So, there I was. Grief, loss, suffering: a reasonable stab at Frankl’s Tragic Triad. But, as I’ve previously said, I don’t want to stop there. I don’t trust theology – or indeed people – who jump right to the happy ending without the journey. But what is the journey? Do I have to do it by myself? Where on earth do I start? Life throws all this stuff at me – grief and joy and coffee and galaxies and friends and ocean waves, and just everything imaginable, plus a lot that I’ve never imagined, and an awful lot which might be strictly un-imaginable as such. Where on earth do you start?
My first thought: I cannot possibly do this on my own.
However, I don’t think we are alone in this. We aren’t the first people to notice how sheerly difficult life is, and how sheerly wonderful, how gratuitous, how beyond all telling it is. When I can’t go much further myself, others can help me; and those others are not just the people in front of me right now, but a huge conversation that has been going on in fits and starts for all of human history.
I have a catchphrase, a little clichéd saying that I trot out whenever the media is transfixed by something as important as, say Miley Cyrus’s twerking, or Kim Kardashian taking a selfie of her bum, or whatever. I say: 5000 years of literate human civilisation has at last met its apogee.
I’m sure my friends think it is entirely hilarious.
Just because we have iPhones and the interwebs and I use them to look at amusing pictures of adorable cats while I’m waiting for a train, it doesn’t mean that we are more in touch with Life than our ancestors were. Just because we know about germs and electricity (and by “we” I mean our civilisation, not me personally) doesn’t mean that we are much better at understanding the deep questions of life. Arguably we know less, because we are less exposed to un-mediated life, much more able to protect ourselves, and when we can’t protect ourselves, we are excellent at distracting ourselves.
Suffering can drive you inwards, away from the shiny surfaces of life. The extent to which you can avoid this process of being driven inwards is the extent to which you can avoid growth, and remain busily convincing yourself that a luxury car, a handmade suit, a yacht, or a really good holiday can stand in for purpose and meaning. The more available the convenient distractions are, the easier it is to avoid the whole messy business of life and growth.
So how do I get past my desire to jump to the happy ending, or at least distract myself with shiny things? I quickly come up against my own limitations.
If I hope to make any progress (if “progress” is even the right word for this,) perhaps I don’t have to do it alone. In fact I’m pretty sure I actually, definitively, and comprehensively cannot do it alone. I am going to need contact with people who have spent a whole lifetime learning, and not just through happy experiences with dolphins and sunsets and feeling at one with the universe via pleasant holidays, but through real lives of sacrifice and love for others, and loyalty to that ultimate, inexpressible reality that lies beyond the universe, that we designate with the deceptively short word “God.”
And not just people who happen to be in my face right now – I’m going to need to dig deep. If the answers were easy and readily available, then I wouldn’t be in this state. I need (scary voice) The Help Of The Dead. By which I mean, of course, reading more. Always a good answer as far as I’m concerned.
However, the problem with millennia old books is that they can be hard to understand. The conceptual frameworks of other civilisations, even ones from which we can claim some sort of descent (Athens, Rome, Jerusalem) are foreign to us. I’m no historicist (or else the idea of searching for wisdom in old books wouldn’t occur to me), but I know enough to know that the past is a foreign country.
So in fact, what I need is to be part of a living tradition: somewhere that the insights of people who have gone before us are part of life: somewhere that they aren’t just passive words sitting in dusty tomes in the library stacks somewhere, but somewhere where I can be schooled in a way of seeing the world that has deep roots in human experience, with far more insight than I could achieve all by myself. No matter how profound my own insights are, they are inherently limited – by my particular place in history, by my psychological baggage, by the fact that I’m not an especially good person. And that’s even before taking into account my desire to get beyond where I currently am.
And that, I’m sorry to say, means Theology.
C.S. Lewis had a good way of putting this idea. Talking about a grizzled old RAF officer’s experience of God in the desert, which seems so much more real than the sometimes dry doctrines of faith, he had this to say:
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
This is, I think, an important part of the solution: find a deep tradition, which has been thoroughly lived in, messed up, abused, and that still survives, and you will have found something capable of taking the weight of the myriad of experiences good, bad, and merely banal that life floods us with at every second. I need to be firmly rooted in the 5000 year Great Conversation to have any hope of making some sort of meaningful sense of my life.