Some mornings I wake up a Christian. On such mornings, upon waking, I feel a precognitive tug of joy in my body, a sense of delight I experienced regularly in childhood – my mind a blank page upon which someone is poised to write a message of bliss. On such mornings I know the tug of joy is a nudge from God, to remind me I am His child, I came to Earth trailing clouds of glory. How blessed, to feel divine approbation in my biological systems, unbidden. Today, out of gratitude, I will strive to please God with my actions.
If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to skip out on the rest of the story. Forgive me, Christians reading here, but these days, people proudly announcing themselves as Christians tend to use their religion as a club with which to advocate for a host of repugnant opinions that allow endless mercy and compassion for those who look and believe like them while harshly punishing those who don’t. There are days when I have to remind myself that there are indeed many wonderful Christians who show generosity and charity of spirit. But not all days.
The second speed bump is that I’m not really big on traditional inspirational reading, either, so a story about a “tug of joy” makes me groan rather than sit up in anticipation. This is simply a matter of personal preference. I tend to be annoyed by people who have the world all figured out.
But neither of those apply to this story. It’s an honest look at the daily experience of one Christian woman, at the struggle she goes through to embody all those inspiring traits. Because even truly wonderful Christians who are full of charity, like this woman, have cats that throw up on down comforters, and carpool partners who are late, and kids who whine about their math homework and husbands who can’t help much and even Jimmy Fallon hits a wrong note. So she ends her day envying the atheists of the world
None of them have to think about pleasing a divine being, no one is asking them to be grateful for anything… they are free to love, they loathe no one. Glorious. I fall asleep determined that tomorrow I will wake up an atheist.
Some mornings I wake up an atheist…. I feel only vacuity, the cold certainty that God is dead and everything I’ve ever felt of Him is the biological result of hormones, or a bright trigger spot in my brain, or psychology/wishful thinking, or what my parents told me. If I love anyone today, it will be the heroic effort of one tiny pointless accidental creature. There is no one watching, no one to please or displease. No mistakes or the need for forgiveness.
A lightness of spirit enters my being. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain….
I’m very fond of stories with non-linear structures: narratives in a mirror shape that end where they began, that spiral in or out, that form parallel tracks or condense then expand, in plot, point of view, or style. Here Quatro takes the former approach, turning it all around.
This is not only an interesting structure, but also brings home what I imagine to be her point (although it may be my point, foisted upon a helpless story): that the harder you try to be perfect, the more you will fail, but if you let it come naturally, you might find yourself capable of enormous wells of those beautiful Christian virtues like compassion and generosity. This brings to mind Confucius – yes, he lived centuries before Christ and had a completely different view of the universe – who said he spent his entire life training himself, through ritual, to do the right thing at the right time, and he finally got the hang of it at age 80 so he no longer had to think about it. This wu-wei, sometimes translated as “trying not to try”, has become popularized in a modified form known as flow. Maybe the woman in the story would think of it as “channeling God”.
Her day ends with an excellent plain-language description of the Christian mystery. I was a Southern Baptist for most of my youth, and have read a lot of theology since then, but this gets to the heart of the matter without sounding vague or pretentious:
Before going to bed, it occurs to me that this all-encompassing compassion for humanity is what Christ taught and embodied…. The evil things they do cannot help but create a vast divide. But they should not have to bear the blame. It is not their fault. They have simply forgotten who they are. And as I am perfect in justice – all debts must be paid – I am also perfect in mercy, and therefore will become one of them and pay the cost in full. Breach the divide.
Every once in a while, someone will ask me why I spend so much time on this blog (“it’s so ten-years-ago” a friend recently reminded me). Among the many reasons: because sometimes I end up greatly enjoying a story I wouldn’t have bothered with if I weren’t committed to this.
A word about genre: I was again, as I sometimes am, confused about whether this was fiction or non-fiction. It reads like an essay, and Pushcart has it so listed, both by omitting the “Fiction” indicator and by the index. But Tin House, the original publisher, and Quatro’s own website, list it as fiction. I like that, and I’m going to go with authorial intent in this case. I want to speculate – and this is nothing but speculation on my part – that because the cat, and the homework, and Jimmy Fallon didn’t all happen on the same day, it is fiction, that to call it non-fiction would be that fast-and-loose thing I’ve ranted about before. Calling it fiction doesn’t diminish the reading experience one bit.