First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 1

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” by Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing.  If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.

There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me.  Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists.  Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.

When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,

If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).                                   (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)

If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world.  And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance.  I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs.  When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.

Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away.  My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible.  We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative?  Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless?  I wouldn’t.

This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation.  The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.

In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.

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Finding Proof in the Storm

I have always wanted to write about the poetry in Bruce Springsteen’s work!  Thank you for giving me the opportunity.  Let’s start with the beautiful “Living Proof,” written after the birth of his first son.

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord’s undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof.

The spare imagery and description in the first verse is so effective: you can picture the light from heaven, embodied in the moon-filled boy, breaking through the dusk. I remember as a teenager drawing a Christmas card with this lyric and a picture of a ray from heaven breaking into the darkness of the stable. The image of the “fiery” moon is so interesting. To me, it evokes a memory of high school, when I was pretty depressed, staring up at the cold, beautiful, aloof moon and feeling wounded by it. “It was all the beauty I could take.”

…Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been a long, long drought baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

I love how Springsteen doesn’t go overboard and act as if all his existential problems are solved with the birth of the baby.  Life is still “fragile,” and he still feels like a “thief” who hasn’t really earned this blessing.  In other songs, Springsteen talks about a tentative hope or a belief in redemption and God’s love that keeps him going, but it’s never enough to take away the feeling of “dancing in the dark;” stumbling through the pain of life without despair, but without certitude and peace either.  In “Atlantic City:” “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”  Maybe.  But to stop searching for the meaning in life is unthinkable–Springsteen often references the living death of an unexamined life.  In “The Promised Land:”

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning, go to work each day
but your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometime I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart.

The only way for him to live with himself is by leaving the town and going out into the wilderness:

I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the deams that tear you apart….

He rejects the false “dreams” that kept him pacified, but there is nothing except blind “faith” to replace them.  This reminds me of what I remember from reading Camus in college: even if you’re not sure that there is any transcendence in the world, the most noble thing you can do is to live as if there is.  [I am aware that this may be a totally inaccurate description of Camus!  It’s been a long time.]  The speaker in “Born to Run” doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s got to escape the “death trap” of the town.  Because he’s unsatisfied with his false life, he’s “born to run,” just like the speaker in “Hungry Heart;” “like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing,” he’s compelled to keep running until he finds his true home.  Like Aeneas, he has to go down into the underworld before he can discern the path to his true destiny.

After re-reading this post, I realize how unusual “Living Proof” is; it begins with the same theme of being lost in the “drought,” but goes one step further by recognizing actual proof of God’s love–not just some nameless hope.  He may be missing the words to the prayer he needs to make, but the innocence of his son completes it for him.  One final quote from “Living Proof:”

You shot through my anger and my rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys, no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.

Next time I write about Springsteen, I’d like to continue talking about this theme in the song “Tunnel of Love.”  I’d better stop for now because I could do this all day.