“Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
“Pity us, yes, but we are brave, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself on us.”—Marilynne Robinson, Lila
“The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts.”—Pam Houston, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
When I was a child, growing up, as I did, in the Southern Baptist tradition, the difference between grace and mercy was described to me thusly: mercy is when God relents and spares you from a punishment you deserve, while grace is when God looks upon you with favor simply because you are a child of God (the latter was always delivered with the asterisk: *though you do not now, nor will you ever, deserve His favor). I remember thinking that with mercy and grace on my side, I had it made! Not entirely, I suspect, what the Church had in mind with this teaching. Rather than striking me with fear, I felt buoyed. How lovely it once was to be a child of God, deserving or not.
Mercy is something many children come to understand at a young age, because decent parents, for whom a child’s moral development is paramount, will often show it to them. Lord knows mine did, countless times. And every child knows when they have got away with something that, by all rights, they should not have. But grace comes only when one has lived long enough to know something of the unrelenting sorrow and heartache that life delivers to each of us. Grace has something to do with our own brokenness and the way that beauty still finds us, in spite of that. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, one would say ‘unworthiness,’ but I think ‘brokenness’ is more apt, both because I do not believe that humans are inherently unworthy of anything at all (though, we certainly prove ourselves to be actually unworthy—of each other and of this beautiful planet—in a million different ways, big and small, every day) and because brokenness implies nothing whatsoever about our guilt or innocence. It rather captures something of our moral fragility. Life on earth can be long, and if we don’t muck it up ourselves time and again, then something else (our pathologies, bad luck, bad choices, addictions, tragedy, etc.) surely will. Grace is when the distinct pain of a human life can sit comfortably right alongside its breathtaking beauty. How is it possible that a perfectly delicious wild strawberry will still grow in a garden that belonged to a child whose life was taken too soon?
We will never really know, and that’s kind of the point.
“I still think it’s weird that people die,” said a new friend to me not too long ago, as our children splashed around in a pool, without a care in the world. This was offered compassionately in response to my having said that I was lately overcome with sadness at the passing of a dear old family friend. It was expected, it was time, and I have thought a great deal about death, in general, considering myself to be fairly evolved on the subject. Yet, I was somehow in disbelief, bereft of any useful language to capture my sorrow. And that sadness had something to do with the loss of this particular human life, to be sure. But it also had a goodly bit to do with the specter of human loss more generally. I presume the remark was intended to communicate something about how strange it is that a person can be here, in our presence, one moment, and gone the next. How do we even conceive of that degree of instability, the fact that our world will not necessarily hold, let alone explain it to our children? I recalled that I had a similar sense of wonder at the birth of my children, not yet among us one moment, then, just like that, here and instantly an integral part of our shared moral life. When someone dies, though, any hope must be manufactured, as we struggle to make sense of our loss and to go on with it lodged deeply inside of us.
I believe in counting blessings, even when life is grim. Not out of duty or some public show of virtue. Nor as a kind of Pauline Christian reminder to ourselves that we have somehow been favored and, thus, narrowly escaped a worse fate. This is what is meant by the familiar phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And although thoughtful people will recite those words when they have none others at the ready—indeed, I have done so many times when, I am ashamed to admit, I felt mostly relief that I had been spared some suffering that another had not—it is a phrase that only has the trappings of empathy, distancing us from others’ pain so that we can breathe easier knowing that it was not us who fell out of God’s favor. I do not care for this sort of comparative analysis, as it sets us above and apart from others, and also has a way of obscuring the messiness and brokenness of our own lives from us. It is a kind of self-deceit.
Another familiar but, to my mind, impoverished notion of grace is one that sees those who have it as “touched,” a passive receiver of a gift for which they did not ask. I suppose that is true in some cases, but not all or even most. I think grace is rather like a seed that is planted within us and is watered over time, if we are lucky, by those who care for us. This is especially crucial when we are small. We need people who have lived a while on earth who can teach us how to open our eyes to the boundless beauty all around and to be in awe—that is, to know something of what it is to be awestricken, in the body and in the heart. I am reminded, just now, of my sons’ teachers at our precious Mountain Sprouts preschool here in Telluride. As far as I can tell, they take it as their first duty to the children to be one in which they help them to see, trust, and grow inside of things like friendships, making and sharing meals together, digging in the dirt and growing things in a garden, walking and be-ing in nature, creating art together, talking and sharing feelings and experiences, and many other things. Yet, they do not take a saccharine approach to the moral development of children, the kind that one sees so often in traditional early-education settings, in which the ultimate goal is to somehow secure the child’s happiness, where this is understood as a mere temporary psychological state, rather than a deeper orientation to the world. These masterful teachers acknowledge, confront, and sit with a lot of dark feelings and challenging behavior (the latter, we cannot deny it, so often from our own littlest JoJo, who could try the patience of Mother Teresa herself, on a good day). They encourage the little ones they care for to be honest about the sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. inside of them—all of the less pretty, but no less important, parts of themselves. They may not know it, but these teachers are growing something like grace inside of our children—grace conceived of as the ability to be joyful in the world, both beautiful and heartbroken, as we all are and ever will be, so long as we draw breath.
And as we come into adulthood, grace will grow inside of us if we consistently choose to be with people who are as honest about their sorrow as they are able to keep looking to the good. Counting blessings is a hard discipline, one of noticing and appreciating the beauty all around and within us, of staying present for life’s countless mysteries and unexpected turns, which anyone who has lived past twenty years of age can tell you is incredibly difficult. It is so easy to simply check out, and we do all the time. But something about this discipline trains our eyes over time to always look for the good, to see it in unexpected places or people, and, most importantly, to reconstitute the good when necessary. Habituating oneself to grace cultivates a certain disposition, an orientation to the world, and is not the mere receiving of a gift. Could be both, I guess. But, for me, it’s an invaluable survival skill. And although I cringe when people encourage the bereaved to hold fast to the good times they had with their loved one, or to be grateful for the children born inside of a marriage that is presently unravelling beyond recognition, or to appreciate what little food is on the table when it is simply not enough, I nevertheless know that my own suffering, small as it may be, has taught me that staying open to the mysteries and wonders of life, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of unspeakable sorrow, is how we go on. That’s grace.
But, let’s face it, it is getting harder and harder to count blessings, to construct a grace-filled life. Technology, politics, capitalist greed, consumer culture, a dying planet, unparalleled violence and ethnic cleansing all over the globe, the horrifying return of white nationalism at home, etc. make many of us feel as though we can hardly breathe most days, let alone deeply engage with reality as it is given to us. “Be grateful” has become a trite slogan written in a tacky cursive on an oversized pillow, a luxury we can no longer afford, a self-indulgence we know we ought to turn away from at a time like this. The political and actual climate in which we live is daily finding new ways to implode; the wisest among us seem utterly bereft of explanations or insights about how we got here or where we are headed now; and, it would seem, we have all but entirely lost our political and ethical moorings. And to make matters worse, if grace is at least partly dependent on a certain kind of relationship to the natural world, and I want to say that it very much is, then it would seem there is much reason to despair. We can no longer trust that the earth will provide, that it will nurture us and keep us safe, that it will always bring us back to some primordial part of our being. We have beaten Mother Earth down, tortured her beyond recognition—almost, anyway, but not quite—that it is reasonable to wonder: why would she give us anything at all other than an early end to life on this planet? But, of course, we know she will continue to give to us for as long as she can, until she has absolutely nothing left, because that is just what women do.
I also find grace in literature and fine writing, in particular, that of people like Marilynne Robinson, who writes so powerfully on the beauty that exists in human relationships that, from the outside, don’t seem like all that much. No other writer that I know of can illuminate the way that a certain generosity of spirit can be present in a heart that is marked with sorrow and heartache. In her beautiful novel, Lila, the narrator, Lila, who has lived an itinerant and rather rough life, without the comforts of a home or intimacy of a partnership, thinks the following of the older widowed pastor for whom she has developed something like fondness: “It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you’d never stop missing it.” What Robinson gives with the one hand, she instantly takes away with the other. Lila might come to know a deep love unlike anything she has known before and it might even save her, but even that love will bring new heartache and fear, which she must learn to accept and live with if she is to make a life with this good and decent man. Writing about human relationships, Robinson shows us grace and gives us a reason to be hopeful, even in times of darkness: “This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is…So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.” I have been reading a lot of Robinson these last few weeks, as I try to make sense of the way in which joy and loss can co-exist and, incredibly, even spring forth at the same time. Isn’t it one of the human soul’s greatest mysteries?
Pamela Houston is another writer that I often turn to when I want to remember that we are still in relationship with this beautiful planet and we are not only duty-bound to care for it, but we lose a part of ourselves by turning away from it. I wish to cite a rather long passage from her latest work, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a book that is as unsentimental as it is incredibly moving, because it is so very lovely and captures precisely what I mean:
“I have spent most of my life outside, but for the last three years, I have been walking five miles a day, minimum, wherever I am, urban or rural, and can attest to the magnitude of the natural beauty that is left. Beauty worth seeing, worth singing, worth saving, whatever that word can mean now. There is beauty in a desert, even one that is expanding. There is beauty in the ocean, even one that is on the rise. And even if the jig is up, even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally wounded at our hands. Aren’t we more complex, more interesting, more multifaceted people if we do? What good has the hollow chuckle ever done anyone? Do we really keep ourselves from being hurt when we sneer instead of sob? If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking…If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? In what ways does it impoverish us? We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness. We can still decide not to let her die alone.”
Now I know for a fact that Pam Houston is a good steward of this earth and that she does all the right things when it comes to taking care of Mother Earth, leaving only the faintest of footprints upon her—composting, recycling, upcycling, catching rain water in barrels, growing her food, etc. Any environmentalist could point to her as an exemplar of how to live well on this dying planet. That is all well and good, and, people, please keep carrying your compost on airplanes back home to your chickens if you feel the math works out (it doesn’t, but whatever). But what I am most interested in is not so much a person like Houston’s environmental practices as her ability and deep desire to keep counting blessings in the natural world, despite her knowledge that, as she says, the jig is up. Even inside of the most self-torturing thoughts she has, she finds beauty all around.
There it is—heartache sitting right there next to unbridled joy and boundless love. I certainly do not know if God has looked upon a person like Houson with favor, and so given her the gift of grace. It’s not for me to say. But what I can say is this: despite a life filled with more pain and suffering than most of us will ever know, she has trained her eyes to look to the good, and has made for herself a grace-filled life. And that is a thing of beauty in itself, a reminder to all of us that we are the love we make in this life—every moment of every day. That’s grace.