“All I know is I’m losing my mind,” Franny said. “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting --it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.” […] “Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of splash.” (J.D Salinger, Franny and Zooey)
I have, at times, ungratefully wondered if maybe God has a pacing problem. One of us was doing something wrong. Since that seems irreverent; I figured that the problem was on my end. Like those elementary school soccer games I used to take part in, I was off picking dandelions and trying to turn blades of grass into music makers while the ball (and those who were ‘on it’ ) were-- well, wherever the ball was taking them. I was a daydreamy kid with little interest in chasing round objects when I could have been pretending anything else. So, I figured that the pacing problem in my life was on my end. I was doing something wrong. I needed to stop with the dandelions and the daydreams and start figuring out how to play the game.
Since my first story, my fiction writing has unintentionally surrounded the question of personal versus divine agency; which is really just a fancy way of asking, “God, are you going to bring this about, or do I have to?” This is a question that I’ve been struggling with for years and it bleeds through my thinking in a staining flood. Am I responsible, or is He? The abundance of opinion seems to be saying that if you want to achieve anything in life, you have to be willing to do the hard slogging to get it done. “God might get you the job but you have to apply for it in the first place…” I’ve been pulled back and forth on this subject for years.
That first story I wrote was about a character, let’s call her, ‘Jane’, who was dissatisfied with her life and set about changing it. She was bored. She was educated. Her career was unfulfilling and she had no real purpose. She had no relationships that were made to progress into something greater and she didn’t know why other people seemed content when she just felt the gnawing question of, ‘Is this it?’
I related perhaps a bit too heavily, and it seemed to me that if I wanted things to change, like my character, I had to set about changing them. I had to pursue relationships. I had to pursue writing. I had run after the things that I wanted out of life. So, I began writing that kind of a story. And, it felt powerful at first. Jane’s realization that she couldn’t just wait for life to happen to her because the cold sweat of fear made her worry that waiting might yield nothing at all. She was haunted by that unsettling line by Michel Houellebecq, “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.” She dreaded the nothing and so, she made drastic changes. She tried to be different than her personality would dictate. She threw herself into situations that usually she would have avoided.
And, like me, she hated it.
But I didn’t want her to. I wanted her to be better than me. I wanted her to achieve something. I wanted her to go from the weakness of dissatisfaction to strength and purpose. So I kept trying to write it, but it just didn’t work.
Besides Jane’s total lack of emotional cooperation, there was a fundamental flaw that I couldn’t get past. No matter what, I couldn’t make the things that happened to Jane entirely the result of her own actions. There was always the invisible hand of author intervention trying to make the story more interesting. If everything that happened to her was a result of her own doing, then the sum of her story was going to be very small indeed. She couldn’t even meet anyone new without having arranged it herself.
Even more to my own dismay, I kept discovering that I was sabotaging my own intentions through the inclusion of deus ex machinas I had written in order to advance the plot. I was like Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, “Here’s our own hand against our hearts…”
The details kept preaching the opposite message to the one that I intended. I wanted my Jane to succeed in changing her circumstances. I needed her to succeed because I wanted to change mine. But even poor Jane didn’t exist in a vacuum. There is really no such thing as making it happen all by yourself. Jane couldn’t meet someone in an elevator without my arranging for it to happen. She couldn’t have a conversation with a shop clerk unless I created that clerk and put her on shift. If she was the arranger of her own fate, then there was nothing of meaning that could happen to her without her orchestrating it. There wouldn’t be any surprises. It was a narrative dead end. I had to abandon Jane because it was too depressing to me.
Lack of contentment feels like hunger rumbling away down deep. Sometimes you are the only one aware of it, but occasionally it roars so loud that others can take note. The desire to change circumstances in order to feed that hunger doesn’t seem wrong. After all, what good is being hungry? And we feel as though we should be able to feed ourselves and meet our own needs. I didn’t realize I had fallen into one of the first temptations that Satan tried with Jesus.
“The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Luke 4:3)
“You’re starving. You have the power. Turn these stones into bread. Feed yourself.” It’s a taunt and a solution rolled into one. Show the world who you are. Perform a miracle. Change your circumstances. Don’t be hungry anymore. God isn’t coming through. Maybe He wants you to do it? You’re starving now. Turn these stones into bread. That is, if you are who you say you are...
In all my wrestling with the question of God’s role versus my responsibility, I never thought of this temptation of Jesus. I wasn’t suffering physically from hunger, but I was hungering for something that I thought I might be able to achieve if I worked hard enough. I thought I could turn some stones into bread and feed myself. I even thought maybe that was what God was asking me to do. So I worked really hard at it. But, quelle surprise, I couldn’t do it because a supernatural act requires Someone super natural to accomplish it.
And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”(Luke 4:4)
I was more like Jane than I realized. There was nothing that I had that I didn’t receive. There are no circumstances that I have orchestrated. The ‘turn these stones into bread’ taunt wasn’t about Jesus’ ability, it was about his obedience to the Father. It was about being led by the Spirit of God rather than His own appetites; be they physical, or a desire for vindication, or a demonstration of power and agency. Jesus spells it out for us constantly, and yet when I focus on my hunger I miss the point.
So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” (John 5:19 NLT)
I yielded to the taunt. Turn these stones into bread. But no matter how much mental energy I spend on figurative spoon bending, the stone won’t be turning to bread any time soon. It is a exercise in frustration. I wish I had understood the lesson from Jane years ago. There was nothing she did that I--as the author--didn’t do for her. She could only respond. She was reactionary. But her inability didn’t make me despise her. I created her; I was rooting for her. I wanted her to grow. I wanted her to overcome. I wanted to write good things into her life. Sometimes I think we get this wrong idea about God that He despises us because of our weakness and inability to change. But it is just that: a wrong idea about God.
“For He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14 NIV)
Like Jane, there is nothing I have that I didn’t receive. There is no such thing as a self-made man. There is no such thing as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. There is nothing that I have that I wasn’t given. The irony of our self-made claims of dreams achieved is that we forget that the dream itself stole into our minds in the night while we were unconscious. If we can’t even claim to know the provenance of our dreams, we are foolish to think we know how best to bring them to life.
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 NASB)