There but for the Grace of God go I

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. She was a wonderful, God fearing woman who believed in Grace above all things. “There but for the Grace of God go I” she would say, almost as a way of leaving a phrase unfinished; like it was her way of reminding us that life will always continue to challenge, trouble, disrupt, and dismay us, but that we will be required to keep living in spite of our shortcomings and displeasure.

I wish I’d been mature enough when she was still alive to tell her how much I appreciate her—how much I appreciate my memory of her now. The way I remember her coping with life’s small miseries creeps into my thoughts daily, serving as a manual for difficult moments that can only be read after-the-fact. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to hang on to the lessons indefinitely.

I wasn’t close enough to her at the end of her life.

For some reason my thoughts always drift toward her in my most challenging moments, searching for examples of similar situations where she exemplified a better strategy for coping, or told some story with an important moral lesson, which would act as a guide the next time around.

She had a way with crafting words around caring gestures that warmed a room, never leading to controversy, awkward confrontation, or confusion. There was a pleasantness and serene aura about her, at all times, but not in a naive way; that is, there was a subtle intellectuality about her presence that was truly…

Graceful.

Religion is attractive for the sole reason that it allows us to make real, through parable and meta-narrative, the very fantasies that come to life in our memory. How romantic the Christian notion is that we can speak to the dead, or that metaphysical beings are watching over us, stewarding loved ones left living until their final hour. A Christian might tell me to pray and that the person I am thinking about, dead or alive, will receive my blessing. Or they might tell me that “your grandmother knows” how you feel because “she’s watching over you.”

It’s funny how the ways people talk about religion echo the ways people talk about the Internet.

Regardless, these narrative devices are nice ways to make sense of a confusing world, but they’re not very comforting, at least not to me. Maybe there is some truth in the “up there” and “out there” notion of a Christian spirituality, but the general dogma is much too contradictory and simplistic for me to embrace its romantic notions. In short, religious scriptural naivety ruins the magical moment of romance that most derive from the promise of salvation.

Although, I do admire those who have such firm belief in fantastic notions of life ever-after. I appreciate that they are able to find peace in ritual, study and practice.

My grandmother was this sort of person—a religious person who truly believed in something. I absolutely respect such certainty as a way of being when it is grounded in notions of goodwill, honesty, and faith. Some people, like my grandmother, understand Grace to much deeper degrees than those who constantly question their beliefs and, as a result, struggle to suspend their assumptions when making connections with others that really matter.

I believe in humanity and in goodness, for sure, but can’t rationalize a heaven (in the mono-theistic sense) any better than I can order coffee at a diner speaking Gaelic. As an intellectual, I feel like I’ve distanced myself far from anything that resembles what I used to know as “faith” and that salvation is dish best served cold. As a result, I struggle daily to trust in others, to believe that others will help me, that they will offer some missing piece of a puzzle needed to keep living, or that they’ll help me achieve my goals.

How can I put stock in a mystical universe based on faith when my career is rooted the practice of explaining away complex phenomenon so that I might understand the most confusing aspects of the universe? After a while, I read so much that I begin to realize that everything can be explained, deconstructed, reconstructed, understood, performed, modulated, queered, queried, themed, grounded, compartmentalized, analyzed, translated, or criticized. Before too long, the quest for an all encompassing Truth is easily abandoned, left to drift down the river of yesterdays, where bits and pieces of forgotten selves—religious beliefs, innocence, naivety, skepticism, goofiness, hopes, wishes, magic—collect in pools that straddle the banks of a personal past left behind.

There’s no Grace in my daily life—not usually. It isn’t something that comes easy to me, like it did for my grandmother. It’s something that I have to cultivate by reminding myself to take it easy, to take it slower, to stop and breathe, to cope, and be aware of what’s around me.

Grace is the one thing that my grandmother seamlessly embodied. I know that she had a lifetime of encounters to learn these traits, and that she was probably more willful in her youth, but my memory relentlessly reveals her Graceful prowess. I remember her best as the woman who was inviting, open, joyous, gentle, delighted, and easygoing. These are all qualities that would be useful to me now, more than anything, if they could only be remembered in the moment of stressful encounters with others.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think Grace is a struggle for many, and I warm to people who don’t reflect my willful demeanor. I think most of us—academics especially—critical scholars especially—ought to remember to strive for Grace whilst speaking their minds, making claims, and doing what they’re trained to do.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber says that all actual encounter is by Grace, not by seeking, and that all actual living is encounter. I interpret this to mean that the only way to truly live is to relinquish moments of willfulness so that the other—whomever or whatever the other might be—may be invited to experience oneself fully and wholly, no holds barred. To me, Grace is about finding comfort with one’s own vulnerability so that, when we least expect it, we may trust in a universe that can never be fully comprehended.

This semester has brought work related stress to a whole new level and I’ve been struggling to cope. If all of life is suffering, like the Buddhists say, than I’ve been experiencing an order of it reserved for the busiest, most intensely demanding, and most productive times. It has been hard to be Graceful, much easier to assert my will over the tasks of daily living in order to command, conquer and accomplish everything that I imagine is expected of me.

But there comes a point when all of the willfulness that helps me efficiently check things of my to-do list—the course, protective, power-focused, nerve-centric affect that I carry in my shoulders after 6 cups of black tea and 10 minutes to spare—becomes too much to bear.

 

There comes a point when I no longer recognize I.

I seem more like some one else.

I forget that I am only myself in relation to You.

But without Grace, there is no You—not to me, anyway;

There’s no trust, no vulnerability, and no openness.

Without Grace, there is no I, no actual living.

***

“Nick, I need to see you for a minute before we break off into groups,” she says, throwing he words over a few chatting colleagues sitting near me, already discussing their projects. I skirt the table quickly, weaving through spinning chairs as I near the end of the table.

“Heya” I say, with a certain nonchalance, “What’s up?” I can see that she has notes for me and something pressing to discuss. I’m eager and a bit nervous, but in an expecting way that’s not as much fearful as ready and confident. I see that she has my paper in front of her with notes written on it.

She looks forward in thought as she speaks, crafting the right words, responding in a thoughtful and focused way that senior professors have learned from what seems like thousands of years of experience, in classrooms where they’ve refined professorial wizardry via literary magic.

“That comment I made a minute ago about finding what you are writing about 5 pages into the paper—I hope that you picked up that it was direct toward you.”

I nod.

“I see what you have here, and it’s nice and I get it, but sometimes you get so abstract—I mean, you really let yourself go—that it becomes unclear what you’re getting it. The reader has to know where you are, what you’re doing, where you’re taking us. You’re job is to reign yourself in and tighten it up, or else we’ll be totally lost.”

I’m grateful and I agree, but my face doesn’t show it. I want to be appreciative, but my voice won’t let me. The exact opposite comes out and we grapple in discussion over ideas for my paper. For the next 10 minutes we hash over ideas, rationalizing, mythologizing, tossing out possibilities in search of commonality. Something in the darkest cavern of my mind wants to escape and say “thank you just for reading it and offering feedback,” but waves of intellectual prowess infused with oily pride keep it hidden away, under pressure, unable to reach the surface. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering why I can’t ever accept feedback as it comes—the way it comes—without added expletives, justifications, or defenses. “Why the need to explain yourself?” I ask myself, inaudibly.

We continue to exchange details and get a feel for each other’s needs. Eventually, we reach some common ground but not before I deliver a beautiful rendition of “difficult grad student” for an undeserving customer. “Must I always be such a pain in the ass?” I ask, clinching my teeth to keep my mouth shut and end the conversation.

I walk to my office pleased with the progress that we’ve just made, glad to have more direction, elated that a person with her esteem and sensibility is working with me. Undergirding all of this is an overbearing feeling of shame that I couldn’t show that I was grateful for the time and effort she put into helping me. Embarrassment is out of the question when self-spite like this is in order, and my head gets hot as pride boils on the tip of my tongue. I cuss at myself as I search the halls, turning the corner by the bathroom, wishing that I could be more of the appreciative person that I sense myself to be in actuality.

“Grace” I say out loud, just before I see my colleague coming down the hall. “Where is the Grace?” I ask, in my mind, emphatically searching for a way to change my mode and shift my mood. My colleague comes up beside me and we stride in step as we enter my office to begin collaborating on each other’s work. I feel myself ease into a funk, unable to cope with the failed dialogue I just had and suspecting that I’ll botch this next encounter all the same.

We sit and read for a few moments and then toss around some comments, lightly chatting about each other’s work. Her paper is excellent, written in a voice I only wish I could capture. There is elegance and directness about the way she describes her actions, the way she writes her environment in the story, and the way she illustrates her relationships to other characters that is unique and visual. It’s a style that is second to none in our department. Having read some of her writing a few years ago, I can see that it’s full-bodied and enlivened now. I can already see her paper’s panning out into a publication of some kind that is definitely worth both of our time and effort. I truly believe in collaborative-driven ethos, especially when it comes to writing narrative.

She continues to admire some of the things I’ve written and casts a glance over the pages she’s holding that beckons me to respond to her work. I tell her that I’m pointing out a few things that are really mechanical by nature, no big deals. “Just some things that help invite the reader into the story a bit more.” I say, without urgency.

Her glance changes from an inquisitive hopefulness to a concerned dryness, more worried than ugly. We bicker for the next few minutes about whether or not the details I’ve annotated are really worth editing, arguing over the definition of conversational voice before we notice that we have to get back to the classroom and report back to the rest of the group.

“I’m a better editor than I am a writer” I boast. I think it’s the truth. As we leave I tell her that I’ll work through her paper over night and bring her back some good feedback in the morning. I’m hoping that my willingness to put time and effort into editing will ease her nerves. I love editing because it helps me be a better writer and lets me practice providing solid feedback that might actually be of use. Helping people move in better directions is always fulfilling if they allow you to intervene.

Again, I’m met with what I sense to be distrust and discomfort.

Silence.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t have to edit your paper if you don’t want me to. I’m just trying to help.” It’s awkward, and I can see her struggling with a gentle way of telling me that she’d rather not have my input. I’m struck at this, thinking that we had a fairly collegial relationship until now, and I can’t help but wonder if her eventual “I’d rather you didn’t read it” comes because she doesn’t trust my character in general—or if it has something to do with what’s written in the paper, something I have yet to discover about her that would reveal a tender spot of vulnerability.

I never liked not being allowed to help people. It’s one of the only ways I feel like I can show my true colors and be the more gentle, caring, responsible, compassionate, and well intentioned person I sense myself to be; it’s the only way that the sunken treasure of gratefulness has ever risen to the surface of my everyday experience with others. I know that tenderness breeds tenderness, and I want to show her that I can help, if she’d only give me a chance. I do my very best to block out self-consciousness and doubt in order to reaffirm my commitment help her.

We turn the corner of the classroom without coming to a resolution. Her paper in hand, I engage with her about our brief conversation as we discuss our group meeting with the class. Surprisingly, we’re all at very similar places in our writing and there are a few tense laughs shared by all—a welcome relief to the tensions incurred when writing from the soul and speaking from the hip. There is a general sense of agency and community in the air as we wrap up class.

I look down to pack up my things and see my colleague sitting next to me, a quick maneuver in the adjacent chair after it becomes vacant. She reaches her hand out to grab her paper, a half-hearted attempt to snatch back what is rightfully hers.

“After some thinking about it, I’ve decided that I just don’t want you to read it. I’m just gonna do something else,” she asserts, not wanting a conversation. She’s cautious and slow about her words, indirect and sheepish in a way that furthers my confusion. For the last time, I wonder if she’s suspicious of me as opposed to what’s in her paper.

“Look, it’s just a paper and I don’t really care what’s in here, but I like it so far and I think I can help. You have a wonderful voice and a way with words that I envy. I think if you let me give you some good feedback you might find it helpful. I promise I won’t be mean.” In a joking way, I crack a smile and wryly remark, “I swear that I won’t judge you any differently than I judge you already!”

She whips a quick, stern glance my way. “And lets talk about that!” she says, her voice raising her eyebrows as she turns toward me, ready to grab her paper for good and run. I can tell that I’m at least half-right about her issues trusting my intentions but that the real onus of trust lies in the contents of the text itself. Though I was trying to be witty and dry, a way of alleviating tension, I think I pushed her a bit too hard and put pressure on a sore spot that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes bruises aren’t always apparent. I continue in a plea.

“Look—you can swear me to secrecy. I’ll sign a contract that says I won’t tell a soul what’s in this paper. I think you should let me read it, make some notes, and I’ll put it in your mailbox when I’m done. I’m here to help you, not to hurt you. It will be good in the long run, trust me.” Apprehensively, she deflates in here seat and calmly, quietly agrees, still unsure that she’s made the right decision. As I walk away, either am I.

Moving from the classroom to my office, I try to make sense of the two encounters. Both were about writing; both required a degree of vulnerability that I just couldn’t show; both ended well but left the relationship on an unstable ground. Questions start a race in my mind, unconcerned with a finish line.

Will I ever know Grace? Will I always be this abrasive? Why am I so disconfirming and off putting? Will there come a day when being easy will be easy? When being difficult will catch me off guard? Will the deeper self, the one filled with gratitude and awe, ever find a way to fuse with the surface of my experience? Will people who wade in relation to me ever find something between us worth sustaining?

I just don’t know. I’ve got no answers to fleeting questions.

As I get into my car, a deep breath exits my body, releasing the hyper-tension in my body before I turn over the engine. I press the clutch, turn the key, and throw the stick into reverse  as I turn my head to gaze out the rear window.

“There but for the Grace of God go I” I say out loud, smile, remembering my grandmother, slowly putting the car into gear.

Creative Commons License
PLE's There but for the Grace of God go I by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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