I cannot remember the last time I’ve fallen so deeply into a novel. I’ve said for many years that I’m not grown up enough to read fiction, so I mostly stick with memoirs and textbooks.
After finishing Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” I’m sticking to my guns and saying I’m not grown up enough for fiction,
but that it is surely time for me to start growing up.
A better summary can be found HERE, but in a single swipe of great injustice, I’ll try: it’s a story of a young boy whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks. It is his parallel journeys through finding a lock that a mysterious key of his father’s opens, and through a child’s honest and sharp grief of losing a father on “the worst day ever.” I often found myself with tears about to break, just after a laugh would suddenly erupt. I felt more human while reading than I’ve felt in a very long time.
What I noticed the most were the dozen times that I would find myself shielding my eyes from the upcoming lines, often closing the book in the middle of a conversation, an argument in motion, a story in telling, a memory in recollection.
I knew I wasn’t ready for it.
I knew I couldn’t bear to go on. Yet.
So I shut the book; I looked around to wonder why no one else was as worried about the impending outcome as me. And then finally, after the not-knowing would outweigh the not-wanting-to-know, I would flip the book back open, hold my breath, and …
I read books and journal articles constantly about clinical and community work because I want to do justice with the beyond-generous people who offer me their beyond-personal stories as we look to do hopeful and honest work together in therapy.
But I’ve never closed a text on grief and grieving because I couldn’t bare to read what came next. My heart doesn’t bleed out onto the pages of an article about responses of communities to children who lost parents on September 11. A text can name and normalize complex emotions, but the voice in a well-written novel can make me feel it.
Make me feel it so much that I have to close the story and catch my breath.
And you can close the book and catch your breath until you know that you must find out what happens in a novel. And precisely in those closed-book moments, I think we are being honest with ourselves, and the teller of the story––and ourselves when we are the teller of the story––honest in that we simply can’t bare it anymore, and we must take a breather if we are to remain human. The thickness of our humanity is often more than even we can tell or hear or feel about.
Textbooks make it clean. Novels make it raw. Living voices make it true.
So we have to do whatever it takes to finish hearing the stories.
The stories of poverty.
Of abused power.
Of arrogant leadership.
Of selfless givingship.
Of painful loss.
Of ridiculous loss.
Of silent suffering.
Of resilient sufferers.
Of global conflict.
Of über-local conflict.
Of the conversations and stories of the flesh-and-blood people who are acting in those roles as antagonist and protagonist and an(pro)tagonist.
If it takes closing the book for a few moments to catch our breath before we say, “Go on. If you have to tell, I have to know…”
I’m a better person for feeling what the book invited me to feel. I’m sure I’ll keep reading textbooks and articles, but it’s time for me to grow up into a deeper humanity and brave the world of fiction for all that it can help me see and feel. For all that it can help me hear. And then listen to.
It feels necessary as part of living and leaning into the kingdom.
Even if it takes closing the book multiple times over to catch my breath before losing it again.
Cape Town, South Africa