It’s the most frustrating part of the movie, right? There’s a simple solution – an action the main character could have taken (or avoided), that would have circumvented the whole, messy thing.
If she’d just said that she loved him, he never would have left. If he just hadn’t raided the hotel mini-bar the night before his hearing, he would have gotten off Scot-free.
If Uncle Billy had just paid attention to the giant pile of cash in his hand instead of accidentally sticking it into Mr. Potter’s newspaper…
If the lovely (but kind of dumb) blond protagonist hadn’t wandered alone into the dark house…
We’re a little more patient with complications that come from the outside. The protagonist is really no match for a car crash, after all, or a lost job or King Kong or a sudden tsunami. It’s easier to have compassion for a narrator when the nosedive that she finds herself in is brought on by Some Terrible Something that we can understand.
But when she is her own antagonist? When she is sabotaging herself just as much as any antagonist ever could? What then?
In my memoir, When We Were on Fire, I wrote the story of growing up “on fire” for God…and of the spiritual landslide I found myself in when the constructs of the evangelical culture (where I’d always felt at home) began to crumble around me.
I won’t tell the whole story of my slide toward cynicism here (because, you know, I want you to buy the book.) I will tell you this: Disillusionment with church and barbed interactions with Christians was the loose rock that started the avalanche. But it was the Depression – clinical, serious, unnamed – that kept me there.
In those really dark days, there are a million things that I might have done. But what I actually did was to keep hurling myself into different evangelical, community, and nondenominational churches that seemed like they might be like the church I knew and understood and wanted.
The one I had once known and loved before it all went to hell.
My youth pastor used to say it all the time: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I was insane, mad with my own darkness. I was lonely. I threw myself against the doors of a dozen different churches, hoping that finally, the community I wanted would open up around me.
Instead, I ended up bruised. Broken. Bitter.
I’ve been asked, before, why I didn’t find another kind of church? Why didn’t I try a Catholic Church or a Quaker community? Why not try the more mainline churches, the ones who might not see a pressing need for a separate music genre called “Christian Alternative”?
I rarely read reviews of my book, but I stumbled across one the other day that said this:
“I at times wondered why she couldn’t more easily adjudicate the cheesy and superficial and odd aspects of American fundamentalism, and why she didn’t realize that most Christian theologies and communities aren’t like that.”
The answer is as simple as it is frustrating. Because I didn’t.
Because that’s not how the story goes.
Because I was my own antagonist, my anger as powerful as any real life enemy.
Because Depression was warring against my mind, and I was so tired, and I didn’t want to fight anymore.
In the end, there are lots of ways I could have approached my spiritual struggle. Healthier ways. Looking back, I can see the first dark threads of Depression winding their way around my soul, and Lord, if I’d have known that’s what it was, I would have seen someone right away. I would have started taking those little pills. I would have begun talking through my spiritual baggage right that second with a person who could help me sort it out.
If I could go back in time, I’d hand myself The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle and Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace and Paul Miller’s A Praying Life. I would hand myself a mix tape of Sleeping at Last and All Sons and Daughters and Josh Garrels. I would have pointed myself toward the mystics and the poets.
I would have flipped on the computer and pointed out all the writers there, struggling through the same things themselves in this strange, public sphere. I would have whispered in my ear, You are not alone.
Instead I failed, faltered, struggled, sank. I drank a lot of wine and margaritas and stumbled drunk around my own life. I came to the sharp edge of an affair and I might have fallen straight down into it if Grace hadn’t grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me back.
I don’t know why I couldn’t separate the bad of the Christian culture from the good in one simple cut. I think it’s because the whole thing is tangled for me, wrapped up in nostalgia and first love and heartbreak. Because people I loved and respected and meant well said really untrue things. Because I still remember all the words to every Christian rock song and can’t seem to throw away my Christy Miller books.
For me, the process of rebuilding and redefining has taken time, and it’s something I continue to struggle with and work through. And looking back, there’s a million other ways I could have done it.
But I didn’t.
And Grace found me anyway.
It’s a story as old as time, told in a million different ways: We are our own antagonists, desperate for wholeness yet bent toward self-destruction. And still, God comes back for us.
It’s a story worth telling in as many imperfect, broken versions as we can.
And mine is one of them.