Monday, November 9, 2009

Violence in the Wilderness

Last week, my wife and I were watching the conclusion (fifth of five episodes) of an old televised series of a P.D. James mystery novel, starring Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who investigates murders and writes poetry. We had actually seen the series when it was on television (probably PBS Mystery) back in 1989 or 1990. As we watched each succeeding episode, it became more and more familiar. I remembered more than my wife did. As we approached the horrific conclusion, I remembered what happened, and I cringed, knowing what was coming.

Even in fictional life, I hate violence. I won’t watch war movies; I never saw “Saving Private Ryan.” I can watch murder mysteries if the violence stays off-stage (and in the case of our Netflix rental, the goriest stuff did). But slasher movies? Forget it. Halloween Part 23 or stories about families being held hostage by homicidal maniacs? No way. Stories about the World War II death camps? I’m a basket case. And that one’s particularly odd because years ago I use to read all about the Holocaust.

But it seems that, as I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for violence on television or movies, and even books, had diminished considerably.

So I was not looking forward to reading chapter 6 of Gerald May’s The Wisdom of Wilderness, which I’ve been reading and writing about as part of the online discussion group at the High Calling Blogs. Chapter 6 is entitled, “Violence at Smith’s Inlet.” I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what May wrote: a squirrel swimming in the middle of a reservoir and likely to drown; a box turtle mutilated by young idiots with nothing else better to do; a swan killing a small duck; May himself breaking a carp’s jaw when he tried to remove a fishing hook; and (okay, one expected thing) a body of a young woman found floating in the inlet. He also adds some scenes from his military tour in Vietnam and the years he spent as an institutional psychiatrist.

The young woman’s death (and Vietnam) aside, May suggests that violence is part of the natural order, and that there will always be “within and around us… a violence that just is, just exists, just happens. It is a quality of destructiveness that is completely wild, unreasoned, unforgiving, relentless, and inexplicable” (pages 118-119). He goes on to say that unless we can accept this “shadow side” of ourselves, “we will never be able to appreciate being an integral part of things.”

He’s right, but I don’t know how willing I am to accept that shadow side. I can accept it in nature; I know it’s part of the (sinful) human condition. But I don’t think I can accept it in the way May seems to suggest here – almost an embrace.

More than any of the chapters so far, I found this one the most troubling.

Related links:

Maureen Doallas on The Enigma of Violence.
Today's discussion group at High Calling Blogs: When Mountains Scream.
Monica Sharman's Such Was I.


Maureen said...

I just commented on THCB site how unsatisfying this chapter was for me. I think I came away so bothered because of May's background, I had expectations of some more profound treatment of the subject.

I can't take violence, and I certainly can't take it on May's terms.

One of the huge struggles I have thinking of myself as a person of faith is my inability to accept some of the explanations offered in the Bible, such as having to "pay" forever after for the original sin. Awful to say but honest. I've always had a terrible time just accepting what others maintain "just is".

(Thank you for mentioning my essay, Glynn.)

Unknown said...

I'm with you on this one, Glynn. I can't stomach gory explicit stuff. It's been difficult to watch the news lately.

Nor do I think we should just accept violence as a natural part of humanity. As I mention, that's not what God intended. So, this aversion, this lack of acceptance--I believe--is God-given. How else would injustices be fought if it did not go against the grain of what we were created to be?

I understand what you are saying here. May is right about one thing, though: there is no sticking the head in the sand on this one. I guess the question we should ask ourselves is, what are we doing (as Christians) to affect this disturbing truth?