As we’ve been driving around town, my wife Phoebe, our children, and I have been listening to a recording of Neil Gaiman’s classic, “Coraline.” “Coraline” is a book full of beauty and danger and wonder. Here are echoes of the Brothers Grimm and “Through the Looking Glass” and Edgar Allan Poe, but all of them magnified and changed by Gaiman’s imagination, by the wild sea of stories from which he draws his tales. In the recording that’s in our car’s CD player, the book is read by Gaiman himself. And his voice, full of music, magic, and mischief, deepens even more the wonder of his writing.
This very morning, we listened as the eponymous Coraline made her way through the dusty and perilous house in which most of her story occurs. Coraline was about to open a trap door and descend a set of stairs into a forgotten basement when Gaiman offered the editorial aside:
It is always easier to be afraid of something you cannot see.
The fearful principle that Gaiman names here is something that Alfred Hitchcock knew intimately. Hitch understood that the unseen tends to be way scarier than those things that we can look upon directly. He knew that the limitless recesses of our imagination hold the potential to unsettle us in a way that the corporeal can rarely match. Anyone who has started to wonder about what might be waiting in the dark as they walk alone down a moonlit path or as they sit by themselves in an old house that groans in the night will know the fearful power of the invisible.
And this principle is not confined to thrillers or to the mystery of the night. In my work as a priest, I have the difficult privilege of sitting with people during times of big sorrow and big loss and big hurt and big change. And I’ve noticed how often getting a diagnosis – even an awful, unwanted diagnosis – can come to people as a kind of relief.
I remember especially vividly a young man, only a few years into adulthood. He had just received a diagnosis of dyslexia. And he spent the first 72 hours after the doctor handed him this life-altering news in a state of despair. But then, after those three days passed (for those of us steeped in the Christian story, it is difficult not to think here of an empty tomb), something changed. The young man began to examine his memories – in particular, his memories of academic frustration, of F’s and hard-won C’s on math and spelling tests – and he said to himself:
So much makes sense now.
There was freedom for him in seeing his limitation in the light. Suddenly, because his dyslexia was removed from the cavernous realm of his imagination, he knew its size, its parameters. Suddenly, it was something that he could encounter, with which he could wrestle. With which he could live.
Because of social media, because of the news, because of conversations with friends and strangers, I am thoroughly aware that these last several months have been a time of anxiety and sadness for a lot of folks. Over these few months, I have needed to log onto to Facebook for but a moment in order to hear multiple friends broadcast their distress at the prospect of a Donald Trump Presidency. I have needed to hold a cup of coffee and listen for but a moment to hear the same.
If this kind distress has been part of your life the last while, if it is part of your life right now, then there is good news on this Inauguration Day.
The good news is that, as of today, a Donald Trump Presidency is no longer a prospect or an abstraction. It is no longer something unseen. It is now here. It is now real. It is now something that we can hold before us and examine and encounter and respond to and yes, as we discern the Spirit calling us, resist.
Now, before I go any further, I want to be careful that I do not lapse into naïveté or into facile optimism: this Inauguration Day does not mean that you and I and our neighbors are done with fear. To the contrary, there remains good and reasonable cause for alarm if you are a woman or a person of color or impoverished or an artist or chronically ill or GLBTQ or Muslim or, in my case, a non-citizen. Remember that Neil Gaiman’s argument is not that there is nothing to be afraid of once we can see into the shadows and the corners. His argument is that it easier to be afraid of that which we cannot see.
And now we can see clearly.
I am encouraged and heartened and excited by the actions that I am witnessing on this Inauguration Day, on this day when we look directly upon this country’s new president. I am grateful for the words of The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, as he reminds us of our responsibility to pray for President Trump. I am grateful for my friend Jessica, who on Sunday in church shared the news that she and her eldest daughter will be travelling to Washington, D.C to participate in the Women’s March. I am grateful to everyone who will be joining the Women’s March in cities across the country – Phoebe and I plan on being among you. And I am grateful for everyone who is preaching the Gospel and who is living the Gospel, everyone who is reminding us that Jesus critiqued and resisted his government, everyone who is reminding us that faith sometimes calls us to do likewise.
Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline“ isn’t a book about someone who never experiences fear. Nor is it even a book about someone who gets over her fear once she sees the danger before her. To the contrary (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that Gaiman’s contemporary fairy tale has a happy ending), it is a book about a girl who encounters the easy fear of the unseen and who chooses to keep on going until she confronts the reduced but still real fear of the seen. It is a book about a girl who looks directly at that which she fears and, even though her knees may knock and her voice may shake, acts bravely and powerfully anyway. With God’s help, with the help of our friends and neighbors, with the help of people we have yet to meet, we shall do the same.
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