Saturday, July 17, 2010

looking into the darkness

There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see it; and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look. --Fra Giovanni

I’ve been thinking lately about the benefits and dangers of talking about what’s wrong, broken, evil, as well as what is good. Pamela Haines’ Friends Journal article on good and evil was one reminder that I needed to consider this. Another was a collaboration with a Friend whom I admire and who is inclined to focus on the positive, to divide things into what’s good and what we can make better rather than what’s good and what isn’t. I do see at least some of the strengths of this approach: it tends to make people feel energized and hopeful, and it avoids bitterness and blaming. But I still feel some need to talk explicitly about what’s wrong. My Friend has been patient with my need for this, and has also prompted me to think about its causes.

If I don’t explicitly acknowledge problems I tend to let them fester. When I see a problem, whether in my garden or in my relationships, I’m strongly tempted to pretend that it isn’t there. Of course, when I do this the problem keeps getting worse until I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I soft-pedal the problem: okay, well, this could be better--what could I do to make it better? Unfortunately my answers to this aren’t usually adequate; I give extra fertilizer to seedlings that can’t absorb nutrients because they’re in soil with the wrong pH; I do extra nice little things for someone whom I am letting down on a basic level... I seem to have to focus squarely on what is wrong and name it before I can actually make things right. (This, I suppose, is a matter of personality. I usually assume that I can solve things, and my main challenge is to figure out what I’m solving. If I tended to see problems as intractable I might have to do something different.)

I can’t help being aware of many things that are wrong in and around me; knowing and not saying them makes them feel larger and more overwhelming; naming them makes them feel bearable. Since I was a little kid I’ve found that my fears and griefs and rages diminished to a manageable size when I wrote them down. Even before I know what to do about them, naming them brings them into the world I understand, the world whose basic goodness I trust.

Sometimes I am able to lift up my own broken places and hurtful tendencies in prayer; this helps me, and sometimes I believe it may do more than that. Once I bring my wish to lie or to hurt someone, or my overwhelming anxieties, into God’s presence, I remember that God is much more real than they are; sometimes in this process I can even see my own thwarted or twisted longing for God at the root of the ugliness, and as I sit and attend carefully to this the ugly growth begins to wither away and the longing at the root remains to become a source of strength. I know I need this personally. I think it may have some corporate significance. There’s the communion of saints, the cloud of witnesses, the ways in which love and courage and clarity are not personal properties, are shared between us in ways we don’t understand as we grow toward God. I also think that our fear, falsehood, cruelty and greed--our ill-grown longings--are not only personal but collective. And when I turn these things back toward the light sometimes I remember to pray also for the other people who are stuck in the same ways that I am stuck, and ask for turning and healing. ..I don’t have good language for this. Elizabeth Goudge’s novels say it better. But I think it matters.

What about you? Does it work best for you to simply focus on the positive? Are there ways of dealing with the negative that strengthen or deepen you in faithfulness?