Last night I went to the opening of the Sydney Writers’ Festival where Andrew Solomon gave the address. Solomon is an award winning writer, gay activist and father.In his latest book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the search for Identity he researches over three hundred families and listens to their stories of pain, joy, suffering and victory as they nurture their exceptional children. He writes about families who experience Down syndrome, dwarfism, transgender identity, autism. He writes of children in families who have been conceived by rape, kids going through cancer, adults going through depression, children who have schizophrenia and other disabilities. Through his research listening to these stories, the lesson that he takes is that there is no such thing as a normal family. What he found is that people, as they take on and accept their challenges as part of their identity, can mature and thrive as joyful human beings. His basic concern centers around the question of what it means to be human and his answer would be that it is our difference that unites us rather than our homogeneity.
I found Solomon to be warm, joyful, humorous, compassionate,generous and insightful. I appreciated his honesty as he shared about his personal experiences of prejudice towards him as a gay man, pain as he struggled with anxiety and darkness as he battled in seasons of depression. His ability to vividly describe these difficult experiences reveals the gift that he has as a writer. He described anxiety for example as a condition where one feels as though they are about to trip over and fall and that this sensation is constant. He described depression as not even having enough energy to get up out of bed and that the thought of even seemingly small acts like getting into the shower, opening the shampoo container, drying oneself, getting dressed, are like experiencing the agony of the stations of the cross. He is definitely a talented wordsmith and a sharp thinker.
My question, which is the same one every time I go to events like these, is where is the Christian voice? Firstly where are the Christian voices coming from the platforms of an event like this? Secondly, where is the actual presence of Christians in a forum like this? Thirdly, where is the Christian engagement with these discussions happening on topics such as the one presented by Solomon? Are Christians too wrapped up in their more comfortable social circles to engage with challenging and sometimes disturbing ideas presented in forums such as these? We were told by one of the Festival organisers that there had been a public discussion the night before on the topic ‘What makes a city creative?’ I wondered; was there a Christian voice in that open discussion? I don’t know maybe there was, but I am doubtful. Do we want our city to be more creative? Would God be interested in something like that? I’m not saying that Christians need to loudly proclaim their distinct identity and beliefs everywhere they go, but only that the Christian perspective, presence and engagement seems to be sorely missing in events such as these.
Here are some points that I picked up on from Solomon’s inspiring address that as Christians, we could engage with. We need to engage from an open, unprejudiced, compassionate and generous stance as well as with a discerning and critical mind.
The talk centered around identity. Identity is something that fascinates us as human beings. Who are we? What does it mean to be human? Why was I born this way? Everyone asks questions such as these. As Christians we have something to say here of course. As all human beings are made in the image of God, saved, redeemed and blessed by God, our identity and worth is significant. Solomon shared this view of human beings as precious holding a genuine respect for every person no matter their physicality, sexual orientation, status, sickness or privilege. One thing that Solomon kept repeating was that meaning or truth was ‘forged rather than found’ and that this relates to our identity. In other words we forge our identity as human beings. So rather than trying to find our identity in an abstract, ‘out there’ sense, we can shape who we are. There is certainly truth here from a Christian perspective as we work with the Holy Spirit to become the people that we were created to be. However the post modern discourse of constructing truth rears its head here and we can end up finding ourselves trapped in a myriad of options presenting themselves to us to determine our identity. Which one is true? Which one is good? Which one will lead to a good life and even afterlife? Are we ever genuinely free to choose an identity anyway?
Diversity, tolerance and a dose of generosity.
Solomon showed a clip of some of the people that he interviewed. You can watch the clip here
What we were all struck by was how different all the stories were. People who experienced transgender identity, dwarfism, schizophrenia, autism shared about their lives. We watched the struggle and imagined the daily pain for those families. Yet we also saw love, compassion, tolerance and not just tolerance but grace. I thought that this is something that Christians can actually learn from. All too often we value homogeneity and conformity rather than diversity and difference because the latter threatens us. Solomon gave us an example of a community which when a mother announced that her son was going to become a girl, threatened to kill the child. Can you believe that a community would be so threatened by change and difference that it would come to murder a human being? Yet he also told of a church which was very welcoming of a member who had decided to change genders. In all this I am not condoning or condemning choices but rather simply pointing to the fact that diversity must be a value rather than a threat. And I am pointing to the fact that Christians seem to be uncomfortable with difference.
Pain, suffering and brokenness
Solomon had a lot to say about suffering. His philosophy is that suffering can produce endurance and can forge character. He views that pain can be embraced and joy can still be experienced in the midst of it. He gave examples of political prisoners who were grateful in their time in prison as it gave them time to think about life and meaning, rape victims who bore children through the act of violation yet loved their children and took pity on the perpetrators, cancer sufferers who accepted their condition and found peace in that. Does any of this sound familiar? It is what Christians teach and that is that ‘when we are weak then we are strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). Solomon quoted parts of the passage in Corinthians where the apostle Paul speaks about his struggles and weaknesses. It seemed to me that Solomon was developing a philosophy (and perhaps a theology) of suffering which had some truth to it. He accepts that we are wounded as human beings yet that we ought to be grateful for everything in our lives. He was in no way advocating endorsing and seeking after pain, suffering and infirmity but simply saying that there can be a peace that comes with accepting it as part of who we are.
Is there room for hope?
One thing that I found myself thinking about in this address was to do with hope. With Solomon’s emphasis on acceptance of suffering and pain in life, with his emphasis on accepting inability as a strength and part of our identity, I wondered if there was any room for hope for change. I remember once hearing the story of a person who was a quadriplegic who was also Pentecostal. He said that he got nervous every time he wheeled into a Christian conference because he knew that inevitably someone would come over to him and ask him if they could pray for him. I can understand his anxiety. To some extent each person has to accept their condition in life. Even as Christians, we need to accept the fact that this world is broken and so are we, that is, we will be in a state of sin, death and sickness until we see Jesus face to face. However where does hope for change come into it for a person with a philosophy such as Solomon has ? I don’t know about his religious views however for the Christian, our hope is in the consummation of the kingdom of God where all will be restored one day to the beauty that God initially intended for our world. And even now, we have hope that the kingdom of God has broken through to bring healing to the sick, peace to the anxious, light for those who sit in darkness and truth for those who live in meaninglessness.
What would happen if we looked at this issue of identity, diversity and suffering from a reign of God perspective? And then what would happen if we spoke that out, boldly, humbly, warmly, discerningly in forums such as the Sydney Writers’ Festival?