catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


Seeing our delusions die

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread than
Climb the cross of the moment
And see our delusions die.
W. H. Auden

I remember my reaction to the movie Tuck Everlasting well, although it was a few years back. I loved the book as a child, and had recently reread it, so I was nervous about seeing the film. I loved the characters and the plotline the way I had experienced them and I strongly expected they were going to be Disney-fied. Sure enough, I was right. I was frustrated by the version the studio had produced—the look, the feel—and the plotline had all been changed from the one in my head.

It looked and felt wrong, the way they spun it.

There were many reasons I didn’t like the movie version, but one of the reasons I’d like to focus on for now was that the visual version of the story wasn’t as perfect as the one I’d imagined from the words on the page, and that bothered me. Not only did I have access to more of the thoughts of the characters on the page than I did on the screen, but the story had lost something in the visualization process. The golden world I’d imagined now looked downright creepy.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to feel that way from time to time when it comes to stories translated to the silver screen (in fact, I still think my response to the movie version of Tuck Everlasting is entirely justified), but a similar kind of text-to-embodiment disillusionment can happen in situations with our friends, family, and neighbors, and there the situation is a bit more crucial. In fact, with all of the electronic communication that goes on nowadays, it happens more and more frequently.

The best illustration of this phenomenon, when it worms its way into the world of electronically-mediated communication, is online dating. The advice most online daters hear like a broken record is to move from online to meeting in the real world quickly for this very reason—they develop a relationship with what feels like the real person, but go on to discover that in-person relationships sometimes work differently. Sometimes the real person, with all of his or her quirks, doesn’t stack up to the perfect person who was imagined while e-mailing and trading virtual winks. Guesses about how that person will be “in real life” are often more exciting than the flawed reality.

The text to “real life” transition certainly allows for disillusionment, but online dating only mirrors what’s been happening for a long, long time outside of the online environment. When we romanticize people rather than experiencing them as they are, whether through electronic or face-to-face communication, we’re in danger of doing very much the same thing as the online daters tend to do. We put people on the other side of a screen of our own making and then we’re surprised—and often disappointed—when they walk out and show themselves to us as they really are, people who are quite different from what we imagined.

It’s not, of course, that cut and dried. We certainly can’t all know every person intimately, and we don’t always put up the screens on purpose, or even notice that we’re doing it. Sometimes we put the screens up not to avoid seeing the others, but to protect others from seeing us fully. As T. S. Eliot put it in “Four Quartets,” “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” To make the situation even more complicated, our screens aren’t always there to romanticize—sometimes our visions of people aren’t rose-colored; rather, we think worse of them.

No matter what the reason for the erection of our screens, the truth is that it feels much safer, many times, to stay behind them. That’s why I love the Auden excerpt I put at the beginning of the article. “We would rather die in our dread” he says, “than…see our delusions die.” It takes conscious effort, and a lot of faith, to go around removing our preconceptions of people and then seeing them as they are, also allowing them to see us as we really are.

Of course, when we think about it, we as Christians communicating with our unseen God should have no problem understanding the danger of our delusions. “Don’t put God in a box,” the ministers tell us in sermons on idolatry. “Don’t create God in your own image.” It’s been preached to us for years as a standard sermon topic, and for good reason. Since God is the ultimate Other from us, it takes much prayer and energy for us to understand him as he truly is, not the way we imagine him to be.

No wonder Jesus had to come to this earth, the Word made flesh. Most of God’s people had built up an image of the Messiah in their heads, and it was very different from how Jesus really was—so different that many people were disappointed. Some of them were so angry at what was on the other side of the screen that they killed him.  In response, when he died, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”—the ultimate in irony (Mark 15:38).

Now Jesus, after his ascension, has left us with text again—with the written Gospel—and with the Holy Spirit, another unseen person of God. No wonder he said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). No wonder we still have such a hard time with this concept, with stepping out of our relational comfort zones to take down the screens with other people. To allow those created in the image of God to show themselves to us as they really are, and to show ourselves to them as we really are.

Then again, the Word made flesh gave us a good rule for our lives. When asked how to sum up the Law, he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27).

Sometimes people interpret that last part to mean that they should treat others the way they would like to be treated, but it’s a bit harder than that. It starts with taking away the screens and loving others as they are rather than how we imagine they should be.

Of course, it’s not just that each of us is disappointing to one other because of our own fallen imaginations; the people we have to work with are also fallen themselves. None of us are as we should be. So we also are called to encourage each other to be who God wants us to be.

God can redeem our imaginations, allowing us to have visions of who people are and who they can be—real visions of their good qualities as well as of their brokenness, visions that aren’t merely images of who we would like others to be. And that’s only possible when we throw away our screens, when we “climb the cross of the moment and see our delusions die.”

Is it comfortable? No. But crosses are hardly comfortable things.

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