No Country for Old Men (2007) - "I feel overmatched."
or: Tommy Lee Jones the Theologian
I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.(Abraham Lincoln in a 23 January 1841 letter to his law partner John T. Stuart.)*
One of the greater challenges amidst life's travails, ὅτι μεθ' ἡμῶν ὁ Θεός, is the conspicuous silence of the Lord to one's suffering. To be sure, a more mundane offense is the silence of one's fellow man, but, when one has no mundane fellowship to offer one company, where else has one to turn but to one's Creator? Alas, one is not likely to be cast to the ground by a blinding light or to hear a voice from out of the whirlwind or even the Voice of a gentle breeze. (See Acts 9:3-4, Job 38:1, and III Kingdoms 19:12 LXX, and cf. I Kings 19:12 KJV or any translation based on the Masoretic Text.) Indeed, if one looks to heaven, whatever wonder one may experience at the marvel of Creation or whatever sorrow at its dreariness or corruption, one ought not be surprised if one does not behold the heavens opened or the Son of man at the right hand of the Father. (See Acts 7:55-56.) We hear a great deal about the Lord's majesty, and, if we look in, let's face it, the wrong places in our times of need, we hear a great deal of boilerplate about inviting Him into our hearts (a wonderful bit of language I have yet quite to find so finely stated in Holy Scripture), but making it through our trials on the journey to eternal life is not so simple or easy a matter. God does not make it so, He does not promise it to be so, and we ought not think it so.
When I chose the title for this journal, it was not just a throwback to an old Internet nickname of mine that I knew from my youth of listening to Midnight Oil and the band's many references to Australian figures and stories, such as that of Harold Bell Lasseter and his lost reef of gold. Even when I chose the nickname for myself some five years ago, it was not just some quaint homage to a beloved continent or one of the great rock and roll bands to have come from it. No, I knew well that I was choosing the name for its inherent commentary on the folly and futility of our pursuits and on the possible deception that contributes to the vanity of our earthly purposes. So it is especially fitting that I come to this moment in my Lost Reef and let it be the spirit of this essay: I am some thirteen months into my current trial (and some nine into this journal), and my misery has not abated. In many prolonged moments—and the autumn has been harsh—it is quite a bit worse than at most others, it has been overall consistently pernicious, and through it all God has yet to answer.
My time and experience in this rotten world had, to be sure, already been enough prior to last year for my faith to have been tested in other major episodes. In my boyhood and youth, for instance, amidst the disintegration of my family, I went through a period of unbelief, initially somewhat willful but eventually simply a matter of what I knew in life during that period and a time nonetheless possessed of intense yearning. As a young man in my middle and late twenties, and by then also a more mature Orthodox Christian, I began to ascertain that what should have been "young adulthood" had been squandered on vague but onerous familial responsibilities and a general spiritual lethargy amidst a disturbing paucity of love in a varied wealth of treachery, and I languished. If one knew me face-to-face then, one could see without any great discernment that I was an unhappy fellow, and in some moments I was downright unpleasant to be around. I got through it somehow.
About three years ago, and for a period of some months, I went through a difficulty that I thought proved my faith once and for all. A nice little number of folk around me knew that I was troubled, and no one did anything. I prayed, and God did not relieve me. Shall I give up on this whole believing in God business? I somewhat simplistically asked myself, reckoning that I was standing on the brink of atheism, but I never took the plunge, and I was never blown into the chasm. Believing in God, you see, was not just some choice, as in, "Having evaluated the erudite argumentation and the scientific evidence, I conclude this, or I have proven that." Nonsense. Believing in God, however troubled by doubt and sorrow it has been, has always been a product of experience and perception.
To be sure, there can be choice involved, as, for instance, if you asked me, "Was Phaedra Aingworth the woman who gave birth to you?" I would find in the totality of my memory of her (and without, by the way, need of recourse to, say, my Birth Certificate) the most reasonable choice in answering, "Why, yes, of course she was!" The reason for choosing such an answer is not that it makes me feel better, and it certainly is not something so bland as my having been "indoctrinated" from my youth to believe the woman to be my birth mother. If the question is asked, though, one has to give a bit of thought to one's answer, there you have the choice. I suppose even, if a boy thought very ill of his mother, he might choose not to call her that, just as, say, an adoptive son may nonetheless choose to say that his adoptive mother is his mother with no need of an adjective to qualify the term. We see choices in true belief if one has to think about or explain it, and we see also (most obviously in these last two hypotheticals) purpose—and in this we should also see the danger of perverting truth or fact to a purpose and thus towards false belief, marvels of dishonesty that we can be, making reason the slave of our most insidious passions—but believing something does not require that one be presented with alternatives or test a hypothesis in some cognizant way, nor should it.
As for believing in God, it must be admitted that this is a more complex matter. One tends to know mother and father from infancy and in direct and intimate association. God is a bit harder. It is not my intention in this brief essay to explain what it is of my experiences that kept me from the chasm of atheism some three years ago, and so also not my intention to explain how, despite substantial threats, it has not happened in these last thirteen months or so either. I do hope to let that continue to unfold in this journal—as it is already taking place in these writings—but that is not something I expect to finish any time soon, and certainly not today. For today, it is the hardness that I reflect on.
There is a remarkable moment in the movie No Country for Old Men where Tommy Lee Jones, his lawman character having reached some age, witnessed bad things, and gone through the failed pursuit of an evil man, confesses to an old friend, "I always figured, when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. He didn't." Here is the entire scene, well worth a couple of minutes of your time:
Let's don't presume that this is some kind of atheistic comment. Consider what he goes on to say about God's silence and how his friend responds: "I don't blame Him. If I was Him, I'd have the same opinion of me that He does." "You don't know what He thinks." The exchange is not one of godlessness: it is one of the hardness of this life ("This country's hard on people," a remark whose country ought just as much be the entire world as it is the outback where the events of the story take place) and of the folly of expecting God to give one comfort or of believing that, if He does not, it means He has judged one lacking.
When I went through the lesser trial (lesser than my present distress, that is) three years ago, I understood that among the strengths and truth of Orthodox Christianity is that it does not hyper-personalize God. (Oh, the Orthodox faith is the faith that laid out the Trinitarian dogma of God's three persons, but of course you realize that I do not mean personalize in this sense.) Although I long for the Lord's comfort, and although I have yet to be rid of the extreme vexation I feel at His silence, I do not believe that He promises these things in this life, and neither does my Church. One's suffering may be of any duration, and God knows and usually offers no explanation. Indeed it is a sure way to drive oneself to madness, delusion, or apostasy to try very hard to discern what God's reasons may be for causing or permitting this or that fortune or misfortune.
I should mention also, I may have more readily turned away in my childhood on account of having had a greater expectation of discernible parental comfort from God. Now, although He is my Heavenly Father, I have long understood that this is not to be evaluated in human relational terms. I have an earthly father, and the Creator of the universe ain't him.
Let me leave you with another scene from Tommy Lee Jones the Theologian, this one taken from The Fugitive. The young deputy marshal in the scene is perturbed, and in one ear made a bit deaf, because his boss, Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard, just killed a fugitive who was holding the young marshal hostage, and he did so by shooting him at close range rather than negotiating with the chap. The elder marshal virtually speaks as a prophet.
By the way, although Abraham Lincoln was likely generally inclined towards a somber mood, the despair he expressed in the letter quoted at the top of this essay was, it seems, particularly influenced by his having just lost Mary Todd. He would be reunited with her and marry her almost two years later, but at the time of his letter, he was bereft of her. Perhaps he too tried to bargain, a perfectly normal inclination in grief, but, whatever the man did, there is no bargaining with God. President Lincoln's fortunes, and those of his Mary, took their course, but it would be vanity to presume that any favorable outcome or an outcome of any quality in this life flowed from a negotiation with the Lord. And who even knows why the Lord permitted the man to experience that despair or any other depression he may have known? God, like Deputy Marshal Gerard, doesn't bargain, and, also like His fugitive-hunting prophet, He has no need we can place upon him of explaining anything either.
For further reading:
Three Candles, by Now Extinguished, http://lostreef.blogspot.com/2013/04/three-candles-by-now-extinguished.html
Batter my heart, three person'd God, http://lostreef.blogspot.com/2013/04/batter-my-heart-three-persond-god.html
For the Lloyd is with us, http://lasseterslostreef.tumblr.com/post/70496237191/for-the-lloyd-is-with-us
* It's the Internet. Although I knew this quote, I cannot remember quite from what sources I knew it. I searched it out through Google and found it on the Abraham Lincoln Research Site in a page called Depressed? Read Abraham Lincoln's Words: http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln84.html (retrieved 16 December 2013). I have decided, trusting in my prior memory of it, not to search out a more authoritative or in any case hard citation (no pejoration intended here towards the Research Site: I am simply not acquainted with it other than from this search). ↑