A Disease that I Don’t Have the Courage to Name
The following is the story with which I welcomed him. It comes from William Inge’s 1970 novel entitled, “My Son Is a Splendid Driver.”
The narrator, a man in his mid-40s, is visiting his parents for Christmas. They live in the small Kansas town in which he grew up. Uncharacteristically, his mother is not there to meet him at the train station (the novel is set during the Great Depression). When he arrives at his home, his mother is there; but she is extremely thin, and looks worn. She is about 66 years old.
She gets right to the point:
“Why do you suppose I didn’t go to the depot. I always do, don’t I?… I didn’t go this time because I’m ashamed to be seen.”
‘Then she posed her face before me under the light, and I saw a couple of raw little sores on her lower lip, supposing them to be fever blisters.’
“Your father has given me a disease that I don’t have the courage to name.”
What has happened is that the author’s father has given his mother what we today call an STD. His father contracted it from a prostitute during a business trip away from home.
William Inge now reflects on what he has just heard:
“Mother had stopped going to church. ‘Church is just a place to go when you’re feeling good and have a new hat to wear.’ There was a little bitterness in what she said, but there was also truth. Our minister would have been the last person in the world she could have talked to, to have lifted the curse she felt upon her and saved her from feeling damned. She would have embarrassed the man into speechlessness had she gone to him with her story. He would have been unable to look at her or my father without coloring. Most of our morality, I was beginning to think, was based on a refusal to recognize sin. Our entire religious heritage, it seemed to me, was one of refusal to deal with it.”
There are two costly points I would like to make concerning this text from William Inge.
The first point is that you and I probably know more than one person who has “dropped out” of the church and Christianity because they felt unable to be themselves or express the truth about themselves as they understand it, in the company of Christians and the church. They can be wrong about this sometimes, for occasionally an individual Christian does “rise to the occasion” to care like Jesus in terms of empathy and understanding. But often the person just shuts down and absents themselves, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The charge can be made against traditional or evangelical Christians that they won’t hear the whole truth of sinners’ experience. But the charge can also be made against liberal/socially progressive Christians that they will not hear the whole truth of sinners’ experience. Judgment comes on both sides of the Christian world—on all sides!
Lest we sit comfortably on negative feelings towards unempathetic Christians—and this is my second point—what about the world as a whole? I mean, do you really know ANYONE (religious or not) with whom you can be your whole self? Is there anyone in your life presently with whom you can confide the most damaging avowals about your thoughts and deeds, your “Works and Days” (Hesiod, circa 700 B.C.), safely and in full confidence not only in their empathy and understanding but in their keeping your secrets with you?
If you do have such a person in your life, hold on to them—for dear life! “Tighter Tighter” (Alive N Kickin, 1970).
But the fact is, you may not have such a person. You may be like the mother in “My Son Is a Splendid Driver.” You have no one to talk with. Except, and it’s a risk she takes in the book, your 42-year-old son. Consider this depth of aloneness and solitude in relation to the most riveting and yet most closely held truths of your actual life.
No wonder Tullian talked a little about suicide during his address at ‘Broken Christmas.’ No wonder. If you bottle yourself up tightly enough and for long enough, it might just burst you open some time. Your habitual repression of accurate expression could become so long-lived that it just bursts you open some time.
People who take their own lives are people, usually, who have given the people outside them almost no indication that they are desperate. Then one day an underground pipe inside them gets gashed by an off-sides experience, and the whole thing blows. Sky high. “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner, 1968).
What’s the takeaway? I mean from Inge and Tullian, and from your life? What’s the takeaway? Well, “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18). If you’ve ever been listened to fully by someone—let alone, Someone—who is understanding and merciful, and who doesn’t wince in non-empathetic body language and obviously inward discomfort as you speak—then you know the power of grace. You’ll know “The Power of Love”—but not Huey Lewis’ version, from 1985; but Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s, from 1984! (See the original MTV video on YouTube. Run Don’t Walk.)
William Inge in “My Son Is a Splendid Driver” understood very perceptively his character’s recoil from the church when she discovered she had a venereal disease. But we could re-write that. Tullian can help us re-write that. Jesus Christ, who re-wrote it himself during countless encounters with lepers and fallen people of all stripes—he can help us re-write it.