On Not Staring Too Long Into The Abyss
Father Dwight Longenecker generously reviews The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming in Crisis — but he did not endorse the book entirely. Excerpts:
While Dreher acknowledges the simple, homespun values of the old home town and is humble enough to change his mind and move back home, he doesn’t acknowledge that the very strengths of the hometown mentality are also its weaknesses. The community resolve can also manifest as stubbornness. The loyalty to family and community can sometimes lead to xenophobia and suspicion of the outsider. The contentedness of staying at home can also be a form of laziness and unwillingness to set out on the great adventure of learning and growing.
Hmm. I thought I had shown this pretty clearly, both in talking about the things that made me want to leave, and in talking about the tension between my sister and me. In fact, I’ve met more than a few people while out talking about the book who tell me I was too forgiving of her stubborn rejection and rudeness to me. The strategy I followed in writing the book was to let the actions speak for themselves. My editor pulled me back from editorializing too much.
I enjoyed Dreher’s book and identified with his story. I left home and went to England first as an Anglican priest and then a writer and a Catholic. As I write, my own little sister is battling a fierce and aggressive cancer. Dreher’s evocative and moving story opened my heart to wounds that needed healing and relationships that needed reconciling, and the heartfelt strength of his book is that it will help many others going through a similar tribulation.
However, there was a gap in Dreher’s book. He admires the solid, no nonsense approach to life of the country people he returns to, but he also points out that there is a tough stoicism in them which allows them to step around the biggest questions of all. Dreher does the same. The really big question of suffering and the great dark is not confronted completely.
A story of heroism in the face of suffering is inspiring. Hearing about the simple goodness of an ordinary woman and the pure courage of plain folks is uplifting, but in the midst of this heroism one could have pressed further to confront the universal questions raised by the suffering of ordinary folk. Why does a loving God allow such seemingly senseless suffering? What is the point?
This is a minefield, and no place for playtime, and yet this sort of tragic story is just the place to ask these questions and attempt the answers—even if the answers are a howl of pain and an admission of defeat and the proposal of a new set of questions. While Dreher goes part way into this dark pit, he does not go far enough to ponder the really big questions with the reader. There was an opportunity to search the darkness and find the way through. The depths of the Catholic theology of suffering and the lives of the saints could have been of great assistance here.
That’s a fair criticism, I think. Again, the editorial strategy from the beginning was to show, not tell. My editor took out big chunks of my philosophizing in the initial drafts, in part because the book was already too long, and in part because he believed that this would weigh the narrative down.
Plus, I didn’t start the book until three months after Ruthie died. I honestly don’t know what she really thought about her cancer and the possibility that she might die. I don’t know if anybody did. And I couldn’t speculate without that knowledge. Either she never talked to people much about it, not even her husband, or there was a conspiracy of silence. I think the former is closer to the truth, because Ruthie’s way of dealing with it was to stiff-upper-lip it all the way through. As she told her friend Abby (this is in the book), if she stopped to consider what a high-wire act everyday life was with Stage IV lung cancer, she might fall and never recover. Besides, for better and for worse, this was part of Ruthie’s character: do not inquire deeply into these mysteries, but rather get on with life, don’t complain, and make the best of things.
This is not my way, to put it mildly. Should I have talked more about my way in this book? That is, should I have explored the ways people have traditionally confronted mortality and suffering, drawing on theological and philosophical resources? Fr. Dwight thinks so, and I am inclined to agree. The problem is that this was Ruthie’s story; my part in the story doesn’t really enter into it until her death forces me to see things in a different light. I don’t believe Ruthie faced mortality in a sensible way, but I also don’t believe I have the right to judge how she handled it. As I conceded in the book, had I been the one with cancer, I would have gone through an exhaustive and exhausting round of philosophical hand-wringing and theological beard-stroking, and in the end I would have at best ended up where Ruthie started out: saying that it’s all in God’s hands, and we have to trust in His love for us, and that there is ultimate meaning in this journey, no matter how it concludes.
There is strength in that kind of fideistic stoicism, but also weaknesses, which, I think, are apparent in the narrative, and don’t require elaboration. I could be wrong. It’s impossible to see one’s book from the outside. I think Ruthie’s decidedly unreflective way through the darkness can be summed up in Auden’s great command: “Stagger onward rejoicing.” I don’t understand it, and couldn’t pretend to explain it (so I didn’t), but the light that shone forth from her face for the 19 months she bore her suffering testified to the seriousness of the path she chose. It may have been easier for her to walk that way than it would have been for me, because I would have been carrying all those books, you see.
Anyway, thank you, Father Dwight, for your kind review!