In the Well with Tolstoy
My brother’s suicide left me feeling as if I had been pushed over an emotional cliff, arms flailing as my body hit the jagged edges of rock outcroppings on the way down. The suicide of my father felt like I had been tied to the front of a runaway train that broke away from the tracks and headed over the edge going 110 miles per hour. I hit bottom and lay there, stunned, and unable to move.
Slowly, I rolled onto my back, exposing my belly like a trusting cat. But it wasn’t that I trusted, it was that I no longer cared. Hurt me if you want to, kill me if you must, just get it over with. The God I knew had broken me, but there was no supervisor above him to take him to task. In a small, dark corner of my mind, I thought there may be a hell worse than the one I was in, so I got up and kept moving, and spoke to no one about how I really felt about any of it.
My father’s suicide coincided with a time when churches all over America were chatting it up big time about the end of the world. Author Hal Lindsey was pushing his theory that the planet was headed for disaster very soon. He had written a best-selling book and a film, aptly titled The Late Great Planet Earth. Another lovely end of the world scenario was published under the title, The Jupiter Effect, a best-selling book by John Gribbin, Ph.D, and Stephen Plagemann (1974) that predicted that an alignment of the planets of the solar system would create a number of catastrophes, including a great earthquake in my area of the country. This was supposed to take place in eight years. I was sitting on death row without the right to an appeal.
In response to all this, pastors hurriedly began studying and teaching the Book of Revelation, readying the flock for the Great Tribulation. A conversation amongst believers hardly took place without the mention that time was short. The solid rock became shifting shale. I smiled as I sat in on a conversation about the fruitlessness of getting a living room re-carpeted (considering we were all about to die) but the tentacles of fear and sadness crept over and around me, squeezing the very breath from my lungs. My therapist added “with psychotic features” to my major depression diagnosis. I began “seeing” bushes dying, stairways crumbling, as if I could see the end of the world taking place before my very eyes. God had pushed the “fast-forward” button.
The God I loved and trusted became the God I feared. This God had some bizarre plan for mankind that culminated in the “rapture of the church” and the “Mark of the Beast.” I observed those around me. I could not figure out how those who knew that this horror was on our very doorstep could go on living as before. Why weren’t they on their knees day and night, or snatching poor souls off street corners and away from death’s grip? I literally could not figure it out. It never occurred to me that they did not believe what they were saying.
I found myself a member of a club to which I no longer wanted to belong. I tried to ignore the leader, become invisible in the crowd. I had become afraid of Him. I politely listened to the others, but one of us was crazy, and I was pretty sure it had to be me.
My pastor tried to help me. He was the voice of reason. I sequestered myself in my house, not daring to come out and face the zombie apocalypse. I asked question after question but the thoughts in my mind were tangled, like a rubber band ball. Trying to untangle them was exhausting, and I began to lose the ability to keep a thought in my mind for more than one or two seconds.
He had compelling reasons why I should not succumb to the hysteria of the moment, but his words were like vapor, slipping through my fingers and away. So I made him write all the good thoughts down…the ones that gave me hope that the zombies out in the street had it wrong, had come out too soon.
I was coming to a crisis of faith. I read My Confession, by Tolstoy, and I identified with his plight. I was precariously close to releasing my grip on the branch in Tolstoy’s well. I may as well let go of my grip and sacrifice myself to the dragons below than wait for the mice to gnaw through it.
Once in awhile I would have a thought, and to quote Tolstoy himself, “life rose within me.” Then, like my hallucinations, the thought would melt away and I’d be left with nothing but a desire for death. Over and over this happened. I suffered from circuitry overload, and thoughts continued to disintegrate as fast as they would come.
One day, a spark of hope lasted longer than usual. I realized that in all my railing against God, I had never felt his presence more sweetly. In all my anger and confusion, I had not succeeded in pushing him away. The opposite was true. Instead of allowing me to turn my back and walk away, he seemed to be relentlessly pursuing me. The hallucinations began to melt away along with the block of ice surrounding my heart. A cloak had been gently placed around my shoulders, and it felt a lot like love. My heart and mind began to heal. I had walked through the valley of the shadow and survived. Now it was time to stop awhile and rest by the stream, and then pick up my pack and keep moving.
Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.
~ Leo Tolstoy