The truth of life is that it is full of tensions.
As one who believes in God, I can say that everything began with God. As a human being in a time and place, I can say without the self-centered, idolatrous meaning of the phrase, “everything begins with me.” I have been contemplating this concerning the wildly varied responses to the events of the past few months.
What seems to be missing is the connection between the stories that we claim to have formed us and the places we find ourselves standing. I cannot legitimately claim to be the product of a story and then detach from where that story should take me while still claiming to be part of it. Nor is it fair of others to project that story on to me if I have never felt a part of it to begin with.
This is the human condition. And this is my way of understanding the various narratives swirling around us today.
In a universe where, from our perspective, we enter the fire and leave with the world still burning, it is impossible for us to fully grasp where our stories begin and end. This does not mean that we do not tell them, because we should and must tell them. The stories help us to make sense of all that is around us.
Think, however, for a moment about the stories you tell — whether they be fishing stories in a conversation or teaching in a formal setting. All of those stories begin in the here and now and the telling of the story must relate to the current context or it will make no sense and have little purpose.
This is the reason nearly all stories begin with some sort of device to transport us from where we are to the beginning of the story.
What holds us together as people are two things — a common beginning of our story and a common destination at the end. It is the middle that gets to be a muddle. For humanity there is birth and death. For Christians there is the creation story headed toward new creation.
For the United States there is the Constitution moving toward fully realizing its ideals. What gets in our way is that we all have distinct experiences that affect our view of the beginning and a clear conception of what the end should look like. Add to that how those views affect our behavior in the middle and we get tension and conflict.
This does not change the truth. It does, however, acknowledge that without empathy and listening to each other we can end up with different versions of what we believe truth to be. When those versions get wide enough, we have trouble until we figure out how to live together again.
So when various groups of us tell the story of the church, or of the United States, or of our families we all tell edited versions that sort through “the” story in order to tell “my” story. T.S. Elliot held together beginning and ending by pointing out how the continuing progress of time pulls the ending and beginning together.
Here is an excerpt from the opening and closing lines of “The Four Quartets: 2 East Coker” — note what he says about love.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth.”
“Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”
Another approach was beautifully expressed by a young woman on inauguration day. Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” expressed the hope and tension of peoples attempting to be a people. She gave expression to her experience as a young black woman and yet embraced the hopeful narrative of the Constitution.
These are among the lines that gave powerful expression of that hope and tension.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We begin at the beginning, we begin right now, and we begin with where we are headed in mind.