“The bad time comes” writes Doris Lessing, “and we don’t know why.” Lately it’s been the bad time. Some of the steady and walkable ground around me has done some crumpling. It’s a mixture of small and large things: An overtiredness, a misunderstanding, one friend is diagnosed as terminally ill, another has a nervous breakdown, then there is a note telling why our concierge went home one night and blew his head off, and suddenly a lot of earth starts shifting. People are leaving – life, Louvain, each other; people are dying, people are breaking down, friendships and marriages are crumpling, and all around there is illness, death, fear, and pretense and silence. I sat myself down the other day, it was my birthday no less, to ponder this heaviness and to ponder my own steady and foolish self – me, so steady in my foolishness and so foolish in my steadiness.
Life, it would seem, has its seasons. Our hearts, interwoven with spring and autumn, winter and summer, beat warm, then heavy, and our moods would follow the flow of the sea. It’s all so complex, beyond us, and yet so simple: An eternal rhythm, a repetition, living then dying, and then, a break in the rhythm, a surprising freshness, living anew. It’s a mystery, a wonder, so unbelievable, this life! Day in and day out we feel its many joys, and, underneath them all, there is the sheer exultation in being alive, in using our bodies and minds in loving, of sensing, in eating, in being. We call it health. The sun shines and we feel well, and we neither ask nor know why. We are at peace. The ground we walk is steady, full of innocence. We grin and there is confidence. The human game seems unfair. We sense it is less fair for some others, and an all-too-easy compassion flows from us as we feel for life’s wounded and it’s fragile.
But the bad time comes, and we don’t know why; almost as if a too bright sun inevitable brings on clouds. A sadness catches us and, as if gazing from a ship which is suddenly tossed by an unexpected wave, our horizon abruptly changes. Things darken, health becomes fragile, as does friendship, and reality changes complexion. We sense how unlovable we are and begin to believe that no one loves us. The slightest things now give us reason to complain, to be jealous, to reproach. The very world looks different. The innocent eyes, the bold cheeks, the confident grin – the human face, so radiant – now radiates need, guilt, the tear, and we walk and wander, talk and tire, among small and large lies, trusting the cry of the child no more than that of the hawker. Everyone, it would seem, has their angle. Three billion faces, lives, loves, hearts, potential smiles, stained yet beautiful – the treasures of our human race – pass by, our eyes embrace, one, then another: Who, we have to wonder, keeps them all close and dear?
We scan the faces, each a mirror, and there is the dampening fear that perhaps nothing holds us near. Our eyes drop and, imprisoned in self-focus, we wonder why Beethoven went deaf and why fate takes these strange delights. Why is it this way? We don’t understand. What huge impersonal forces rip through us, rip through our bodies and minds, and heave and toss and contract our lives and loves as the oceans are heaved and contracted and rolled in their beds by the moon? What is this electricity that flows through us, charging us with dissatisfied energy? A thousand volts of something! Of what? Love, hatred, confusion, sex, compassion, fear, faith? Where does it come from? Like the oceans, are we contracted and rolled in our beds by mere gravity? But no storm lasts forever. The bad time too passes and we don’t know why. We look up one day and it is gone. There’s a different ebb and flow. Sunshine has returned and, with it, health – the confident grin, the innocence, the sense of being lovable. The ground beneath us quickens and steadies again, and the lies disappear, those of the child and those of the hawker. But we are left wondering.
Is this the way it will always be? A repetition, a perpetual rhythm: good times then bad, storms then sunshine? Ah, but there is more. Dimly we sense it both in the bad time and in the sunshine. Faintly, in both, a different kind of light burns. A curious light, no more visible in the darkness than in the sunshine; a surprising light for it should not be there, it goes against the rhythm. The difference is one word, an extraordinary word, Christ; at times, perhaps little more than a word. But it brings light; not much, to be sure, certainly not enough to take away the bad times, nor, indeed, to make itself visible beyond the sunshine. But it is a clear light: a beam, tiny, dim, but powerful; enough to walk a few steps by. It gives a different kind of steadying – hope. We don’t feel so foolish anymore.