Gift from the Sea
I'm young, those who know me might say. I was married at the age of eighteen, had my first child at twenty, my last (is it the last?) at twenty-six. I'm now thirty-two. But last week it happened - a single white hair. I showed my brother, visiting from New York. He examined it and... plucked it out! I mourned the loss. Why did I... it's strange, but that white hair was a treasure to me. It felt symbolic of the progress of recent months; a trophy that I dared to hope was symbolic of earning at least a hair of wisdom after recent life experiences.
The signs that presage growth, so similar, it seems to me, to those in early adolescence: discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing, are interpreted falsely as signs of decay. In youth one does not as often misinterpret the signs; one accepts them, quite rightly, as growing pains. One takes them seriously, listens to them, follows where they lead. One is afraid. Naturally. Who is not afraid of pure space - that breathtaking empty space of an open door? But despite fear, one goes through to the room beyond.
But in middle age, because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets these life-signs, paradoxically, as signs of approaching death. Instead of facing them, one runs away; one escapes - into depressions, nervous breakdowns... or frantic, thoughtless, fruitless overwork. Anything, rather than face them. Anything, rather than stand still and learn from them. One tries to cure the signs of growth, to exorcise them, as if they were devils, when really they might be angels of annunciation.
Angels of annunciation of what? Of a new stage of living when... One might be free for growth of mind, heart and talent; free at last for spiritual growth.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, "Gift from the Sea," p.79-80
Whether the white hair signaled middle age or not doesn't matter I guess, the "signs that presage growth" are the same old or young, according to Lindbergh's life experience. We can be always growing. I wrote in the margin of this book when I read it at the beginning of the year, something I find a bit ironic now,
"We progress if we don't ignore those moments when the Tuning Fork sounds and we feel its dissonance with our soul's pitch. If we do not walk away from the quick vibrations, those discomforting, soul-shocking waves, but rather, draw closer to the Tuning Fork, yield and align. That is growth - unity with Truth."
That was mostly theory when I wrote it. Or maybe a nugget of inspiration born from the experience of small dissonant moments I'd known to that point in time. But it wasn't long before I came to a place where the vibrations became truly discomforting, soul-shocking waves. And, I found a certain dance occurred in those vibrations. In and out, I'd join hands with God only to let go and move backward - shocked by sudden pains, tired from the effort to stay in the dance with so much dissonance present. Most of the time, I did not dance well:
"One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes. Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal."
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, "Gift from the Sea," p.97
All things that once gave me comfort, direction, peace, inspiration - were taken away. They weren't gone - I just now had a filter I couldn't remove that changed them, morphed them. I kept looking beyond to the eternal and could not see myself there - there was no female to model, no feminine divine to embrace. All comforts seemed of male origin. I no longer saw them as neutral or adaptable to myself. Everywhere I looked, there were holes, emptiness and the feeling of a kind of abandonment.
So you 'have great hopes that the patient's religious phase is dying away', have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Subgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?
Humans are amphibians-- half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy's determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation-- the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life-- his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.
To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself-- creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs-- to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best... Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
~ C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters," Chapter 8
This passage I remember today, would have given comfort and direction about a month ago, but it did not come to mind then. Instead, I lay in bed, silent tears running down my cheeks as I felt the now familiar feeling of the ebb-tide of my life, that feeling of being forsaken. I decided, if all things that once provided comfort now only increased those dark feelings and the longing and the pain, then I would let them go for now. I would not let them become a tool of the enemy (don't mistake this for "the Enemy" mentioned by Lewis which is actually God in his flipped story from two evil spirit's perspective :-).
Instead of the pain of loss I felt when pursuing those old comforts, I would cling to the only thing left. Prayer. And so I prayed. I expressed my gratitude for the many tender mercies, divine signatures and miracles of the past years; the moments I could not deny that I was loved by a divine being, that I was being cared for, guided and watched over. I stopped demanding to understand why there were holes, or when they would be filled, or what my role in filling them was, and just desired to feel His love in that moment. And I would use prayer to get by one moment at a time, until in His time, the tide would flow in again.
We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now... One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.
Intermittency - an impossible lesson for human beings to learn. How can one learn to live through the ebb-tides of one's existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave? It is easier to understand here on the beach, where the breathlessly still ebb tides reveal another life below the level which mortals usually reach."
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh p.100-101
There, on that beach of my life, the ebb-tide began to reveal some precious shells I never would have discovered had the water not ebbed out as it did.
But this is a glimpse, not a complete history. It is a small wave of thought. The next glimpse is perhaps best if it comes with the next wave...
(Click Here for Part 2)