My mind has been on my students more than usual recently. Not any kid in particular, just all their half-grown faces. I frequently wonder if they know just how very much is written in their eyes, loud and legible. I see openness and stone walls, loneliness and love, innocence and disillusionment, cruelty and raw compassion, things that make me fear for them and things that make me hope—a dozen absolute contradictions bundled in every glance. They walk around bristling with them.
Recently I was reading the story of Jacob in Genesis and I was struck by the way he too is a whole sharp passel of things that should not be able to exist together: the desire to win, the desire to be loved, brazenness, fear, deceit, remorse, anger, wanderlust. And he was a very long time ago.
This tugging, ripping tension existed then and it exists now, in adults as well as adolescents. Really, I think we never grow out of it at all. And the fact of the matter is that the unwieldiness of these contradictions in ourselves and in others is too much at times, falls unevenly on shoulders which are—in their humanness—fundamentally too weak to bear it, pushing us down into the mud. When I think back over the last couple weeks I can see griefs of contradiction at church, at work, in my own sodden heart and in the hearts of those around me, contradictions which break our molds of understanding, which come near to breaking us.
No wonder my students’ swagger sometimes goes a little crooked like there’s a heavyweight boxing match happening in the space between their collarbones. We’re all left wading through the sludge.
But how? How do we get through?
Well, I’m only guessing, but I think what you do is read The Velveteen Rabbit to your sad freshmen, tear pages out of books to decorate a bulletin board, keep an eye out for the kids looking for a place to sit, cover your friends’ classes, make dinner plans for next week, teach when you’ve lost your voice, and go home with your hands in the pockets of your coat and take a nap in your big chair. You take a long walk with unwashed hair and then make shepherd’s pie and listen to Mark Heard sing about how Jesus “looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.”
Because we do not struggle through the mud alone. The Lord knows all about contradiction. He allows it, and he himself has lived it. We do not need to force ourselves to master grief and love together perfectly, because he already has. Instead, what we must do is mark each fight, each unknowable contradictory struggle, with an ebenezer monument which proclaims: Here I have wrestled. And here God promised to prevail, against even the flailing labyrinthine darkness of the human soul.