Of Pearls, Plato, and Other Worlds

I’ve always loved pearls. It’s not just that they are beautiful – because they are that – but they have a story. I guess I just never realized that sometimes the irritant that starts the process could be something beautiful too.

Why is pain? Nicholas Wolterstorff wrestles with the problem of pain in his book, Lament for a Son, a father’s outcry over the loss of a child. Ultimately, his conclusion is not a deeply theological one. There are no elaborate theodicies or brilliant countering coup de grace’s. He simply realizes that God also suffers, and if a God who is love suffers, then suffering is down at the heart of things where love is. It will radically affect each and every one of us, unless we, like those hardened few Lewis spoke of, choose to remove ourselves to the only possible haven where love will not hurt us, i.e. Hell.

But what is suffering? I think of the word “longsuffering” here, thanks to a discussion with Kevin Puckett, who could probably say a lot more and better on the topic. To suffer something is to allow it. Not quite what we ordinary mortals think of when we talk of suffering, but there it is. Save that definition for a moment as I move (inevitably!) to a more personal note.

For the past several months, I have been adjusting to life outside of the prefabricated community that is a discipleship training school or an IMPACT 360. Not only that, but in the space of a few short months, I ditched some serious life plans, packed up my entire life, and moved in with my sister (who is amazing and probably the only person reading this) to go to community college. Okay, nothing new there, I’ve probably whined about all of that enough to make my point. But I think I’ve finally found words to explain what the experience of that transition and its reverse were like, and in a rather unlikely place.

Two excerpts from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave:”
#1. Upon exiting the cave at last: “And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities … He will required to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day … Last of all, he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.”

#2: Upon being forced to return as one enlightened: “Imagine once more … such as one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness? … And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady … would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”
(as written in Philosophy Through Film by Mary Litch -- if these are difficult to understand, think of Neo when he is removed from the Matrix and then imagine how it would feel if he were to somehow re-enter it or even if he had taken the blue pill)

I feel like the man who was led forth from the cave and saw all that truly is (or some of all of the One who truly is, anyway). I have, as Whitman put it, habited myself “to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of [my] life” (Song of Myself, part 46). But to be thus taken out of this world had its own purpose: to bring something of that light back with me when, bodily prisoner that I am, I had at last to return to the cave.

Suffice it to say, I did not bring back anything. I chose to ingratiate myself by acting as one who is blind to the shadows of the cave because my eyes were adjusted to a better light. I couldn’t forget all that I had seen and done, not quite, so instead, I systematically began to wrap it up as if it were a grain of sand. Instead of “suffering” the pain of separation and allowing it to spur me on to other things, I preferred to mute it by drowning it in a cushion of numbness.

I don’t think that this was a necessarily bad thing. It would be easy to look back on the past few months and wonder how I could do something like that: forgetting the joys, the trials, the intimacy. Easy, yes, but still a trap. (To reference Katrina’s favorite part of The Phantom Tollbooth, you get to the Island of Conclusions by jumping there, but you have to swim if you want to get back.) I haven’t gotten very far in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, but I love the way that Hyoi talks of the hrossa’s experience of sex (and much of life) and the role of memory: “A pleasure is only fully grown when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. “

In other words, I get a second chance or maybe my first chance hasn’t really ended yet. I don’t know what happens when I make myself vulnerable once more to the sting of all of those sweet memories, but this is part of their story and part of my story as it unfolds through my life.

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