“I'm hearing right and wrong so clearly
There must be more than this.
It's only in uncertainty
That we're naked and alive.
I hear it through the rattle of a streetcar;
Hear it through the things you said.
I can get so scared.
Listen to the wind.”
~ Peter Gabriel, That Voice Again
Major efforts are composed of small measures. This often occurs to me, when in the throes of processing large archival aggregates out of many thousands of single components. Years are made of days which comprise hours. A friend talked about their job search, comparing it to throwing big rocks at a wall until it crumbles. That’s the desired outcome. Thinking of the present as an indefinite trial, linking unresolved days, generates its own brand of exhaustion that only loads more upon existing burdens. I try to avoid doing this, but like any forward-moving driver, I must check all gauges and mirrors. Patience in tribulation is essential in these staggering times.
Now 13 months into housing displacement and its accompanying instability, there remains no rest for the weary. As my friend with the wall metaphor, there isn’t a day without searching and inquiring. And constant, earnest prayers. It’s how I push back against oppression and thwarted hopes. Other vital tactics are to persevere in my studies and writing; these are solid sources of inspiration and means to higher goals. Such things are extremely hard to find; if you find literary sources, forms of creative expression, and devotions that uplift (instead of “dumb down”), hold fast to these things and grow with them. Keeping vigil for better situations parallels my interests in learning and trying to understand the broader world. For many years, I’ve started each day with radio-accompanied ablutions and coffee. During my graduate school years, that routine would typically begin at about 5am. In high school, it was New York City’s Newsradio88; life in Boston and its orbit got me into 1030-WBZ. Invariably, the repetition of basics and ads sends me to the checkerboard realm of religious radio. At the tops of hours, I bounce back to WBZ for much less-stilted news. Within that minefield, however, are a few edifying and useful homilists. Most of the preachers are terrible orators, sounding to my New Englander’s ears like something between auctioneers and Huckleberry Hound. But this professional archivist can separate wheat from chaff. Radios can always be switched off, too, as much as I’m intrigued to hear what’s out there.
Among the more scholarly and nonsectarian Christian resources are the broadcasts from Chicago’s Moody Institute. Recordings of the late Rev.Weirsbe’s brilliance, delivered with his gentle Midwestern lilt, continue to outshine almost all of what proliferates. The successor to Weirsbe is Moody’s Rev. Lutzer, also with an academic and folksy yarnspinning style, though much more stoic than his predecessors. Well, on a recent workday morning with hot water running and coffee on the bathtub’s edge, I caught one of Lutzer’s installments on his theme, Making the Best of a Bad Decision. I’ll add that many of us must make the best of other people’s bad decisions. Can I get an Amen? Back to Lutzer. Through the noise of first-thing scrubbing, I heard the radio voice beckon, “If you’re still alive, God isn’t through with you.” Surely he wants to encourage his listeners, but considering my state of affairs of recent years, I can easily look at those words ambiguously and through my snowballed sarcasm. Sometimes I do, yet the resultant bad feeling makes me take it back. Reverting to a bleary-eyed positive, my leanings reach inward and upward, through my imagination. That’s my supplicatosphere, which is the stratum immediately beneath clouds of unknowing. “Through with me,” in the wrong context, sounds threatening; but in a healthier frame of reference, my wish really is for Divine intervention. Why is grace deferred? Did I misstep? How am I supposed to know, if nobody tells me? Have I overstayed my welcome? Perhaps I’m inhabiting the very attempt to comprehend the meaning of hope.
While trying to glean insights about things eternal, I’m also constantly reckoning with the ways of mortals. Recently with my philosophy students, I taught about the Golden Rule, framing this in the context of ethics. Our group discussion, probing the time-honored “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” went right into dilemmas about what happens when there isn’t any reciprocity for our respectful acts. Do we keep on being honorable and forbearing, or do we conform to the hardball tactics that confront us? You can imagine our very lively Socratic forum discourse. Whatever we do, we need to choose our reactions and responses. Generally, there’s the trigger end, and there’s the barrel end. Are you the issuer, or are you the inflicted? When so many critical factors are out of our control, what is within a person’s reach? With each day, questions arise in my thoughts as to whether landlords, employers, and community leaders should care about their inhabitants and “stakeholders;” in a word, neighbors. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect such people of influence to care, as I care. Ever the cockeyed idealist, I believe everyone should care. That’s how things stand a chance of changing for the better. A genuine sense of respect, even in simple transactions, runs against the currents of pessimism.
Just the other day, I helped a researcher with a query so complex we needed to go back and forth rather extensively in order to unearth the actual question. Having some specifics that mutually made sense, I set about producing what I could find to help this fellow. In the midst of my retrievals, the man frustratedly stormed out of the research room. While I began putting the materials away, he returned and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I think this world of instant gratification has gotten to me.” He pointed disdainfully at his smartphone. After expressing my understanding, he sat down to read through what I had found, and we talked about his projects. His initial and abrupt impatience was disappointing, but his later presence of mind was impressive. In a handful of minutes, I witnessed metanoia- on both our accounts. Reflecting upon this, later in the day, I was reminded about a barely-known spiritual exercise called examination of conscience. I use parts of my daily journal writing for this purpose, considering such writing as the safest space for articulating thoughts. “Make an appraisal of the entire situation,” wrote Francisco Fernandez Carvajal, adding that we must know what means are available to us, and how to be faithful and thorough. In addition, we must also contemplate how we can remove obstructions in our intentions, as “knowledge of self is the first step the soul must take in order to arrive at the knowledge of God.”
Collecting and digesting knowledge comes very naturally to me, always taking notes. My notebooks become reference sources themselves and they’re great for me to reread when distractions throw my studies off course. These many pages of annotated gleanings remind me of the philosophical texts I’ve been so carefully reading, while struggling to prosper above the fray. As it is with examining my conscience, there must be focused intention to transform head-knowledge into heart-knowledge. What is there for me to learn, from my experiences? “When a person accepts a great undertaking,” as Carvajal recommended, “they must consider various possibilities and look for the opportune means for bringing the work to successful completion,” adding that “we have to be aware of what is lacking so that we can ask God confidently.” In my repeated recoveries from rejected applications, trying to figure out my deficiencies (because reasons are never specified), while left to figure things out I remind myself that more attempts will be accompanied by more failures. More at-bats increase the odds of striking out. Yet still, and even now as the setbacks persist unabated, my efforts continue and amplify. It’s imperative. The here-and-now is at once stifling, uninviting, and tentative; it’s more than enough to keep the search coals stoked. As an extension of my certainty that all we see is not all there is, during the present drudgery I’m convinced there is more than this, and the accumulation of my being is meant for better and more conducive circumstances.