Do you remember reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school? The tragic effects of colonialism on an African village and the seeming inevitability of Okonkwo’s self-destruction have stayed with me for half a century. Back then I thought of it all as a “third-world” problem, unjust and unbearably sad but not really related to me.
After all, back then I lived a privileged life in a well-to-do Virginia suburb and didn’t even know I attended a segregated school. One afternoon I was riding my horse past a new housing development with a big sign that said, “White, gentiles only.” When I asked my mother, “What’s a gentile?” her only response was, “You don’t have to concern yourself with that; you’re one.” In my world of pillared brick houses, freshly-painted white fences, and neatly kept stables, I didn’t think I’d ever need to worry about things falling apart.
Fortunately, life happened. When I took a History of Science class at Wellesley, it hit me that the force of entropy threatens everyone, and it isn’t just about physics. The Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam were in full tilt. As I grappled with their implications and my own inner demons, the world I thought I’d grown up in slowly gave way to something larger, more chaotic and far more abundant than anything I could have imagined as a girl.
I’ve just finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s exquisite memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. The author’s quest for the meaning of life and death leads him to a residence in neurosurgery only to be derailed by a diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer. “(B)rains,” he writes, “give rise to our ability to form relationships and make life meaningful. Sometimes, they break.” And yet it is in the breaking that Kalanithi finds many of the answers he had sought.
Jesus said, I’ve come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. This passage has been used to justify colonialism, a gospel of wealth and all manner of excess, but that of course is not how Jesus meant it. He meant for us to know the richness of life lived within the breaking. He lived and died that we might come to trust in the abundance of life in the heart of God, particularly in those times when things fall apart.
On this sunny August day, nothing in my life seems to be hanging together quite the way I want, but somehow this morning I dare to believe him.