they waited just one more season, life would have been very different for us,” he said, shaking his head. “Their life could have been ours.”

We had nearly been them.

*   *   *   *   *

I made a friend in my late teens. We met at a Bible study and clicked pretty well the very first time we talked. She and I had the same interests and could talk deep into the night about literature, theology, stuff that mattered. We were the same age, we both had a younger sister and a younger brother. We were both homeschooled and Christian and had a lot of the same questions. We had good heads on our shoulders. I saw her as a kindred spirit, we were so similar.

One day we were talking about the pains of growing up. I related how I felt stunted in my growth because everything had always been handed to me. Everything was wonderful; the problem was I had no reason to mature.

She smiled politely. “Everything wasn’t handed to me,” she said. Her parents were divorced and her relationship with both of them was strained. They lived mostly on welfare and because her mother often wasn’t there, she had to be the one to make sure that details like groceries weren’t overlooked. “I had to work for what I got,” she said.

I shut my mouth and stopped complaining, embarrassed by my ability to make a crisis of a lack of crises, and surprised by what she had told me. We were so similar, the two of us. Why had she been required to face all that when I had not?

She could have been me.

*   *   *   *   *

For a couple years, I volunteered for a crisis phone line. We were trained to handle just about anything, from suicide to schizophrenia to sexual harassment. You deal it, we’ll take it. We got calls from all sorts – abused kids and lonely seniors, homeless women and successful businessmen. I found the strangest ones to talk to were the women about my own age. How had life gotten so complicated for them so quickly? We had all started off the same way – as little bawling babies. But my life was still happy and straightforward.

They must have done something wrong. They must have made a bad choice. A series of bad choices. I’d help them get their heads back on straight.

We got to learn a lot about the lives of our callers. They had personalities and talents. I spoke with an Olympic-level athlete and a fairly successful activist. I spoke to people with all sorts of skills and abilities. Some of them were much more capable than I was, in a lot of ways. They were braver. They were stronger. They were smarter.

Sure, they might have made mistakes, but haven't I also done so? Why was I still somehow in a position to help them?

Sometimes the program supervisor of the phone line would stop by the phone room. If the lines were slow, she’d try to get us to sing musicals. When we'd politely refused, she’d tell jokes and chat instead. “You know,” I said to her once, “We hear all about callers’ messed up lives, but sometimes they say something that reminds me that they’re a lot like us.”

“They’re just like us,” she replied.

It could have been me.

The desire to help make the world a better place and to help those less fortunate than ourselves is a beautiful thing and an important trait if we are to be a just and compassionate society. However, are we altruistic because it makes us feel kind and wise and generous?

Of the seven billion people on the planet, and earth's entire history, I'm the only one that turned out to be me. How did that happen? Understanding the history of how I got to where I am must be at least as important as knowing where I aim to go. I am where I am today largely because for some obscure reason, God let it happen it that way, yet I congratulate myself on earning my spot in the world. Hopefully the awareness of this arrogant tendency will serve to help rebuke it.

"We are always ready to make a saint or prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the mediaeval idea of a saint or prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated." G. K. Chesterton

Friday, 6 June 2014

C. S. Lewis Gone Wild

When C. S. Lewis wrote his space trilogy he called it a "modern fairy-tale for grown ups". He wasn't kidding. Sometimes pedantic philosophy aside, Out of the Silent Planet was friendly enough, a little bland perhaps, but Perelandra was plain creepy. And That Hideous Strength turned out to be one of the more macabre books I've read. I can't say, either, that I expected Lewis to have all his characters running around swearing and calling each other "bucking idiots".

In this trilogy we have everything from playful little alien cubs, bubble trees, and loveable old "Mrs. Dimble" to nudity, demon possession, and disembodied heads. Lewis proves himself to be a mishmash crossover king, incorporating 20th century earth, Roman gods, Arthurian legend, a mention of Atlantis, and Tolkien prehistory. I've probably missed something; Lewis sure didn't. (Tolkien apparently wasn't tickled to find out that Lewis had not only repeatedly mentioned Numenor without asking, but misspelled it and confused it with Valinor)

That said, I loved these books. I didn't love everything in them and don't agree with Lewis on some points - I didn't even understand him here and there - but I loved the books. The world building, theology, and artistry, not to mention story, that went into them is astounding.

A word of warning, however. Lewis takes real earth and real theology, and mixes them so seamlessly with myth that it's painful to try to separate them again. These books aren't Narnia, not by a long shot. It's not fantasy with Christian imagery. It's fantasy... but it's also Christian theology. With the two woven so tightly together, there's a danger of either assuming that some of his theology is also just fantasy or that some of his fantasy is a part of good theology. We want to swallow it whole and then ask whether it's true or not, or at least, we want to ask which parts are true and which aren't. At any rate, I did, got nervous when I couldn't nail down the distinction, and decided to stop trying before my brain imploded. In the end, I concluded that it's not a good way to approach said books.

I believe that Lewis meant the space trilogy as a story to help us reflect on the relationship between our God, his creation, and our historical human society. He means for the ideas to provoke thought and appreciation, not for the specific details to necessarily be slotted into our doctrinal statements. Unfortunately it's so easy to try to look at his work through the modern dichotomy of fact vs. fiction, to try to be rational and scientific about things (a philosophy which he tears apart in That Hideous Strength, by the way) because that's how we've been primed to think ever since we were wee kidlets being taught to answer everything with either a "yes" or a "no".

I wouldn't call the space trilogy an easy read, by any stretch, by they are very well worth it. Whatever your bent and however you take them, Lewis says a lot of really interesting things - assuming that you like philosophy. Which, if you've read to the end of this post, you probably do.

From Perelandra:

"Long since on Mars and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and both from fact was purely terrestrial-was part and parcel of that unhappy distinction between soul and body which resulted from the fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance."