As the candle wick of 2017 burns down to its last ember, I contemplate the past year. It is Friday, December 29th. A few hours ago Tom and I sat in a the small office of a Mom & Pop outfit called Suffolk Monument Works filling out the paperwork and writing the check for a tombstone for Jesse’s grave. It will take two to three months to get delivered (!) but will be a beautiful rose marble stone with a matching vase for flowers. It will say:
Jesse Thomas Apple
Beloved Son and Brother
December 10, 1992 – August 8, 2016
Artist ~ Scientist
And it will have the Christian fish symbol (or ichthys) that he had tattooed on his chest on his 18th birthday.
I feel a bit out of sorts from the experience of purchasing a tombstone for my child; yet I think, all in all, 2017 was a good year — at least as good as my first full year since 1992 without Jesse in it can be. I can’t feel unambiguously good about anything in this world. Goodness in this present world is never pure light; it’s more like a flashlight in the darkness, but I am grateful for that little light nonetheless. This sense of light in darkness is really only a clearer understanding of something I have felt all my life.
As long as I can remember I have had this thought at the back of my mind, that happiness is not quite real, and if it is real, then it is sort of heartless. Worldly happiness is like being temporarily absorbed by or acting in a movie or a play. I might be at a festival or laughing at a dinner table full of friends and family or I might be dancing at a Christmas party and an image will flash in my mind of shivering people lined up in front of a gas chamber. “That happened,” I think, “to humans just like me — and people are suffering right now.”
I have always felt that happiness is like a bubble, more or less insulated by walls of willful ignorance or forgetfulness or simply disguise. And yet I entered that bubble quite willingly. I wanted to be happy. I think we are meant to desire happiness. Perhaps these mental bubbles are part of God’s provision — as essential to human existence in this world as air and water. Or skin.
There is an allegory by C.S. Lewis I read long ago called The Pilgrim’s Regress, a play on the John Bunyan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the story, the hero encounters a community of miserable people huddled in dark caves. They can see each other’s insides and are full of despair and disgust by the “truth” about what our bodies actually are. The hero is almost sucked in by their reason of despair when he realizes that, in fact, we have skin. The fact is we do not generally need to view or even think about the ugliness of our insides because God has made us with beautiful and pleasing exteriors. What we see and experience with the capacity of our ordinary human senses — that is the level of truth in which we are made to live and thrive.
And yet humans cannot seem to stop at the natural and ordinary. We have this tendency to take a good thing too far, to take honest human pleasure and expand it until the truth fibers are so stretched and distorted that its inherent ability to provide pleasure is destroyed. A glass of wine is nice but when you expand the glass of wine into full-blown alcoholism the simple pleasure evaporates, replaced by despair. We are allowed and encouraged to be happy but we let it go too far. We turn happiness into a refusal to acknowledge that suffering has anything to do with us, to actively avoid thinking or caring about anything outside our bubble, to allow ourselves to become callous and functionally heartless.
I am not sure how we are supposed to draw the lines, when we open and shut the doors of our hearts, when to cast our pearls and when to preserve them. I suspect that coming to terms with decisions like these is a huge part of growing as human souls. If we find that sweet narrow path to the kingdom, that perfect balance, we grow and thrive. A little to one side and our hearts freeze and die; a little to the other and we drown in the world’s heartbreak and sorrow. However, to drown in heartbreak is better than to die with a cold calcified heart. So if we must err, we kind of know in which direction to lean. Hint: The right choice is almost always the more difficult one.
The day Jesse died my bubble burst completely and in those first months I stood uninsulated in the raw wind and fire of suffering. Perhaps some people would have sought drugs to help with the emotional pain. I knew in my heart that would be a mistake for me. There was a point in the week after the funeral when I fully understood what hell feels like. My body was in great pain and suddenly burst into the feeling of being on fire, and I don’t mean in any sort of romantic or metaphorical sense. No — this was intensely painful, like being on fire but not physically burning.
Fortunately I thought to call out to the Lord Jesus and He came quickly and tamped down the flames. Then He comforted me with a vision of Jesse with Him in a garden. In that vision Jesse looked a bit contrite, but safe and protected and I had the sense he was okay. Later I received knowledge in visions that he had adjusted to his new life and is happy.
So all through 2017 I have slowly, carefully built a fragile new membrane of happiness. The walls of my new bubble will always be thin. I wouldn’t have them any other way. They are no longer built to block out suffering but rather to stay close to the spiritual world where Jesse lives so that I can better prepare to enter there when my turn comes. I have a sharper awareness that this life is fleeting and then we continue our soul’s journey in a different kind of existence, in a world where the light of happiness is full and permanent.
After Jesse died, I told God I was finished and He could take me home now. He said “Not quite.” The message I “hear” is that I should think, learn, and write and then think, learn, and write some more. By doing this with an attitude of patience, love and forgiveness, I am supposed to develop into a better human soul. God does not seem to expect much from me, but what He expects, He really expects.
With these small things in mind I resolve to write more regularly in 2018, starting with my neglected blogs. This piece is here on Jesse’s blog because it has so much to do with him and because he is so much on my mind. This year I want to write much more for my current events/politics/philosophy blog, which is called “isaythiswithlove.wordpress.com”. And I have an idea for anew “epistolary” blog to promote the lost art of letter writing. Who knows. It may turn out to be the last attempt to promote letter writing in human history.