Earlier this year, I had the privilege of hearing Miroslav Volf speak at our Diocesan Lent Day. One of the topics he touched on was despair. Drawing on the work of Alain Ehrenberg, Volf suggested that despair flourishes where “Everything is possible, and nothing is prohibited.”
In other words, our modern life.
Volf also spoke about the disconnect that occurs when our sense of self becomes something we have to attain, as opposed to something we receive from God. Stripped of a fundamental understanding of who (or whose) we are, living in a world where “Everything is possible, and nothing is prohibited,” our accomplishments fail to bring us any meaningful satisfaction or fulfillment. We never feel as if we are “good enough,” we never feel as if we have managed to achieve that elusive, ever-receding goal. You accomplished XYZ? So what? If the horizon is limitless, why didn’t you accomplish more? But even “more” is never enough. The mindset of “Everything is possible, and nothing is prohibited” leads to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and failure.
In other words, our modern life.
If the horizon is limitless, why didn’t you accomplish more? But even “more” is never enough.
When my middle son was born, I had no idea what he would bring into my world. The new-mom brain fog, to be sure, and the ever-present fear of failing as a parent. But also an entire special education team. The ability to see beauty in unexpected places. And mountains upon mountains upon mountains of fuzzy blankets.
My son, now 10, has fuzzy blankets for every time of day, every mood, every temperature. Apparently, one of his life goals is to spend as much time as possible wrapped in something soft. (And really, is that such a bad goal?)
In the morning, I commence the daily dance of trying to get him out of bed. My son bellows that he needs a blanket, but when I pull one from the many piled up at the foot of his bed, he flings it back at me with force.
“That is not a morning blanket!” he roars. “I need a morning fuzzy blanket!”
I hand him another one, but that, too, is wrong. Everything is wrong. He is frustrated, angry, and hungry, the worst possible combination for a child who struggles at the best of times to “maintain expected behaviors” (as his special education team says), manage his emotions, and find a way to fit into a world that wasn’t designed for children like him. If I can just get him out of bed and fed, though, things might improve. I hand him another fuzzy blanket.
Managing his needs in the middle of also raising four other children is challenging at best. At worst, it leaves me feeling like Miroslav Volf’s version of a failure. I can see the limitless horizon, the fields of possibilities we could reach . . . if only I worked harder, prayed harder, tried harder? If only I was more. If only I was enough.
Eventually we make it from the bed to the couch, trailing fuzzy blankets all the way. My son curls up into a tight ball and growls.
“Can you help me with my spelling words?” my eight-year-old daughter asks. And I want to say yes. I want to be the mom who helps with spelling words. Visions of our two heads, bent earnestly together over her bright yellow paper, dance enticingly in my mind. But my five-year-old needs me to fill out his kindergarten reading raffle tickets. My 12-year-old needs help studying for his vocabulary quiz. My 14-year-old forgot that she has ballet after school, and has no clean leotards or tights.
And my middle son is still wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, growling.
The horizon is limitless. “Everything is possible, and nothing is prohibited.” A world exists where I can simultaneously read to my kindergartner, help my eight-year-old with her spelling words, prep my 12-year-old for his quiz and never forget to wash tights. A world exists where I can be truly present in the lives of all five of my children simultaneously, where the task of getting my middle son off the couch and fed doesn’t pull the entire family into its gravitational orbit. But I can never get to that horizon.
I speedrun through the morning. My middle son battles me over getting off the couch, coming to the table, what to eat for breakfast. Plates are thrown. He battles me on getting dressed (each item of clothing its own standoff), packing up his backpack, what to take as a snack for school. When I finally get him upstairs to brush his teeth (another battle, one I will probably lose) I finally turn to my eight-year-old.
“I can help you with your spelling words now, Honey!” I say.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” she replies, a look of resignation on her little face. “I figured it out myself. I put all my stuff in my backpack. I brushed my teeth and my hair and I put on my shoes. I’m ready to go to school now.”
I never even got to see her words.
My 14-year-old read to the kindergartner. She also borrowed my tights. The vocabulary quiz went unstudied. Sometimes I feel like I am missing my children’s lives, even while they are swirling around me.
Sometimes I feel like I am missing my children’s lives, even while they are swirling around me.
After calling my middle son multiple times, I go upstairs to check on the ostensible teeth-brushing. I find him curled up in a ball on his brother’s bed, sans blanket.
“Hey Buddy,” I say softly.
“Don’t hug me!” he snaps.
I pick up a fuzzy blanket and gently cover him. We’re silent, for a moment.
“You know,” I say, “even if I can’t give you a hug right now, I hugged that blanket when I took it out of the laundry. Every fuzzy fiber there is a Mommy hug, just wrapping you up.”
He flings the blanket to the floor. “I hate this blanket!” he yells. “I hate you.” He grabs another fuzzy blanket and disappears beneath it.
“You don’t want to know this,” I say, “but I think I might have hugged that blanket, too.”
Silence. Then he erupts: “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO LAUNDRY ANYMORE!”
“That is more than fine with me,” I tell him. “No more dance-day tights crises! But what if Daddy did the laundry? Or your siblings? What if they hugged all your blankets? Because they love you too, you know.”
“Then I will do all the laundry myself,” he says. “And I will never hug my blankets. Because I hate myself.” His voice catches. “I hate myself,” he repeats.
And I know he feels it, too. The limitless horizon, just beyond our reach. The sense of accomplishment he cannot grasp. If “Everything is possible, and nothing is prohibited” drives me to despair, how much more for a child whose brain is wired so differently?
“A friend of mine shared a verse with me the other day,” I tell him. “It’s from the Psalms: ‘The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.’”
He snarls. I sit on the edge of the bed, my hand hovering above, but not touching, his fuzzy blanket.
“What if God’s love is like a fuzzy blanket?” I ask. “It sounds like a platitude, but maybe it’s not?” My son loves big words.
“What if we’re enveloped in it, all the time, every fiber a bit of God’s presence?”
I pause for a minute to see if he’s going to growl or throw something. When he doesn’t, I ask: “What if God loves us even when we can’t love ourselves? What if, for God, we are enough . . . just the way he made us?”
He doesn’t answer. But eventually he takes my hand, and I pull him once again from the bed. Together, we let the questions hang in the air as we head back out into the limitless world.