Watching storms always reminds me of a summer afternoon in Charleston over a decade ago where for hours I watched black clouds from hundreds of miles away race to overtake the daylight. Hulking black masses fell over themselves like a thousand hungry demons in a race to deluge the land with their wild torrents of water. It made me feel very small. I'm still awed by the relentless fury of an oncoming storm. The foreshadowing, the rising action, the tense quiet are the best parts of the story.
The safety of my doorway gave me perspective on the sheets of water twisting across the yard. Someone got caught in those torrents tonight, getting out of their car or heading home from work. I imagined the futile wrestling with umbrellas rendered useless by the sideways motion of the water, the icy feeling of rain piercing clothing, the gross lack of perspective caused as life collapses to a single desire to get out of the rain. I imagined this storm inside of a tee pee or log cabin, with leaks in the roof and without the weather channel app and 911. I said a prayer of thanks and felt very small.
I started Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky a few days ago. Although I enjoy a book that makes me laugh or cry, it is extremely rare for me to find a book that triggers anxiety. Something about the way Dostoevsky gets into the minds of his characters and communicates the darkness of sin, the hopelessness induced by injustice and poverty, and the absurd lies our egos devour on a daily basis makes me feel like I cannot breathe. It will likely take me a year to read this book because ten pages brings me dangerously close to hyperventilating. After twenty pages of reading tonight I was so out of sorts that I snapped at Quinn. I had to leave the room, do some breathing exercises, and speak some truth to myself before I was calm enough to apologize.
In the preface Richard Pevear describes a change in Dostoevsky's writing after his return from exile. Dostoevsky's later works, including Crime and Punishment, are considerably darker. The flimsy reality of the concrete world plays a secondary role to the darker realities of consciousness. I feel like a voyeur peering into someone else's soul and finding my own struggles being played out as a farce on a stage. It is both mesmerizing and unhinging. To what would crushing poverty or a hopeless economic system reduce me? How would gross injustice or extreme hunger warp my understanding of the truth?
I've been sitting in a class on Sunday mornings where overfed upper middle class white people talk about theology. I love the people and I love the discussion, but every once in a while I want to climb the walls and claw my eyes out because we sit there like Job, throwing out God's precepts with so little experience of his person, as if there weren't a thousand hungry demons bearing down on us ready to unleash all kinds of evil.
I'm also reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. After being sort-of wrongfully imprisoned, she writes of lying a cell listening to a woman in the next cell:
In the next cell to me there was a drug addict who beat her head against the metal walls of her cell and howled like a wild animal. No woman in child birth, no cancer patient, no one in the long year I had spent in King's County hospital had revealed suffering like this. I pressed my hands to my ears, and covered my head with my pillow to try to muffle the sounds. It was most harrowing to think that this pain, this torture, was in a way self-inflicted, with full knowledge of the torture involved. The madness, the perverseness of this seeking for pleasure that was bound to be accompanied by such mortal agony was hard to understand. To see human beings racked, by their own will, made one feel the depth of the disorder of this world… I felt the sadness of sin, the unspeakable dreariness of sin from the first petty self-indulgence to this colossal desire which howled through metal walls! And yet I do not think I thought of these things as I thought of God while in the solitary confinement cell at Occoquan. I just suffered desperately and desired to be free from my suffering, with a most urgent and selfish passion. The instinct for self-preservation made me forget everything but a frantic desire for freedom, to get away from these depths into which I had fallen…. I could get away, but what of others? I could get away, paying no penalty, because of my friends, my background, my education, my privilege. I suffered but was not part of it. I put it from me. It was too much for me. I think that for a long time, one is stunned by such experiences. They seem to be quickly forgotten, but they leave a scar that is never removed.I nearly sobbed at these words, seeing myself in both the addict she describes and in her own instinct for self-preservation. John Owen may have taught me the theology of sin's deceit, but Dostoevsky's storytelling is leaving its scars on my consciousness. Whenever I put down his book, I can only describe my emotional state, like Day does, as a "frantic desire for freedom, to get away from these depths into which I had fallen."
Because of Day's book and Wilson's Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl (which I can't stop coming back to for some reason), I've been exploring the concept of smallness in my quiet time. What does it mean for Christ, the Word himself, to take on flesh and wash the feet of the men who would abandon him just hours later? Certainly I am completely out of my league, here, but I suspect I have greatly underestimated the role of courage in this story. To face the approaching storm and stand in its billowing torrents without fleeing is a feat unimaginable to my weak frame. I can't even watch it coming without a teacup to warm my hands and a dry house prepared for my retreat. Even reading about these storms deeply scars my consciousness, so how can I presume to try and face them in real life?
I am deluged by "the depth of the disorder in the world… the unspeakable dreariness of sin from the first petty self-indulgence to this colossal desire which howled through metal walls!" But though I am deluged, I fear drowning far less than I fear the self-inflicted torture of my sinful nature. And perhaps that kind of desperation, selfish though it may be, is the beginning of courage.