Tony Woodlief | Author

Past where legs can carry

The day after an amazingly talented actor pushed heroin into his vein and died, I saw yet another study purporting to show that we live in the best of times.

It’s hard to disagree. Infant mortality and poverty are plummeting. Our lifespans are being extended. More people worldwide are literate, and more of them can vote than ever before. Most of us have to exert only a fraction of the toil required of our great-grandfathers. It is the best of times, by so many measures.

It is the best of times, yet sometimes we can scarcely bear the news. Maybe this is why more American adults will die today from drug overdoses than car accidents. We’ve made our cars safer, but who can crash-proof the human heart?

That’s a question every parent asks, if only in the wordless pleading prayer that sometimes lodges in our throats when we look at our children in their play or in their sleep or in their struggles. It is a prayer that they will come out of this okay, that they will not destroy themselves or be destroyed by others, that they will be loved and be safe and someday reach heaven. It is a wordless prayer and sometimes it is a tumble of words. Sometimes it is a single word, and this word is please.

Yet what is there to fear, in this world of growing abundance? Travel is so easy that we eat one of five meals in our cars. Entertainment is so plentiful that we can bathe the cerebral cortex in sounds and images every waking moment. Medicine is so cheap that one-quarter of our children have prescriptions to treat their anxiety, their diabetes, their depression.

Old Man Grieving - Vincent van Gogh

Maybe the problem is that not everyone knows the world is getting better. Maybe we should tell the growing ranks of schoolchildren smoking marijuana that there’s no need to check out, because things are great. Maybe suicide wouldn’t be the third-highest cause of death in American teens and early twenty-somethings if only someone told them how much progress the human race has made.

Things have never been better in the realm of the measurable. But the human soul has no gauge. It has no quantity and so no self-respecting scholar will come near it. This world is better than it has ever been, so long as we forget that we have souls, and hearts that beat despite being broken.

This is not a brief against progress. I have the luxury of this lament because I do not have to spend all my hours scratching out subsistence. I am only trying to say that something has gone missing. We aren’t measuring wrong things, it’s just that we’ve forgotten what is immeasurable. And if we cannot remember this part of humanity, we will turn every good thing against ourselves. Man is, in the end, a creature who flees pain.

And where may he run, to be free from a life that is, by every scientific measure, less painful than ever, yet somehow more inviting of despair?

I have run many places and never found refuge. At best I’ve achieved brief forgetfulness, the price of which is recalling, when you come back to yourself, what you did to forget. I do not know the shape of hell, but I think it is a spiral.

Where may we run, in our despair? The night my daughter died, as her body struggled to take in air and her eyes strained to see, I told her to run to Jesus. I prayed she would see him and run to him, that there would be breath where he was.

As for me, I did not know where he was.

Perhaps I still don’t. Yet it is what I whisper, in many ways, to my children who still live. It is in a bedtime prayer and the morning kiss, it is a steady plea in my heart. Run to him where he may be found. Run, because nothing else in this world can save you.

I suppose it’s all I know to tell anyone, and maybe it’s just an old worn-out phrase by now, useless as snake oil. Maybe it’s no more use in the crucible of this age’s suffering than better hair-care products or a rising gross national product.

But it seems we are running out of other things to try. We are delivering humanity from need, but who will deliver us from ourselves?

Then again, maybe all this God-in-the-midst-of-suffering business is only for dying children, and we who no longer have legs nor hearts to run. The thing is, there are more of us every day.

On Key

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