May 27, 2016
Calvin Luther Martin, PhD
When I was 40 and a university professor, my best friend (believe it or not) was an 11-year-old boy. My son Forrest. Earlier this week, 11-year-old Nick Benardot was smashed by a motorist as Nick was on his way home from school. (He’s alive, in a medically-induced coma with substantial brain trauma.)
When I heard the news, I responded as a father — the father of a boy named Forrest. (That’s him in the top photo, age 11. He’s now in his late thirties.)
The thought of young Forrest being mangled by a vehicle — I know of no words for this. Just blackness.
I have experienced this blackness through other means. (I knew an Eskimo in Alaska who told me that when his wife was killed, his mind turned to “air,” as he put it. “For days,” he spoke barely above a whisper, “I had no thoughts. Just air.” He slowly waved his hand before his face.)
In my journey through darkness I waited, waiting for something to take me by the hand. I had no assurances such a “guide” or “savior” would appear; I merely hoped for it. I knew I could not walk myself back into life.
The savior did appear. Took my cold, lifeless hand. I had lost the will to live.
The savior happened to be a physician. (No, not my wife.) A doctor friend in Boston. She phoned nightly for months and talked sometimes for hours. I don’t recall her words. I remember her voice. Honeyed. Mostly, she cared. Somehow she navigated her way to me in this heaving sea of torment and grasped my hand. (I have always wondered, “Was she, literally, an angel?” I’m not sure I would understand the answer.)
Nick’s family will be plunged into this — this place beyond the grasp of language.
Sooner or later, they will feel something reach for their hand. Into a mind that has become “air” will slowly come a lilac blossom, a lily-of-the-valley or forget-me-not, a robin’s evening song. Or perhaps a child’s sudden, bubbling laughter. As if a match is struck. Its tiny flame rekindling the will to go on.
I have taught seminarians and preached to congregations. I have read the right books and heard all the answers from Aristotle to the present. And yet I know no spiritual or secular answer to this lonely, terrifying, excruciating experience which, after all, cannot be fathomed by questions or answers. It is the thing Milton called “Chaos and Old Night.”
Rilke wrestled with it:
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief —
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
He offered this in response:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the angel, who appeared
to the wrestler of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel,
(who often simply declined the fight),
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated,
by constantly greater beings.
The last three lines are riveting: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” It’s counter-intuitive. Counter-intuitive and horrible.
I thought I would die. I considered taking my life. I had the horrible thought that I may go on with the appearance of living, although inside I would be dead — a zombie. As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it, I saw “no exit.” In Rilke’s words, I was pushing through solid rock. Everything was close to my face, and everything close to my face was stone.
Something huge, something cosmic was wrestling with me. Surely this is what Nick’s family feels. It defeated me. Decisively. It will defeat them just as decisively.
But — then — something will happen. Unexpected. A gift. The angel. A match struck in darkness. Time, that stirs with her slow spoon — in Time something unanticipated will happen.
It always does.
If we say “yes.”