A therapist friend of mine believes that most of us, most of the time, given the choice, will choose to feel guilty rather than powerless, since guilt implies that we might have done something different and, thereby, had a different outcome, giving us the impression of some control.
I’ve experienced my share of both, but it is powerlessness that is my theme today. A little before 9 am on Thursday last, I was preparing to go snowshoeing. There I was sitting in my pajamas in my living room when I heard a distinct sound like “glub glub,” the dreaded noise that tells you it is time to call your sewer guy to clean out your line.
Martha was down in Boston to be with her sister who had just had knee surgery, so I picked up the phone and called her to get the name of our sewer company. While I was talking to her I heard with rising panic the loud sound of fast running water, and I ran downstairs to see what was up. A heavy flow of sewage was pouring out of the downstairs toilet into my living quarters.
Still holding the phone I asked my wife how to turn off the water, and I did that but to no avail. Then I turned off the toilet, but still the deluge continued. I stood there barefoot in raw sewage powerless, watching as my den and library filled up with dirty water.
What to do? I called 911. ( I was reminded of the old Smothers’ Brothers bit when Tommy fell in a vat of chocolate, and he yelled “fire,” figuring no one would come to rescue him if he yelled “chocolate”!)
The fire department came in about ten minutes (that was the last call I could make as the water shorted out the phone. I searched for my little-used cell phone.)
Meanwhile, I watched dirty water rising into my living space, darkening the wall-to-wall carpet. We have a raised-ranch, so there is no basement. Soon the carpets were all covered. The heavy flow then went over the threshold into the garage, and then, when the garage was covered, out into the driveway. This went on for over an hour.
Eventually the DPW came and found the sewer clog in the street and it stopped flowing, and I was faced with the dismal aftermath. Being a Calvinist I have never liked the nihilistic metaphor “Shit happens,” but it seemed apt now in a quite literal way.
I called a cleaning service and soon they drove by my house to a neighbors and I chased them down. “We’ll be down soon, they said” Later they arrived, and the first thing the guy said was, “Your house is trashed!” (He was obviously on loan from the Diplomatic Corp.)
What had to be done? The rooms must all be gutted and sanitized. Everything paper, cloth, leather, or porous that was touched by the 4 to 6 inches of raw sewage must go. The door frames must go. The sheet rock up to six inches above the water line must go.
These rooms contained the ephemera of my life. My beloved books were in these rooms, Bible commentaries, most everything by Karl Barth, everything by P.T. Forsyth. Lots of novels and poetry. Most of these have been boxed and moved to high ground. How they fare from the days of humidity and odor only time will tell.
Into the dumpster go my Harvard blue books; old term papers (“Antiochene versus Alexandrian Exegesis” for Gerald Cragg); a friend’s dissertation (sorry Jason); high school basketball and cross country clippings (“Floyd leads strong harrier field!”); papers and articles from my radical anti-Vietnam days.
My children’s pictures were in these rooms, as were Christmas ornaments from 35 years of family Christmases (recently packed away so carefully).
Into the dumpster go my first stereo speakers, KLH, from1972. They were still sounding great.
The dumpster is covered with today’s snowfall and today it is a repository of my life’s momentos. I understand that they are not the life itself.
And as losses go, this is a relatively small one. Nobody died. It is only stuff. I could be living in a tent on a medium strip in Haiti.
Still, every loss resonates with old losses. And my litany of old losses is a long one: my mother died when I was 18, the same year the city took our home to build a school. Some best friends from childhood, college and seminary were all gone by the time I was thirty. Then ten years ago I lost my health, and six years ago I lost my vocation. Lots of losses.
Loss, powerlessness, and vulnerability remain my unseen companions. Since my bike accident ten years ago I have lost the illusion that the world is a safe place. I don’t feel safe in a car. I don’t feel safe in my own home. I feel the world is a dangerous place. The world is a dangerous place.
But I remain one who stands under the word of God, and so I turn to the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament. They have a formal structure that simply put goes something like this: “complain, complain, complain, complain, praise.”
Psalm Six is a good example. Here the poor Psalmist is crying all night and day over his troubles. His bones ache. His soul is in anguish. He’s got enemies (the usual stuff). He’s had a bad day. He argues with God that if God lets him die he will no longer be able to praise him (a sort of pre-death Kubler-Ross bargaining.) In the end he is satisfied that the LORD hears and receives his prayer.
Sometimes that’s all you get, but it is enough.