Dante with his guide Virgil (Gustave Dore’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Plate IV: Canto I)

Bracing for Impact

Trauma, Triggers & the Saving Power of Literature

The past few years have seen one controversy after another relating to freedom of speech on college campuses: speakers canceled or even physically attacked or chased away by mobs; Halloween costumes preemptively derided as insensitive; entrenched debates about the necessity or frivolousness of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces.” Many of the discussions surrounding these issues have been characterized by vitriol—as though some kind of corrosive substance were eating away at our ability to carry on a civil dialogue in the classroom, just as it is at the national level—or condescension. The University of Chicago got into hot water in the fall of 2016 for the latter approach, when a welcome letter from the dean of students to the class of 2020 praised the incoming freshmen in one paragraph for having selected a rigorous academic program, and then patronized them in the next by warning them not to expect any intellectual coddling. The dean was right to frown upon trends that would proscribe free speech and free inquiry, but one could never guess how or why from reading his letter. Its tone is impatient enough to suggest that those who would demand such accommodations do it because they hate free inquiry, and because they possess weak minds and constitutions.

In my experience, it doesn’t help to assume the worst of persons with whom you disagree (or hope to teach). Very often you simply don’t know what’s informing their views. I spent my entire first year of teaching at a college aghast at the almost complete lack of correct MLA citations in my students’ essays—literally thousands of works cited, maybe four of them correctly. My second year, I asked the students—who were also members of the class of 2020 at the United States Military Academy—if high schools still taught MLA citations. No, they told me, for four years they had just been instructed to use an online "citation generator," but never shown how to check its work. The problem was not weak-mindedness or a lazy constitution, but a simple misunderstanding. Once we went back to basics, with an introduction to the title pages of books and the information that can be gleaned there, citation issues went away. So let’s give young people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the problem is not that they dislike free inquiry and strength of mind, but that many have never been exposed to these things because they are not prioritized by the College Board. Let’s suppose too that if you teach them in the way they should go, they might be receptive.

One segment of society that doesn’t have the luxury of not knowing what strength of mind entails are survivors of trauma. They are strong because they have to be: they’ve been hit by a kind of moral-psychological Mack truck and yet still walk among us. In the throes of trauma, however, survivors don’t always recognize how strong they are, because as you can imagine, that sort of impact produces some moral-psychological broken bones, and at times they’re liable to feel like they’re just limping or crawling hideously along. I know because I am one, and I vividly remember what it was like to limp hideously along, and then to learn to walk again (still metaphorically), and eventually to run. For me, that whole sad, slow, frequently maddening, and ultimately triumphant process was inextricably bound up with my experiences as a reader of books and a participant—as both student and teacher—in the liberal arts. One book, through no fault of its own, ushered me into the world of trauma while I was in graduate school in 2011. Since then, dozens more have guided me, not backward but forward, to health and joy. And all along the way I have pondered the connections between my reading life and my life life. A former advisor and New Yorker writer who heard parts of this story in 2013 was even more troubled by the aftermath of trauma and the way it can warp one’s mind than he was by the abuse I had endured itself. It seemed particularly unjust, he said, because I had always struck him as “quietly sane.” I’m delighted to finally put that blurb to use now: “‘Quietly sane’—the New Yorker.”

For all of these reasons—my experiences as a student from kindergarten through a doctorate, my four years of experience teaching undergraduates, my own trauma history, and the quiet sanity I fought to regain and keep—I feel peculiarly qualified, and indeed compelled, to weigh in on the current issues surrounding trauma and teaching. Perhaps my observations about books and life, what harms and what heals, will be of some use to parents or professors, or counselors or chaplains, or liberals or conservatives, or anyone simply trying to understand what all the fuss is about. 

They’ve been hit by a kind of moral-psychological Mack truck and yet still walk among us

 

EVERY semester I tell my students that one reason to read literature is that someday someone they love will die or be born, and they will be hit by a wave of grief or joy like they have never known before. In that moment, words from poems and novels will come to them and help them stand upright, or get their bearings if they’ve been knocked over. “That way is light and surface and air,” they will think, “I must swim to that.” I expressly pitch teaching King Lear as my contribution to the Army’s suicide prevention efforts. My standard classroom demeanor is cheerful and laughing, but when I say that I am dead serious that King Lear is a book about life—a book that proclaims, Come what may, though your eyes should be plucked out one by one, you must still go on, and more than that, you must be grateful, for your life is a gift and a miracle—I can see from their faces that they can see from mine that I mean it, and they are curious but too polite or afraid to ask why.

It’s difficult to know where to begin the story of why. In literary circles, we talk about the difference between the fabula (the order in which events occur) and the syuzhet (the order in which events are related to the reader). It’s the difference between the tale and the telling. The tale is that I was sexually abused as a child, by someone in the household I grew up in, and who threatened to kill me if I told anyone. Those two factors—the inescapability of the situation and the threats of violence—are correlated, I’ve since learned, with repressing memories of abuse. And thanks be to God, memories were repressed. Compartmentalizing the abuse at the time and afterward allowed me to concentrate and do well in school, right up through graduate school, and to develop normal attachments with friends and boyfriends.

In my late twenties, with some therapy for non-repressed family dynamics under my belt, my brain seemed to think I could start handling the news. The process by which memories floated to the surface was strange and oblique and went on for months, as my brain skillfully doled out only what it thought I could handle. (What exactly is “it” in that last sentence? And who is “I”? I don’t know, but I remain immensely grateful.) At one point, for instance, I experienced a surge of fear every time I saw a beautiful little girl on the subway, terrified that one day I might have such a child and be unable to protect her. Eventually, one November evening—and, of course, it would have to be November, and evening—as I was home reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, my brain apparently decided I was ready at last.

It is not giving away too much of the plot to say that Oscar’s sister is molested, and as I read about her experience I had a memory—no words, just an image, and a smell, and a feeling of absolute terror—of being abused. My first impulse was to refuse to believe that it was real, and I actually managed to wall it off again for a few months. But when the memory surfaced a second time, and wouldn’t go away, there I was: twenty-eight and scared out of my mind, confused about what had happened and what else might have happened, shut out by the same family systems that had allowed the abuse to happen in the first place, told by campus mental-health services that it was a “bad time” to make appointments so close to the semester’s end—not completely alone in my misery but in crucial ways forced to be simultaneously my own detective, lawyer, judge, and protector, and, what is more, to do all this at exactly the moment when the foundations of my identity had been shaken, and daily existence was newly riddled with bottomless pits and oubliettes. The physiological effects alone—panic attacks if I tried to exercise, an endless well of sorrow if I drank, nightmares when I slept—were overwhelming. I had entered, through no fault of my own and very much against my will, what readers of Dante might recognize as a dark wood. “In the middle of the journey of our life,” he begins the Inferno, “I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death.”

Dante knows what he is talking about here. There are spaces in life that are dark, brutal, and overgrown with brambles, and while we are in them we haven’t the slightest idea how to get out. Even the memory of such places can be scary or depressing, although now I mostly feel a dull ache for the person I was once was, along with sorrow that she had to navigate those woods, and respect and gratitude that she came through them.

 

HERE, perhaps, it is worth taking a moment to discuss the tangled and elusive nature of recovered memories. So tangled and elusive, in fact, that some psychologists refuse to believe they exist, despite case histories in which memories have been corroborated by outside evidence. Jennifer J. Freyd, a Stanford-trained psychology professor, now at the University of Oregon, is among those in the profession to acknowledge that recovered memories are real. In her book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (1998), Freyd hypothesized that forgetting is an adaptive response. “Victims may need to remain unaware of the trauma not to reduce suffering,” she wrote, “but rather to promote survival,” if they are dependent upon abusers for necessities like food and shelter. The younger the victim is, and the longer the abuse goes on, the more likely it is that memories of the abuse will be quarantined through dissociative amnesia.

Another researcher, Bessel A. van der Kolk, found evidence that traumatic events are coded differently in the brain, because stress interferes with the memory function of the hippocampus. Consequently, traumatic memories are often retrieved—at least at first—in the form of dissociative “imprints.” These imprints contain information about the affective and sensory dimensions of the traumatic experience, but they aren’t placed in space or time. They lack context—or coordinates, if we want to stick with Dante’s metaphor of being lost in the woods. Only gradually is the individual able to piece together a personal narrative made up of what could be considered conscious memories. 

King Lear: Act 5, Scene 3

My own subjective experience of recovered memories aligns closely with Freyd and van der Kolk’s work. First there was a visceral sensation of horror and disgust, with no context whatsoever. Then, slowly and with effort, conscious memories provided clues and little flickers of illumination, although each generated about as much light as would a solitary match in a dark forest. Earlier I described the process of recovering repressed memories as “strange and oblique,” and I have to say the final results are in many ways slanted too. There’s still no clear image in my mind of the abuse (again, thanks be to God), only partial and fleeting snippets of memory. I remember exactly where I was standing, in the doorjamb between two rooms, when I tried to tell a trusted adult what was happening and was told it must have been a dream. I remember an actual dream, a recurring childhood nightmare with a spider web and a candle-stick, that strikes me as only too open to Freudian interpretation. I remember writing another plea for help on a fogged bathroom mirror, and I remember the outrage that flared in me more than two decades later, when I learned that the message—which I’d long ago presumed had melted away before it could be read—had been seen and ignored.

Friends and relatives remembered things, too. The way I had tried to create physical distance between myself and my abuser at family gatherings, for instance; this was mistaken for ingratitude at the time. One elementary-school friend, Jordan, remembered the deep fear she felt when we accidentally knocked a closet door off its hinges, and awaited the consequences. She even recalled an incident in which my abuser stormed around the living room, fuming, after another little girl in the neighborhood had accused him of molesting her. Jordan and I eavesdropped on the scene from an upstairs landing; my memory of this moment involves a clear visual, but the audio has been muted. Although Jordan would later go on to receive a score of zero for “mercy” on a spiritual gifts test we took in a middle-school youth group, when I talked to her about the abuse years later, she cried at the memory of spending hours on the phone as young girls. “You never wanted to hang up,” she said, and the emotion in her voice generated something like astonishment in me, and relief—relief that I wasn’t losing my mind or making things up, and astonishment that someone not only believed me, but had sympathy for me too.

None of this would necessarily convince a jury, of course, but that’s beside the point on at least two levels. Legally, the statute of limitations ran out fairly soon after the memories emerged; this is not, I’m told, an uncommon experience. On a more profound, theological level, I was keenly aware from the very beginning that what had happened to me was a sin; only secondarily did it occur to me that it was also a crime. And regardless of whether such clues would stand up in a courtroom, they cast just enough light to help me begin piecing together what had happened and to start looking for a way out of the dark wood. 

 

JUST as Virgil guides Dante through Hell, there are guides to passing through the hellish times in our lives. For me, therapy, fellow survivors, and books were hugely instrumental. But it would take four months to gain access to a therapist. It took not just time to find the right resources but also, in my case, luck and love to have someone capable of finding them for me. More time was needed after that to work up the courage and strength to call; and still more time (and still more strength) to persist when student health services was booked solid because final exams were just around the corner, and the waitlist for the nearest outpatient trauma clinic was six months long; and further time to recover from each such setback, the effects of which I would describe as nothing less than shattering—and perhaps another year before the excellent therapist I eventually found recommended group therapy. Books, and language more generally, were available to me from the start.

Dante had Virgil, and I had Julian of Norwich, and Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon

Within a matter of weeks, I began to realize that words could be a lifeline. “It’s the strangest thing,” I wrote of the initial confusion, adding, “I don’t know whether it would be more or less strange if you were not in the business of thinking about narratives and selves day in and day out, as I am. Both, I suppose. More and less strange.” My account of the four months that followed, when I was experiencing what was essentially untreated PTSD, is shockingly clear-eyed. I analyzed the ambiguity of my feelings and actions at that time as closely as I’d analyzed any character’s motives or puzzling turn of phrase in a novel.

“For a week I was as mean and needy and implacable as I’ve ever been,” I wrote one day, “and on some level I knew it, and I knew that I was sabotaging myself, because I didn’t feel worth saving. I felt very much that whatever time of seeming health and happiness had been an illusion, and now I was back to seeing my true self, which was bad and mean and not worth trying to fix.” I lashed out at my boyfriend at the time, sometimes in pain and sometimes on purpose, and sometimes both at once so that:

I could go lie in a corner and be bitter and die or something. But even then, I also knew that that was selfish, and that pursuing such a course would mean refusing to offer love or kindness to anyone I knew who might need it, now or in the future. That even if I was a bad person and not worth saving, I had an obligation to others to overcome that. That self-sabotage was, among other things, the coward’s way out.

Those are actual, unedited words that I wrote in April 2012. Of course, when I wasn’t jotting down my thoughts, I was liable to be crying or hiding in my room, or sobbing in some office or other while I begged for additional health-care coverage or an extra two months to finish my dissertation prospectus. I wasn’t all steely-eyed clarity. But sometimes I was, and I don’t think I could ever have done that if it weren’t for a lifetime of reading. Dante had Virgil, and I had Julian of Norwich, and Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon, to guide me through the vagaries of life, to explain the pain I felt, and to teach me the primacy of love and the sacredness of children.

Throw in a trip to a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, a wonderful therapist who was my life-life Virgil, supportive friends and extended family, patience and compassion while walking the crooked, jagged path to recovery, and a faith that relieved my existential distress—for Christianity assures us that each person, every single one of us, is a beloved child of God—and here I am. Quietly saner, one might say. I wouldn’t recommend all that as a path to sanity, just as I wouldn’t recommend throat cancer as a way to lose weight. But if trauma is the hand you are dealt, know that there is a way out of that dark wood.

 

WHY is literature so helpful as a guide? For one thing, because words can make order out of chaos. Indeed, they might be the only things that ever have. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, when “the earth was without form, and void,” God used language to separate the light from the darkness, and the earth from the waters, thereby paving the way for creation and human life. (I believe in the Big Bang and evolution, by the way; I am reading this as a symbol to help our finite human brains grasp infinite theological truths.) In everyday life, too, language can help separate us from the sometimes overwhelming muddle of real-time existence. This is why we tell toddlers to “use your words”—to say, I am angry, please help me with this puzzle, rather than throw the pieces across the room in a fit of unverbalized rage. Related to this phenomenon is the way that naming can provide both power and balm. The sufferer from chronic pain who finally receives a diagnosis knows this; the child who understands, at last, that his mother’s coldness or fury was caused by alcoholism, or schizophrenia, or anything else that wasn’t his own worthlessness, knows this too.
 

Evil is banal in more ways than one. 

At a macro level, words strung together into a narrative can achieve the same effect. I first read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love—a work of Christian mysticism and the earliest known book in English by a woman author—for a qualifying exam in graduate school. Julian was a devout woman who prayed for a serious illness, that she might better understand Christ’s sufferings, and received her wish in 1373, at the age of thirty. As she lay on what everyone thought was her deathbed and a priest performed the rite of extreme unction, Julian saw the crucifix he held before her begin to bleed. Over the next several hours, she had sixteen visions, which she described and interpreted in Revelations of Divine Love.

Before I began to remember my own childhood trauma, I loved the book for its comforting message of universal salvation: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” But I dismissed Julian’s account of the Fall. It contains no tree, no snake, no apple, and no Eve. Just a medieval servant—with a Prince Valiant haircut, in my mind—who is so eager to do his master’s bidding that, in his haste, he trips and falls into a ravine. Much rolling around in pain ensues. It all seemed a bit soft on crime, to my healthy self. But when I myself was rolling around in a great deal of pain, which I had done nothing to deserve, the story made perfect sense. The servant suffers “seven great pains”: the bruises from his fall; the “heaviness of his body”; an awareness of his own physical weakness; “the loss of reason” at this discovery of his own fallibility, to the point that “he had almost forgotten his own love” (and I think the confusion that this phrasing allows—as to whether it is his love for the lord who sent him or his love for himself that disappears—is exactly right); the “horrible” thought that he might never rise again; the terror of being alone in his pain; and the discomfort of the hard ground on which he lay. In July 2012, I identified with every single one of these seven great pains, and I nearly wept at Julian of Norwich’s sincere consideration of whether the servant was in any way guilty.

After looking at him closely, she concludes that “of all this the most mischief that I saw him in, was failing of comfort: for he could not turn his face to look upon his loving Lord, which was to him full near,—in Whom is full comfort;—but as a man that was feeble and unwise for the time, he turned his mind to his feeling and endured in woe.” I could weep now, reading those words. If even Christ could feel abandoned in his suffering on the cross, no wonder we fail to look up, at the God who is always looking lovingly back at us.

Did this passage, in some sense, save my life? Did it pave the way for me to return to church, after months of feeling as angry at God as I have ever been? Did it give me the strength to unfurl from a crouched position, hands over my head like an armadillo trying to shield itself from blows, and look up?

Honestly, I think it did.

And so one moral of this story is to read widely, because you never know which book could end up saving your life. It might be a month or a year or a decade before you need it. Another moral of this story is that seemingly dark material—accounts of violence, sin, hate, suffering, rolling around in pain, etc.—can be consolatory, too. Toni Morrison is very good on violence and hate, in part because she confronts their effects and causes with equal candor. She doesn’t shield readers from the horrors of child abuse, incest, and infanticide, nor does she spare them the hard work of understanding how it is that such acts come to be committed.

In her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), a little girl named Pecola Breedlove endures appalling mistreatment by her family. She is hated by her mother and raped by her father, as are children in real life. But Morrison, unlike the people who cover the news in real life, knows that it is too easy to say that such things happen simply because some people are just crazy or evil or sick. Instead, she takes us back in time, to the moments in which Pecola’s parents each lost their dignity and sense of self-worth. For her father, Cholly, it’s being discovered as a young man with a girl in the bushes, and then forced to copulate while a group of white men (the Breedloves are African-American) watch and jeer. For Pecola’s mother, Pauline, it’s sitting in a movie theater, pregnant and with her hair done up like Jean Harlow, and cracking a tooth. “Everything went then. Look like I just didn’t care no more after that,” she recalls. “I let my hair go back, plaited it up, and settled down to just being ugly.” When Pecola is born, Pauline projects this feeling of ugliness onto her daughter.

The point of such moments is not to excuse or justify Cholly or Pauline’s behavior. It’s to demystify it and show there are a thousand thousand reasons to be a kind person. Moments I think of with more frequency than you’d expect—not least because I didn’t actually witness the first two, except in my imagination—include: the giving of a pair of boots to my grandfather, then an Italian POW working at a munitions factory near San Francisco, by a man named Gilroy Freuli who had emigrated from the same part of Italy, near the end of World War II; my aunt Liz, also a survivor of child abuse, stopping traffic as an adult to make sure that a little boy on his bike could safely cross the street; and my high-school lacrosse coach yelling at us, during practice, for not cheering one another on. “I don’t care how tired or out of breath you are,” he said, “if you aren’t the one sprinting, you had better be cheering for the person who is.” These moments, and dozens of similar ones, tend to surface at times when I know what the right thing to do is, but I feel too tired or selfish to do it. They help tip me from velleity to action. But if there are many reasons to be good, there is essentially only one reason to be bad. And that’s because you feel scared, hurt, angry, worthless, or powerless, and you need a break from those emotions. Evil is banal in more ways than one. 

It all seemed a bit soft on crime, to my healthy self.

Such moments in Morrison’s fiction also reveal that the abuse falls on Pecola not because she deserves it, but because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—small and vulnerable and dependent upon people who did not or could not face their own hurts and fears before having a child.

Finally, these moments serve to strip Cholly and Pauline of power and menace: they’re not exciting, diabolical villains or larger-than-life monsters or unstoppable forces of nature. They are fathomably and stoppably cruel. One could take concrete steps to counter them, to prevent them from developing a capacity for such cruelty in the first place.

And if, as a side effect, such moments kindle in the reader a spark of sympathy for Cholly and Pauline—which again, does not justify or excuse their behavior—that is not a bad thing. Years ago I stumbled across a line from Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, and I have never forgotten it: “Pity them all; for it went hard with them all.” Forgiveness—and it would take a separate essay to explain exactly what I mean by that—preserves the forgiver as well as the forgiven. Calm recognition of what has happened, and calm respect for one’s own ignorance of what else might have happened before, can be freeing. I don’t know if I would have come to that realization without Toni Morrison.

 

ALL that said, there are some books that I choose not to read. I know I’ll revisit The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao someday, but it’s likely to be a while before I can stomach the endless self-justifications of Humbert Humbert in Lolita again. Interestingly, it didn’t bother me the first two times I read it. In fact, that was part of the reason for my initial disbelief that November evening: I’d read Lolita twice without incident, so I couldn’t have been abused.

In truth, there was one incident; it just wasn’t mine. I was a master’s student sitting in on an undergraduate American literature class, when the professor, a woman, suggested that we kind of know what Humbert means when he refers to “nymphets.” And a student, also a woman, said, “Are you saying that some little girls are asking for it?” before bursting into tears. The hour was just about up at that point and I, like everyone else, was relieved to get out of that room. I didn’t linger to hear what the professor said, or look back. I felt bad for the student, of course. But if I’m being completely honest, I was annoyed with her too, for being too emotional or stupid to appreciate literature with the sophisticated scholarly distance I apparently then thought English classes should cultivate. In retrospect, I wonder if I resented her because she made me think about something I didn’t want to think about, and, consequently, if the people stifling discourse now are, on a level below consciousness, actually themselves traumatized and afraid of what they might find.

The Lolita example shows why my objections to trigger warnings are partly a numbers game. The novel didn’t bother me in 2007 because I was perfectly convinced I hadn’t been abused. I imagine that if you had actually not been abused in childhood, you’d feel the same. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that one in five girls, and one in twenty boys, is a victim of child sexual abuse. Those are appalling numbers, to be sure, but still a minority. And with support and therapy, those who have survived abuse and other kinds of trauma can learn to distinguish between past danger and present safety, and to respond accordingly. I say this not as judgment, but as encouragement.

Because think about it: What does the triggered response tell us? Let’s say I pat you on the shoulder to get your attention, and it hurts immensely because you have a gaping abscess right at the spot where I tapped you. Maybe you knew about the abscess before I tapped you, maybe you didn’t. Is the problem in this instance the tapping or the wound? And is the cure to clean and dress the abscess, or never to tap anyone on the shoulder again? An abscess, by the way, is a pretty good metaphor for dealing with trauma. Somewhere there’s a covered-over pocket of infection—which can be scary and disgusting to look at, as well as excruciatingly painful—and the treatment will only make it hurt worse, at first. But even so, you’ve got to get the rotten stuff out—to process every last bit of it, and scrape the edges even—before the wound can begin to heal. 

No longer do I read fiction to cultivate a sophisticated scholarly distance.

Another metaphor: my grad-school office mate once had an issue with her ankle. The doctor at student health services asked if she would like a shot of cortisone. “No,” she said, “I would like a referral to a podiatrist, so I can find out what is wrong with my ankle.”

All of which is to say that the student without a trauma history has nothing to fear from painful subject matter. And although the student with a trauma history has something to fear in the short term—I’m sorry to say that it does get worse before it gets better—he or she has much, much, much more to gain in the long term, by not ignoring the wound. When you have the courage to treat the underlying infection—and prayer can be very helpful if you are afraid you don’t—then a tap on the shoulder will start to feel like a tap, and not like a searing pain straight to your bones. The spot may remain sore for a long time; it may even throb on occasion; but at least there’s no longer a danger of someone jabbing their finger through into a hollow of putrescence.

Both kinds of students, however, have something to lose from trigger warnings, insofar as putting labels on painful subject matter encourages a kind of prurient reading. If you’re scanning every page waiting for a scene of rape or murder that you know is coming, you’ve given the material more power over you, in some sense, than if you had just stumbled onto it. In a way, the painful subject matter becomes the star of the show, when it isn’t, necessarily, in the context of the work as a whole or the life.

 

PRESCRIPTIVE reading strategies also rob students of the vicarious preparation for life that literature can provide. No longer do I read fiction to cultivate a sophisticated scholarly distance. I read it to find out how to live, which is the only reason why anyone ever reads anything in the first place. Children love fairy tales precisely because they provide a worst-case scenario and, usually, a way out. What if I should someday find myself, like Hansel and Gretel, left alone to starve in the woods? How can I keep my wits about me, to escape starvation and the evil witch? At the end of King Lear, students sometimes complain that no one seems to have learned any lessons, because they’re all dead. “But who is not dead?” I ask, gesturing around the room. Together, we survivors tally up the dead bodies and sort them into categories. The bad characters all die. The good characters, and a few formerly bad characters who have shown some attempt at remorse and reform, sometimes die and sometimes live. There is no discernible reason why. True love is revealed to be patient, kind, humble, self-sacrificing. It all seems about right to me. As a teacher, I want my students to wrangle with the language of Shakespeare’s play, yes, but I also hope that they will gather up these pearls of wisdom as they do, like squirrels gathering nuts, against the day when they might find themselves alone and in the woods in a time of famine.

Now more than ever—in an age in which communication of every sort is endlessly tagged, categorized, and filtered, and when the breadth and depth of human expression has, for many, been compressed into a couple of hundred characters or six graphic emoticons—we need this kind of vicarious practice for life. The digital world is coded; indeed, it consists of nothing other than code. But the present moment, which is all that human beings can exist in, is not coded. It’s constantly shifting, and there are no pre-programmed warnings. On the worst day of your life, no sign will light up on the dashboard to let you know that the cancer diagnosis, or affair, or miscarriage you’ve always feared—or the one that you hadn’t even thought to fear—is landing at your feet today. The only way to brace for this kind of impact is to develop the capacity to stay calm enough, alert enough, and secure enough in your own worth and the goodness of God to keep your eyes open and face reality. Reality is that the bad things are hollow and passing, while perfect love endures. Alas, it may be that the only way to develop this kind of equanimity is the hard way. But when you gain the ability to bear what Shakespeare calls “free and patient thoughts,” you will find out why, in this instance as in so many others, it’s the truth—and not a running from the truth—that sets us free. 

Published in the February 9, 2018 issue: 

Cassandra Nelson is a Bradley Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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