Of all my favorite heresies, mental self-determination probably tops the list. I am what I choose to be. Most of the primary spiritual experiences of my life had been framed in that language: I had made a saving decision. I had answered the door when Jesus knocked. I had remained steadfastly annoyed by my Reformed friends who wanted their God to choose them before the foundations of the earth were laid. I was a Christian because of the power of my own mind to turn it toward heavenly matters and allow God to begin a work on me. Nor, as a Canadian, was I immune to the American Dream which tells us that our fate lies in our own hands and that we can take destiny by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake until we get what we deserve. But after my cancer diagnosis, the word “choice” no longer had the same allure. Rogue cells in my body were multiplying without my consent. I was not the dauntless self-determining captain of my ship that I had imagined myself to be.
On the Everything Happens podcast, we have been developing language to understand those things in life which we don’t choose. We are now launching the Everything Happens book club with John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down which introduces us to Ava, an adolescent girl with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and severe anxiety. Her story will ask us to consider the truth of the Arthur Schopenhauer quote which begins the novel: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Turtles All the Way Down is a book for people who have been gifted with a life-altering curse, for those people—family, friends, therapists—who try to succor them; and, of course, it is a book for the rest of us, to help understand the challenges faced by the neurodiverse people we encounter in our own lives. Virginia Woolf was right in saying that when it comes to describing pain, we are always at a loss for the correct language, and Green’s work gives us a chance to imagine the constant tormenting presence of a thorn in the mind of a sufferer. “Please just let me out,” cries Aza. “Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this. Anything to be out of this.”
What is like to be unable to control your thoughts? How can one live, perpetually at the mercy of obsessive and self-destructive notions that come unbidden? How can a girl in the throes of adolescence handle grief, first love, friendships, and school while enveloped in a never-lifting cloud of anxiety? There are no easy cures for Aza, or for most of us carrying a burden we never asked for.
The novel speaks to the profoundest questions we ask as Christians—who are we, really, in this universe? To what extent are we are own mental masters, able to choose our deeds and thoughts? This is a particularly compelling issue for those who are suffering memory loss or sliding into dementia or whose bodies and brains are altered by disease or by the drugs and treatments we undergo to fight these diseases. Who are we—really—when a pill makes us act like somebody else? Is there a genuine Me, known and preserved by God, even though I may be clinically depressed, raving, or lost in the depths of Alzheimer’s? To what personality will I be restored when I have run my earthly race and, at last, have been embraced by my Master?
So I hope you’ll consider joining me in reading along for The Everything Happens Book Club as we weigh the things we carry, and look for the love we need to carry on. Click here to find discussion questions, bonus resources, and more.
If you’re reading alongside us (or even if you aren’t!), I’d love to have you answer this question in the comments below:
Aza says, “You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas” (2). Do you ever feel that way? How much control do you feel you have over the narrative of your life?