De-Dragonings and Nonsense Questions
A few years ago, when I was having a particularly rough time, a friend of mine — who has often seemed more like a guide — spoke to me in a parable. Come to think of it, he didn’t actually tell me the parable; he simply suggested that I might benefit from tracking down and reading some of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I set out to find the book at a library. Upon finding the book, I glanced through it until I found the part during which one of the book’s main characters — a boy named Eustace — wandered off from his siblings. Alone, he encountered a dying dragon. He got a thrill out of seeing how close he could get to the dragon, even touching it. He had, after all, “read only the wrong books.” As such, he drank from the dragon’s pool of water; he played with the dragon’s treasure, and he tried on the dragon’s jewelry. Eventually, he fell asleep in the dragon’s cave.
After a long sleep, Eustace woke up feeling pain in his arm. He noticed that his hand had become a dragon’s claw, and that he was breathing out smoke. He began to cry. He went for the pool of water, where he saw his reflection, and “in an instant…realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection.” As Lewis wrote, “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” The pain in Eustace’s arm came from a bracelet he’d put on that fit him as a boy but not so much as a dragon.
At first the realization of his dragon-hood wasn’t so bad. After all, there was a kind of protection in it. But that was before an “appalling loneliness came over him.” He set off to find his siblings. And when he found the others and was able to communicate who he was through gestures, it became “clear to everyone that Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon. He was anxious to help.”
“The pleasure (quite new to him) of being liked and, still more, of liking other people, was what kept Eustace from despair. For it was very dreary being a dragon…He was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with the others.”
Then Eustace encountered the Lion. “I knew I’d have to do what it told me,” he later told the others, “so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains.” The Lion told Eustace to undress, which Eustace interpreted to mean ridding himself of his scales and skin. But the more he pulled off of himself, the more he realized needed to come off. He “thought to (himself), oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?” That’s when the Lion said, perhaps without even speaking, that Eustace would have to let the Lion take the layers off. And Eustace said, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.”
The process hurt:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”
The Lion threw Eustace into the water to bathe before taking him out to dress him “in new clothes.” After all of this, Eustace still feared it had just been a dream. Even though his brother, Edmund, knew better – “It wasn’t a dream…I think you’ve seen Aslan” – I resonate with Eustace’s wonderings after the fact. I have felt some of my own layers ripped off me, a kind of surgery, but I still question whether it is all a figment of my imagination, whether I’m just trying to make myself feel better about some awful things that have happened. Narratives we tell ourselves for the purposes of psychological comfort; isn’t that what atheists say religion is? And if that’s all this life is, an exercise in explaining, would that make the journey and all of our pursuits somehow less meaningful? Is anything true with a capitol “T”? At its existential core, does any of this shit matter? Can we ever really know anything? How do we know what causes what? Have I changed, am I even capable of changing, or am I just telling myself that I’ve changed to make me sleep better at night? And if I tell myself that I’ve changed enough, do I, in fact learn to embody the change? What in the world is authenticity, and how does one know when he is being authentic?
Am I getting better at relationship or have I just learned a new game to play? The vulnerability and empathy one where you nod your head sympathetically while your friend tells his story, then you invite him or her to continue by asking penetrating question, and you begin your sentences with “What I hear you saying is…” and then finish the conversation, “Me too, man, me too.”
While I may be a novice to Lewis’s Narnia series, I’m quite familiar with his nonfiction. I picked up C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed for a second time after my brother’s death. I had read the short reflection in college, but it hadn’t meant much to me at the time. The second time around, I was struck by how raw the book was. Written in the aftermath of his wife’s death, Lewis wrote it like a journal entry:
“One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral…How often will the vast emptiness astonish me…? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.”
I couldn’t help but compare the book to Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Whereas The Problem of Pain seemed like a philosophical treatise on pain in general, A Grief Observed was about Lewis’s pain, and that made a world of difference. People even speculated that A Grief Observed signified the end of Lewis’s faith, although in it, he also wrote:
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable…Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.”
Perhaps one of the “nonsense questions” I’ve held onto is the role that God plays in tragedy and suffering. I realize this isn’t a new problem. But it has always bothered me that so many Christians seem to give God credit whenever something good happens but exonerate Him after a tragedy. By that logic, human beings are to blame for the bad but receive little credit for the good. How convenient. It seems no better, though, when so-called “unbelievers” scoff at God in the midst of calamity but say He doesn’t exist or has nothing to do with their favor or prosperity. Our binaries and our dualisms are hard to resist, but what’s the alternative? Some paradox probably, something that doesn’t show up quite as clearly to our eyes. Something that doesn’t fully resolve, but I guess that’s what I get to hold for a while. On my better days, I can live with, I can keep going, in spite of the tension, and the uncertainty.
I do know this, though: nothing else in my life has been as effective as pain at compelling me to act, to ask questions, to try things, and hopefully to change. Maybe pain is an invitation? And if pain is an invitation, maybe it’s really meant to be endured, felt, and faced, rather than run from, numbed, and denied. Maybe faith – instead of dogmatic certainty or strict adherence to rules – is the courage to face one’s fear and pain. Maybe faith is stepping into the dark without any guarantee of what the outcome is going to be. Maybe faith is taking the training wheels off, knowing you’re going to crash and burn a bunch of times, but hopefully you’ll learn to ride along the way.