Stargazing and the Dark Night of Dostoevsky

COXi3J5

I finished Crime and Punishment this last year, and although it took me a little less than an eternity to actually get through it, I’ve got to say, I haven’t appreciated a book like it in a long time. I was intrigued by the dread of sitting inside the mind of a neurotic. I was startled at how well the human heart was conveyed. I loved the slow but realistic redemption that takes place over the book’s pages and the lingering grace and loyalty of a certain character. But all in all, I ultimately loved that I could come to understand Fyodor Dostoevsky through the dialogue and content of the book. Here’s two of my favorite lines:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

&

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

If you’re anything like me, then you will know that I tend to enjoy books once I understand a little of the author’s own life. If I can relate to them, chances are I will resonate with their books, so it’s a treat for me in the event that I read a book and feel as though the author has bled his own personal narrative into the words and pages of that novel. Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment is one of those instances.

Having read it, I was intrigued into what kind of life Dostoevsky must’ve had. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant one, but I knew the novel didn’t end in despair so maybe his life hadn’t. What I found between the book and his own life were some stark similarities in theme. Both contain extreme anguish, doubt, suffering but also, however ironically, a glimmer of hope.

His life didn’t kickoff pleasantly. Dostoevsky was son to a cruel father and to a mother who died of tuberculosis while he was young. In the two years following his mother’s death, his father passed away due to an apoplectic stroke. Also around that time, Dostoevsky’s first signs of epilepsy, that would plague him his entire life, had appeared.

In the following decade, amidst his declining health, eventual resignation from the military, and his pursuit of a life of writing, Dostoevsky was imprisoned and exiled for political reasons. It seems like something straight out of one his novels, but there came a moment that Dostoevsky was lined up in front of a firing squad which was stopped by a command from the Tsar apparently moments before the execution.

File:B pokrovsky kazn 1849.jpg

After this point, Dostoevsky spent about another half-decade as an exile in a prison camp in torturous conditions without anything but his copy of the New Testament. Between all that’s been said already, the death of his first wife, the loss of his firstborn to his second wife, and his eventual agonizing death to epilepsy, Dostoevsky’s life seems to me nothing short of a nightmare.

But what I’ve found so interesting is not just the darkness of Dostoevsky’s life. No not at all. Though, I do think what is remarkable wouldn’t be as remarkable as it is without the darkened backdrop.

What’s truly intriguing to me is Dostoevsky’s clutching to the light of the stars amidst all the horrible darkness *. While doing some research on him, I stumbled on this quote which has resonated with me in more than a few ways:

“I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

I don’t know if I’ve heard of such honesty and such faith in the words of a man, words that seem reminiscent of the man in Mark 9 who declared “I believe Lord, help my unbelief”.

Two things strike me in Dostoevsky’s words. One is his immense doubt that would lead him to declare that he would die “longing for faith”, and yet still he finds moments of peace in which “I love and believe that I am loved” – a statement which implicitly assumes great faith. And second, he doesn’t trust his own faith, but the one in whom his faith takes hold. The man seems captivated in these words. Christ has captured his greatest desires, “nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect”. It seems his head and heart are torn. When the rational doubts pull him one way, he knows on a desiring level that “there could be no one [else]”.  As Saint Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I’d like to think Dostoevsky tasted that rest and knew he’d never find it in anything else again, as much as his doubts nagged him otherwise.

I’m not surprised that the bold portion of that passage came last. Between the reasonable doubts that plague us because of the suffering, death, anguish, and darkness in this world and the faith granted to us that sets our eyes upon the beauty of Christ even in it all, Dostoevsky decidedly found rest in the latter. Like looking upon a midnight sky to discover the stars shine brighter only when the night is darker, Christ meets us in the darkness with his penetrating vibrancy, which had turned out for Dostoevsky [and myself] far more true and far more captivating than the darkness itself.

* Apparently, Dostoevsky would literally stargaze to combat his doubts.

All Things Go. All Things Grow.

Ok. I did it. I’ve plunged headfirst into the Sufjan Stevens, fandom pool. And yes, as you can tell, I’m a little behind the times on cool, hipster music.

What hooked me was his song Chicago. If you haven’t heard it, I’d suggest you go drop everything your doing and go listen to it with your best friend, preferably in a van… in a parking lot (so sorry). I’ll even go ahead and do you the favor:

As some of you know, I’m currently in the process of moving to Connecticut (not Chicago) from my home in Orlando, Florida. A big change geographically, culturally, and pretty much in every other way. So, yes, I do know it will be blisteringly cold up there, most of the time anyways.

It’s a pretty strange feeling though. Orlando is where I have planted my roots for what seems like the first time in my life. And if I’m honest, I’ve never really let my roots down before having moved to Orlando. It feels weird now having to uproot and move to another culture, away from the friends I have made, the church I’ve invested in, and from a city that I’m beginning to realize I actually pretty well enjoy. Most have felt the pain of leaving home, and this feels like the first time for me.

I’m struck too with a little bit of existential angst: will life forever be laying down roots and uprooting every couple years? Will I ever find a permanent home? Is there even a point in letting the roots down?

I’m certain there is a point, but at the moment what I’m feeling in leaving is something that I’m having to grieve.

About a week ago, my community group from church threw me and one of my best friends a going away get-together. He happens to be departing to Jackson, Mississippi, so we’ve talked before about how we may never live locally together ever again. It’s a morbid thought but a true one nonetheless. Ironically enough, we’ve both bonded over that Sufjan song recently. Having listened to it way too many times, I think it’s about Sufjan uprooting and rooting from one place to the next for reasons that have left him upset and feeling sorely mistaken for ever having left. It’s an upbeat but somewhat melancholic song because I think like most of us, we’re constantly searching for “home” and coming up short (in our minds, in our minds). We are ambitious and excited but are then left wondering what we’ve done and why we’ve left.

For me, I know I am called to Connecticut but am now currently stuck in this tension of calling and comfort. Will I ever find a home on this Earth? Will I ever find a calling on this Earth?  When I lift up my roots will they dry up? If I stay in this soil will my roots dry up? Is this an act of naive self-destruction or hopeful self-cultivation? There’s a terror in this tension.

At that get-together, I voiced these thoughts to an incredibly wise and maternal other. I told her how I couldn’t fathom leaving my friends and community behind, and with a gentle but confident tone she responded, “Jeb, you know, after being uprooted – it’s the best time for something new to grow.”

Bingo.

I think that’s what Sufjan’s conveying by saying, “All things go. All things grow.”

It’s not about whether the roots should’ve been lifted or not but about now what will be grown.

It’s not about where the tree will be re-planted, in that soil here or that dirt there, but about who’s the gardener. My genuine home isn’t found on the ground in which I’m placed, at least right now, but in the hand of my Beloved – the one who cultivates us even when it feels like we are losing everything.

I’ve talked to numerous friends these last couple days who have previously left our community or who are soon departing, and all have mentioned the difficulty of living in an “already but not yet” world – a world between our former home of slavery and our future home of intimate glory. We’ve left home for a new home, but still, we are not yet home.

The nexus of Chicago leaves us with this, “If I was crying, in the van with my friend, it was for freedom from myself and from the land”.

I clutch for that freedom. The freedom that dispels the despair of feeling like I don’t currently belong in this land and the anxiety of wondering if I ever will find home.

I have a home. I have a purpose. In those two statements lies a freedom that I can find nowhere else but in the dirty hands of an often unrecognizable gardener.

A Life of Flight: Finding Rest in a Distracted World

0vIE49W

There is a lack of stillness in our society, and being perpetually busy seems like a mark of maturity. Vacations never quite leave us rested. Hours of TV after work are not filling what needs to be filled. A fast food meal is a preferred choice over an hour of deliberate cooking. Even driving in your car without music, radio, or a podcast seems impossible. As Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once bluntly said, “The public is on the lookout for distraction.” We seem both debilitated and busied by it, and so like birds in migration, we seem to be without a perch.

So is rest even possible? When we regularly want to go home after a full day of work and watch Netflix, and drink a beer or glass of wine before we restart the next day, have we even rested or have we just like that bird in flight given up on the long journey and settled for scraps and shade by a dumpster? It feels as though “rest” has lost its meaning. No longer is rest holistic but now just another word for numbing. Instead of taking walks by ourselves around the neighborhood, we pull up Facebook. Instead of a face-to-face dinner, we grab food and sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch. Instead of an intentional conversation with our roommate or spouse, we gaze into the world of happy families, extraordinary vacations, and perfect bodies on Instagram, and in the process, we are becoming more and more restless. Rest is crushed by distraction, and perhaps it is because distraction is busyness in a tranquil disguise.

In a constantly distracted life, we become emotionally dull. We often attempt to stuff away our fears, our loneliness, and all our anxiety in the busyness, and then we wonder why we are exhausted. Rest requires courage. It requires us, like a bird in a storm, to believe beyond the darkening clouds in front and beneath us. We have no clue what’s beneath those clouds. We are unsure if there is a roaring ocean, a scorching desert, or perhaps, even worse, nothing at all. Henri Nouwen, a well-renowned writer and priest, once wrote:

“Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and … we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.”

This is not to say rest is just a constant journey into morbid introspection. We absolutely need ways to cope and relax at times and to take our eyes off ourselves, but we must recognize that a constant life of distraction is a life that is centered on avoidance rather than a life of pursuit. Like that bird by the dumpsters, it was given some relief but forfeited its journey. It desired rest and some sort of stability, rightly, but in the process strayed from the flock and stopped before a far better destination. It gave up on the migration, but that’s not to say it could never continue again.

So then how do we go on, and how do we find the courage to simultaneously rest while keep going?

There is no single answer to this, but we do need companions. Whether it is the flock of birds flying in formation, Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and his two dear friends Ron and Hermione, or you and your best friends, we need people to spur us on. We need people who can be with us on the journey and can allow us to bare our souls. Our proclivity to numbing dies when we have people who call to us, who plead with us to continue and to rest. When birds fly in formation, the bird in front takes on the most pressure until another takes its place and allows it to move backwards. Their flight fatigue is thus distributed equally. We need people like those birds who do the same with us, who share our suffering by moving to the front of formation for us, and encourage us to rest by allowing us to take a step back. We were never meant to journey alone. In addition, we need counselors, pastors, or mentors that help us deal with the darkness, pressure, or fatigue in our own lives which has driven us to seek relief in distraction. Often the weight of our shame, guilt, and exhaustion seems like too much. It is hard enough to stand with a load upon our shoulders, nonetheless fly, but like a good friend of mine once said, “Pilgrims are not comfortable, but they are not alone either.”

So what does resting along life’s journey look like if not numbing? If numbing is an extinguishing of desire then a life of journey is partly a life of longing. This is why pilgrims aren’t comfortable. Longing leaves us exposed to disappointment and hurt. A life of longing leaves us dependent but not divided, while a life of distraction has no need of grace, no need of community, and no need of hope. Staying attentive to our longings allow us to experience some sense of wholeness – a taste of what we were created for. If a bird knows it needs warmer weather to survive, then it must long for and pursue a warmer destination. Similarly, we are creatures of immense desire who are tempted to distraction as C.S. Lewis writes:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child [or bird] who wants to go on making mud pies [or eating by dumpsters] in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Perhaps, most of us are so exhausted because we’ve settled for the destination that can not offer us the rest we desperately need. We were meant for more than mud pies, dumpsters, or Netflix. We were meant to journey together in a life of anticipation and hope, longing and sorrow, endurance and rest. Like that bird, maybe we have become comfortable with just enough to keep us preoccupied and deprived of that familiar longing: the longing to finally arrive home.