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Searching for Just Right

You know how it is with Goldilocks. First she breaks into the bears’ house. Then she samples all their bowls of porridge, finds the one that’s just right and eats it. Then she tries out all their chairs, finds the one that’s just right and breaks it. Then she tries out all their beds, finds the one that’s just right and falls dead asleep.

“Just right” is the important phrase here.

You know how it is with your pillow. You get into bed. You wrap the covers around you just a certain way. Or you kick out a leg. You tuck your foot beneath a roll of sheet. Or you stick your feet out of the bottom of the bed. You plump the pillow. Or you flatten your pillow.

My daughter Madeleine and I were comparing notes about this the other day: She sleeps with her face nearest the opening in the pillowcase. To me that is unthinkable. I sleep near the edge of the pillow, too, but the pillowcase’s closed end, so I don’t get any stray feathers tickling my nose.

“Just right” is important.

But I think it’s the way we go about finding “just right” that makes it elude us time and again.

I think we figure “just right” will be easy to recognize; it will give us some answers to those pesky “what’s the meaning of all this, anyway?” questions.

I’ve been reading this book called A Dark Wood: Journeys of Faith and Doubt. It’s a collection of different authors writing about times of intense doubt. This is just right for where I am, I thought.

But then what I discovered was this: If I read an essay where the doubting person somehow easily got back on track, I was disappointed. Is it real doubt if it is so easily dispelled?

If I read an essay that ended with a deepening sense of doubt—as Isabel Allende’s essay about her daughter Paula’s death ends—I was disappointed. I was looking for hope, not well-articulated despair.

If I read an essay that talked about the unfulfilled longing for meaning in life, I was disappointed. MacArthur Park was still melting in the freaking rain.

And if I came across a description of fulfilled longing I was disappointed, too. One person’s wisdom is another person’s platitude.

So why do I keep reading the book? Well, one reason is that I found this quote in it:

The 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross wrote, “The soul must journey to God by knowing God through what God is not, rather than by knowing what God is.”

I want “just right.” And I want it right now. But maybe I’m wrong thinking I’ll have it all figured out.

Take Elijah from the Hebrew scriptures, for example. His story reads like a Greek myth with a confused hero. Confused heroes are sexy.

Elijah has just come from presiding over an astonishing feat of competition and pyrotechnics: In order to prove to the people that his God is the real deal and not Ba’al, he had the prophets of Ba’al prepare a bull for a burnt offering. He himself, as a prophet of the Lord God, prepared a bull for a burnt offering. That God that kindled a spontaneous fire beneath the bull was indeed the true God.

Well, the followers of Ba’al cried aloud and danced around and cut themselves, but no fire ever came. Elijah, on the other hand, drenched the firepit with water and, even so, the Lord God kindled a fire beneath the bull.

After that Elijah slayed all 450 prophets of Ba’al. It’s tough work, slaying that many prophets of Ba’al. And afterward, he was tired. Except now his life was in danger. That firebrand Jezebel—no doubt a redhead—promised she would kill him.

So like any especially confused hero, he gives up and goes to sit beneath the broom tree and tells God to let him die.

Then the story goes:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This Lord God, this Sound of Silence Voice was supposed to say something, solve some existential riddles. Not ask questions that don’t have answers.

What are you doing here?

I’m beginning to think that being able to ask the question is pretty close to “just right.” Questions are more about hope than they are about doubt. Because there is more intimacy, more trust in asking questions than in being given answers you haven’t had the nerve or heart to ask.

It’s all kind of backwards, I know, but I think that may be the way it is. To question is to show trust, to risk intimacy.

Because what good is our faith in anything—God, country, each other—if we stand in such a far-off relationship with any of them that we cannot ask honest questions from the heart of our faith or the heart of our doubt?

Who was the last person you asked to scratch your back? Not some guy on the street. Who was the last person who asked you if they looked okay in that bathing suit? Not some guy on the street. Who was the last person you asked for help with something that really mattered? Unless it was for directions, you didn’t ask some guy on the street.

You need kinship with someone in order to be able to ask questions. Kinship and hope. And their answers are, in some way, secondary to the privileged relationship you share that lets you—or them—ask the question in the first place.

Maybe it’s really true, what they told us as kids—that there no stupid questions. Which is good news for those of us full of them.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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