So, as everyone knows, I am an emotional guy. But what makes me cry is not usually things that are sad.
What makes me cry is goodness.
Recently, I heard from a friend about an interview given by Cormac McCarthy, who is, by all estimations, one of the greatest living American writers, and perhaps the best American writer of the last 50 years.
I first studied McCarthy’s work when I started teaching AP English in 2003. Two of his books made the AP Reading List (Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men). Since I had not read his work, I decided to. Those two novels in particular were deeply moving for me, mainly because McCarthy *clearly* understood virtue and goodness, and crafted some incredibly compelling protagonists. Men who I identified with. Would like to be like.
But McCarthy put those glowing, bright characters in a dark world. And in those two novels, when evil came to town – and it always comes to town – it wreaked havoc, laid waste to life, and knocked goodness down. Seemingly in triumph.
You don’t leave McCarthy novels feeling very optimistic about life. Or mankind.
And yet, paradoxically, because you’ve encountered such goodness in some of McCarthy’s characters, you sort of do.
Those are the kind of books that cause you to sit down and just think for a long while.
(SIDENOTE: Also, I don’t think I’ve encountered another writer whose prose forces me to read more frantically than McCarthy’s. The tension is unbearable. His writing doesn’t draw you along, it drags you, as though you’re chained to a diesel locomotive. I couldn’t read fast enough, nor could I stop, even if I wanted to. Those dishes might not clean themselves, but I’m not going to get to it until I’m done with this book, honey. Kids, I know I’m your parent, but you’re going to have to fend for yourselves until I’m done here.)
Dedicated to John Francis McCarthy
Back to that interview with McCarthy. McCarthy had a son in 1998, when he was in his mid 60s. McCarthy realized that by the time his son was old enough to truly understand how much his father loved him, he would be dead. So he wrote the novel The Road to attempt to communicate his deep love for his son. Another friend begged me to read it. I did.
The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world, destroyed by fire, where the only color is grey and white and black.
One of McCarthy’s descriptions of the destroyed earth, on page 181, is the kind of thing that once I read it, caused me to slump in despair, shaking my head slowly. I am – and will forever be – incapable of writing anything even approaching this. When in the presence of such a gift, it’s best to admit defeat, and smile in joy-soaked awe.
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in a gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all the stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere on the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and cold crept down and the dark came every and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them as silently as eyes.
And yet, within this nightmared wasteland, there is a father who loves his son with everything. There’s a line where the Father says to the Boy:
“You have my whole heart. You always did.”
That’s the gift of the novel. The whole thing is one long examination of sacrificial love. And the novel is filled – brimming – with hope. Despite the darkness of the world. Despite the terrible evil.
“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
Maybe that’s the key to life. Finding something (or someone) you love even more than yourself. And perhaps, somehow, being loved by someone that well makes us good. Or perhaps it can. If the love is deep enough. Strong enough. Divine enough. And maybe the terrible reality of free-will and freedom – though it opens the door for the deepest darkness of men’s heart and allows for the earth to be flooded with atrocities – also allows for this kind of love.
This love that saves.
You have my whole heart
After I finished the book, I sat for a long time. It was midnight, and the house creaked from quiet. I went into my son’s room, and leaned down next to him. I kissed his cheek. And I told him I loved him. I said it over and over. Maybe a thousand times. I have tried to say this to him every day I’ve woken to see his face. It was not enough, those cumulative words, spanning a decade. More words fell out of my heart. I did the same for my daughter, brushing aside her curls.
And the thought hit me, like a deep river inside me, that this book was saying something true. At the center of this Universe, when all is laid waste, and nothing is left, there *is* something left. A Father loving his Son. A Son loving his Father. This is a story older than time.
I have heard this story, told to me – at times with awkward stumbling and fumbled words – by those who told me that the Universe bore traces of this love, woven into its fabric, dyed into its strands. That this was, in fact, the very nature of God. Proof filled the old pages of an ancient book. Proof flowed down a cruel Cross. Proof filled their hearts. They begged me to listen, not to them, but to these whispers. Finally I did.
And I found, miracle of goodness, I am that son, too. I am His son. Not in metaphor, but actual. I could have been abandoned. I could have been orphaned. But there was a heart who refused to let me go. And that whisper said the same thing the father said to the Boy.
You have my whole heart. You always did.
Could it be? That God has been whispering that to me since before time? Yes.
And that whisper heals me. Now and forever.