One of the happy outcomes of my surgery four months ago is that I have rediscovered my voice. This is perhaps to oversimplify a nuanced experience because it’s true on many different levels; still, it is also quite literally true. I have always loved to read aloud. Ever since childhood, when my family would read aloud devotions in the evenings or funny books on long car rides, I have enjoyed the shared experience of the written word made audible. Back in July, during the first week of recovery after surgery, a friend read aloud to me an entire book by P.G Wodehouse. The experience was delightful. A few weeks later, to fill my evenings, I began listening to audio books while crocheting. A while after that, I began recording myself reading aloud. One thing led to another and here I am: a registered reader for librivox.org.
The last few weeks, I have been recording a handful of essays published in 1919 by Frank Boreham. (The year my grandfather was born. He just turned 98!) I had never heard of Mr. Boreham before taking on this project, and I have enjoyed the discovery of his writing. In his essay, “On Getting Over Things,” (Part 3, Chapter 4 of Mushrooms on the Moor) Boreham reflects on human resilience and the nature of healing. If you would like to listen to me read the essay aloud, you can find it on Librivox (search for LillisJoy). I have been thinking about this essay in particular since it is connected to my recent post on healing.
“We get over things,” Boreham begins. “It is the most amazing faculty that we possess.” He points first to the ways that nature always seems to recover from devastation: natural disasters all seem to bring out new growth. Grasses, plants and trees return to cover the scars. New residents come to build new nests and find new holes. The capacity in nature for recovery is immense and miraculous. The new always differs from the old — sometimes in subtle shapes and shades, sometimes in dramatic lines and breaks. Yet, so often, that which comes after the devastation is more resplendent and vibrant than that which was before.
Boreham goes on to point out the internal human capacity for healing. “For, after all, the world about us is but a shadow, a transitory and flickering shadow, of the actual and greater world within us. Yes, the incomparably greater world within us; for what is a world of grass and granite compared with a world of blood and tears?” For all that the heart endures, there always comes a time, he says, when it “bravely declines to die” and rises up again to meet the challenges of the day.
To a point, I agree with Boreham that “the recuperative forces that lurk within us are the divinest thing about us.” The miracle of life is that it begets life. The Breath by which all live and move and have their being is both holy and miraculous, and it is the source of all healing. It is not true, however, that all are healed simply by living. There is a devastation to life which leads to deeper death. The miracles of life and healing are not passive ones as he implies. I believe they must be active, and the conditions for their success must be nurtured and guarded. The seeds under ash still need rest and rain. The larvae hidden in the soil must find a warm morning to hatch. The birds that come when the smoke has cleared must find insects to eat. If these things do not happen, life lays in wait, perhaps in vain. There is therefore a kind of devastation that leads to a deeper death. For this reason, I cannot wholly share Mr. Boreham’s remarkable optimism, especially in the face of a world at war – in his case, WW1.
(Forgive the extensive quote.)
“I am writing in days of war. The situation is without precedent. A dozen nations are in death-grips with each other. Twenty million men are in the field. Every hour brings us news of ships that have been sunk, regiments that have been annihilated, thousands of brave men who have been slaughtered. Never since the world began were so many men writhing in mortal anguish, so many women weeping, so many children fatherless. And whilst a hundred thousand women know that they will see no more the face that was all the world to them, millions of others are sleepless with haunting fear and terrible anxiety. And every day I hear good men moan that the world can never be the same again. ‘We shall never get over it!’ they tell me. It is the old mistake, the mistake that we always make in the hour of our sad and bitter grief. ‘We shall never get over it!’ Of course we shall! And as the fields are sweeter, and the flowers exhale a richer perfume, after the thunder-clouds have broken and the storm has spent its strength, so we shall find ourselves living in a kindlier world when the anguish of to-day is over-past. Much of our old civilization, with its veneer of politeness and its heart of barbarism, will have been riven as the ranges were riven by the earthquake. But out of the wreckage shall come the healthier day. The wounds will heal as they always heal, and the scars will stay as they always stay; but they will stay to warn us against perpetuating our ancient follies. Empires will never again regard their militarism as their pride.”
If only he had been right! If only the end of that war had led to a “kindlier world!” If only empires had ceased to “regard their militarism as their pride!” The world has now seen a century of unbroken war. The fury of the storm is never spent. Restless, it moves from one continent to the next and returns again. Ancient follies have borne children and grandchildren which return today to claim their inheritances. Folly upon folly — devastation upon devastation.
I mentioned that there is a deeper death that can come from devastation. When, through devastation, the heart begins to believe that pain is the only reality, sorrow the only truth, and bitterness the only well from which to quench its thirst, it cannot recover. It may survive, but it does not live again.
I know two women who were both physically and sexually abused in childhood and early adulthood. Twenty years later, after the original pain has ended, one has discovered forgiveness and grace while the other holds on to bitterness and anger. One overflows with peace and joy, faith and love. The other is reclusive and at odds with the world. One refreshes all those she meets. The other cannot maintain a friendship longer than a few months. In short, one daily lives her healing and new life, while the other relives the devastation year upon year, in every new human interaction.
The soul needs more than rest from pain — it needs comfort, forgiveness, kindness, laughter, and love. It needs active agents of healing. It needs freedom from the waste and toxins left by the old wreckage so that new life may take root. Similarly, our communities and our countries desperately need rest from war, but they need more than that too. They need active agents of healing. They need people willing to forgive — to reach out to each other in kindness and hope.
Seek life and guard the conditions of healing.