The crucible of suffering is a ferocious teacher, but that doesn't mean that the message of those who have reemerged from its fiery maw, singed and sooty, will be well received.
Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple, is one of the finest essayists of our time. He is a medical doctor and psychiatrist who has worked in Africa, among the poor of London, and as a prison psychiatrist in the British penal system.
He has seen a thing or two.
I admire his courage - both intellectual and moral. When a person undertakes to write, there is - or there ought to be - some careful consideration regarding his commitment to telling the truth. I don't mean the merely factual basis of this or that circumstance or event, but the truth about what the writer actually believes. It's more daunting than many people think. Or, at least, more daunting than I myself expected.
Today marks two years to the day since we buried our daughter. She died of an unintended overdose, alone in a hotel room in Houston, TX. The picture found above is one someone took of us without our knowledge, moments before the cemetery workers lowered her casket into the ground. Our life with her - it might be more apt to call it an odyssey - led us to places we never expected, and forced us to reexamine our assumptions about our own lives and the world around us. Even before she eventually died, we had begun to rethink our understanding of the human condition generally. We found that our contemporary Christian worldview left us wholly unprepared for what we were going through. We were suddenly thrust into a circumstance for which our prior assumptions provided no explanatory power. Ultimately, we began to have an inkling of the syncretistic way in which we had unconsciously adopted a materialist, mechanistic understanding of human moral agency.
Even before her death, I had begun to write about our experience and what we had learned. Most of it is as yet unpublished. I'm haunted by the probability that some - much? - of what we have learned will be unwelcome. I think it will primarily be unwelcome by parents who have never had a troubled child. On the other hand, I suspect parents who have been blindsided by a child, one who has made pathological choices wholly inconsistent with her upbringing, might find what I have to say helpful. Maybe even something of an antidote to the confusion and disorientation they are probably experiencing. It is for them that I'm writing our story, but that doesn't mean I'm indifferent to the repercussions of disapproval by others. To a very large extent, I dread the response from certain quarters. I already have an hint of what it will be like, for reasons I won't go into here.
Anthony Daniels holds heterodox ideas about human behavior and freedom insofar as they differ markedly from the platitudinous assumptions about environmental conditioning that prevail in the broader culture. He has been courageous in writing what he believes, but he isn't blind to the challenges. In a book he wrote on opiate addiction, he made the wildly unexpected argument that opiate addicts are not the victims they are believed to be in the popular imagination. But in regard to holding such views which are so out of step with popular opinion, he said this:
“Had I not been fortunate enough to work with three eminent and highly competent physicians in my hospital who had observed precisely what I had observed, and drawn the same conclusions, I think I might have broken down, for as every political propagandist knows, there is nothing more destructive of the human psyche than to be forced to doubt the veracity of what one’s own elementary observations demonstrate, simply because they conflict with a prevailing and unassailable orthodoxy. In such circumstances, one is forced to choose between considering oneself deluded, or the world as mad: one is either sane in an insane world, or insane in a sane world. Neither alternative is entirely satisfactory.”
I was watching a recent interview with Daniels and the question of the root causes of crime came up. In his characteristic way, he framed his answer in the context of human agency. He said this:
The root cause of crime is the decision to commit it. - Anthony Daniels
Daniels' response is, of course, deeply at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy.
The crucible of suffering is a supremely effective teacher, but that doesn't mean that the message of those who have reemerged from its fiery maw, singed and sooty, will be well received. The answers to be found in that crucible rarely take the form of satisfying confirmations of our most comforting illusions. So there is some trepidation that coincides with the idea of writing truthfully about what one has learned. I admire Daniels' grit in this regard.
Sometimes our experience with our daughter comes up in social conversation. We ourselves rarely bring it up. (Who, after all, wants to incessantly hear about another person's troubles?) But others do ask us about it from time to time. During those conversations, I have taken to quoting Whittaker Chambers in order to describe where we have come to. In a letter to his children explaining what had happened to him and what he had done, he wrote:
"I am an involuntary witness to God's grace, and the fortifying power of faith."
"Involuntary." Yes, that's definitely the word for it.
Ultimately, in regard to this business of writing the truth about what we've learned, I have to remind myself daily of the wise and prescient words of Flannery O'Connor:
You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations.
Truth telling is hard.