Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cloven Viscount

One of the challenges of sharing the story of God is knowing where to start.  In my experience, in today's culture there doesn't seem to be much question that the world is broken or even that we ourselves are broken.  But I've been talking recently to someone who's probably philosophically a secular humanist.  From our conversations so far, this seems to impact her view of her own brokenness and the brokenness of the world.  I have been trying to think of meaningful ways to illustrate or bring up the question of what is broken and if there's a way to fix it.  I'm interested to hear her opinions about that and I'm curious to know whether she has a desire for redemption and restoration of all things, or whether she just thinks that we're stuck with things the way they are.  I'm curious to know how far she thinks that humanity can take fixing the world on its own.

So this weekend I read a book a friend lent me about a man who was cut in half by a cannon and he was running around in the world in 2 pieces--one good and one bad.  Here's what the man had to say about his experience:

The bad half said:
    “If only I could halve every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying face down on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness.  I was whole and all things were natural and confused me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind.  If you ever become half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you’ll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole.  You’ll have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious.  And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be halved like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” (pp 191-192)

A little later on, the good half described his experience:
    Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved.  One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness.  I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amid the pain and sorrow all round us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it.  It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too.  Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world.  If you come with me, Pamela, you’ll learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend your own by tending theirs. (p 217)
Eventually, after a sword fight with himself, he gets patched back together and becomes a whole person again.  This is how the author described that:
    So my uncle Medardo became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness, that is, apparently not dissimilar to what he had been before the halving.  But having had the experience of both halves each on its own, he was bound to be wise.  He had a happy life, many children and a just rule.  Our life too changed for the better.  Some might expect that with the Viscount entire again, a period of marvelous happiness would open, but obviously a whole Viscount is not enough to make the whole world whole. (245)       

Quotes taken from Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun) (Harcourt 1962).

I think there's so much to this story that I could use as a foundation for a conversation.  I deeply connected with what the two halves of the viscount said about life.  What I would like to ask my friend is how she felt about the two statements.  I would like to ask her whether they match with her understanding of the world.  Does she feel that things are broken?  Has she ever gone through a time when she began to see that, to identify with pain and suffering of others?  And finally, I'd like to talk with her about whether she sees that there's any way to overcome that.  Once recognizing the brokenness of self and the world around, what can be done?

I don't know that this would lead to the kind of conversation I'd be hoping for, but I think it presents an opportunity.  Sometimes I tell my own stories as a foundation for dialogue.  Sometimes I tell God's stories from the Bible.  But lots of times I am looking around at the world and seeing something profound or interesting and trying to figure out how to use that as a starting point to listen to another's beliefs and approach to the world.  Who knows what, after listening and connecting and relating, I might have the opportunity to share?

Because for me, following Christ is a little bit like that viscount's story.  Before Christ, I walked around thinking that I was whole and seeing the world incompletely.  But after surrendering my rights and my identity, I could see things more clearly - I could see the brokenness of the world, I could see the brokenness of myself, I had more compassion and understanding.  And it's only in recognizing that brokenness and surrendering to the ministry of the doctor that I can be made whole again.  It's not a wholeness that will save the whole world, but if God can recreate and restore me to wholeness, then I think he is also doing that with the world.  And I want to be part of that.  

In the bad half's statement, I also see echos of what it is like to lose your life to Christ--what it is like to give up everything.  Jesus said that to find our life we must lose it for his sake, and that's what I hear in the bad half's statements.  Even though it doesn't make sense, it's been my experience that when I voluntarily give up my rights and surrender my choices to Jesus, I live life in a more fulfilled and deeper and more meaningful way than I ever did when I was living a whole life all for myself.

So I don't know... it's an idea.  We'll see if it ever makes it into a conversation with my friend or anyone else.  But I connected with the story so deeply, I think that it probably will.

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