Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (3) On Power & Endurance in an Unjust World

Charles early years, as you might expect, were formative in his perceptions of power, "power" being a way of saying "this is how the world really is."
Between school and home, I began to understand power in a very simple and brutal way: as the ability to inflict pain and suffering with impunity.  The key word here is impunity – if there were consequences, if there were a check, someone of something that could or would step in to prevent or even punish, then there would be no power.  There may be cruelty and violence, but real, raw, brutal power needs to be able to say, “You are at my mercy.  No help is coming, because there is no one who can or will help you.”  It needs law.  It needs righteousness.  I have come, over time, to appreciate and even understand there are other kinds of power (I have to in the vocation to which I have been called), but even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe. And I grew increasingly angry.  Angry at the world.  (p 39)
This is not mere "belief".  This is personal experience:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
And with poignant clarity:
Because I never lived, as a child, as a young person, with any sense that the world could be changed.  Little would work in my favor.  There was no cavalry, no knight in shining armor, no guardian angel waiting to save me.  That never happened.  There was no justice.  Just loneliness, shame, fear, and violance.  The world was a fundamentally unjust place, and it had to be endured. (p 57)
Charles recalls his childhood perceptions of ‘power’ with striking clarity.  One senses the wounds beneath his words, a characterization of power and existence that remains fresh and vivid decades later.  He admits as much.

“..even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe.”
One does not choose to understand power in this way.  It just happens, the result of thousands of tiny interactions, observations, failures, successes, torments.  One does not “choose” to see power as “no help is coming.”  No, one experiences it, a reality in which “no help is coming” in a way that it can’t be unseen or unexperienced.

He recounts his anger, his hunger to see others hurt the way that he had hurt, the imagined satisfaction at the prospect of annihilative nuclear war that would render all power and suffering as meaningless.  Power made meaningless becomes the ultimate good.

Importantly, the battle for Charles is either to fight this fundamental reality, to survive within it, or to succumb to it.  There was no alternative worldview to bear witness to.


As the story develops, a new narrative takes form:
To forgive those kids at Citrus Elementary, to forgive Ms. Johnson, it all felt like weakness to me.  I held them tight because I felt that if I didn’t, they would win.  To forgive felt like powerlessness.  And more than anything, I wanted what they did to me undone.  I knew that was impossible, but the ten-year-old boy was not reasonable.  He wanted to have the last world.  To be powerful.  He wanted impunity. But that isn’t how it works at all.  By holding them tight, I gave them – these ghosts long gone – the power to tell me who I was.  And I finally understood, not in some intellectual way, but in a deep true, emotional and spiritual way, the truth of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is power, the power to say “you do not get to tell me who I am.”  (p 217)
Note the page #'s of each of these citations.  The earliest is page 39 and the last is page 217.  There are 178 pages between them.  That's several decades of living.  Then a sudden change.
"And then it came to me.  All at once.  Forgiveness suddenly made sense."
On the one hand, this realization came "all at once" for Charles - a moment of clarity, an interruption.  The thought was not there one moment and the next it was.  On the other hand, our lives are not a series of disconnected and unrelated moments.  So it seems impossible to fully separate one particular moment from the moments contained in the 178 pages in between these two citations.

Now I'm certainly not saying that Charles needed his life to go exactly the way that it did so that he could learn a spiritual lesson about the power of forgiveness.  I don't believe that.  Honestly, I think that's a potentially abusive hermeneutic.  But even if I did, I'm not comfortable talking about lessons learned from struggle in anyone's life other than my own.

Still, it's the hope that the arc of our lives bends and moves towards something that sometimes keeps me going.  Often the bend seems to be towards darkness and loss.  An abyss.  But the light appears, surprising us, awakening our imaginations to a different way of being.  And I don't think that the light and the darkness are evenly matched.  The light is stronger.  It endures.

And yet in the world as it is, there's the haunting "even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe."  We want to believe otherwise but we cannot.  Our moments of clarity, those moments when the sky is pealed back and we something of reality, simply don't stay with us in that irresistible revelatory way in which we often first experience them.  Against our wishes they fade.  We live in the tension of hope and tragedy.

Refer back to the earlier quote:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
How different would it read if this "power" that "will not let go" is perceived as irrevocably redemptive, if the power that "swallows" us wills our good!


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