Honest Doubt

Rachel Held Evans

 

 

 

 

 

You say, but with no touch of scorn, 

         Sweet-hearted, you, whose light-blue eyes 
         Are tender over drowning flies, 
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born. 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from “In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 96”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Mom Blogs. (Yes, I know that they’re usually called “Mommy Blogs.” I’m also not a huge fan of calling fellow adults “Mommy.” It’s just a preference.) Maybe it’s the faded-out photos, all sharing the same pastel filters. Maybe it’s the increasing extent to which they’re becoming the hosts for paid reviews of baby stuff. Maybe it’s a sense of conviction, the shiny perfection that they reveal reminding me just a little bit too much of how I, too, can use words to gloss over the really tough parts of parenting. 

More than any of those, though, I think what I find challenging on these sites is the all-consuming sense of certainty and expertise that many of them convey. For every question of parenting—and the questions are endless—they have an Opinion, nay, an Answer. They have done it this way, and their children are professional ice skaters and aeronautical engineers, so you must do it this way, too.

From the outside of parenting, maybe this is tempting. I remember the excitement that I felt when, eight months pregnant with my first child, I hoisted myself into a hammock and read Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby On The Block. “This is it! I found it!” I thought to myself. “I’ve figured out how to keep my daughter happy. She’ll never cry, and this will be great.” Future mothers like to get the sense that there are concrete solutions. We all do.

Except… Luci cried. A lot. Even after we swaddled, shushed, splashed (no, that can’t be right…) and did the other three S’s Karp recommended. Because, it turns out, some babies cry a lot. Others don’t. The ones who don’t sometimes have mothers who write blog posts about What Works. The ones who do have mothers who forget how much their first daughter cried until the second one starts crying and then they’re like, “Oh, yeah. Babies cry.”

Yet while Mom Blogs don’t excite me, I truly enjoy hearing from writers who are also mothers. In other words, women who were writing before they had children and continued writing afterwards, sometimes about children and sometimes about their other passions, which continue to exist. A friend from college, Kelsey Crozier, is one of these women, a dietician who posts recipes and tells stories about feeding her three kids, the paradox of being a nutritionist who loves ice cream, and whose daughters want to eat pasta more than anything in the world. Sarah Bessey is another, an author and mother of four, a preacher and lover of Anne of Green Gables, knitting, and questioning the patriarchy of modern Christian society.

Another of these writer moms was Rachel Held Evans, who died at age 37 this morning. Our children are about the same ages, and though to be honest I haven’t yet read her books, I always loved her blog posts, honest and poetic reflections on this wild journey into new motherhood. In February 2016, our first children were babies, I read her post, “Office of The Night Watch: A Meditation On Nursing”, in the middle of the night, nursing my daughter as she nursed her son, half a continent away. I didn’t know her, but her thoughts on prayer that night, that sleepy season when Luci didn’t sleep, when I spent every few hours with her through a long, snowy winter, stick with me. To her child, she wrote “I love God the way you love me—wholly, but not on purpose, the way you are learning to breathe without being told how to do it, the way you root and claw at my breast until you are filled.”

So I come back to Tennyson’s words today, the crux of his long poem “In Memoriam,” composed when he’d lost a dear friend of his own. Like Job’s friends, a well-meaning acquaintance has cautioned him against doubt, telling him that it is “Devil-born.” Tennyson replies a great treatise on doubt:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds, 

         At last he beat his music out. 
         There lives more faith in honest doubt, 
Believe me, than in half the creeds. 
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength, 
         He would not make his judgment blind, 
         He faced the spectres of the mind 
And laid them: thus he came at length 
To find a stronger faith his own; 
         And Power was with him in the night, 
         Which makes the darkness and the light, 
And dwells not in the light alone, 
But in the darkness and the cloud, 
         As over Sinaï’s peaks of old, 
         While Israel made their gods of gold, 

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud. 

There are, I suppose, quick answers to tragedy, just as there are Google-able answers to how to potty train in three days, sleep train in three days, teach your child to read in three days, whatever. Platitudes abound, though I can’t call any to mind, a Hallmark card for even the saddest situations.

And yet today only Tennyson’s “honest doubt” will do. I’m clinging to  that “Power with him in the night / which makes the darkness and the light / and dwells not in the light alone.” I’m gathering my little girls up before naptime, kissing stubbed fingers and brushing away my own tears and singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Because he does. He must.

Because even the darkness, this darkness, is not dark to You. Be with us in the darkness.

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