“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

Certain Uncertainty: some thoughts and a song

In high school, I won an essay contest for arguing that uncertainty and hope were two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure I agree theologically since I now understand hope as the anticipation of things assured in faith. Still, it was a darn good essay for a 17-year-old, and something in its essence stuck with me through the past six years.

You see, I’m 5,000 miles away from everyone I love, studying in a graduate program surrounded by men with more degrees than a thermometer (I’d better learn to smoke a pipe), married couples with young children in tiny rainboots (seriously, my heart explodes every time), and people who seem to know exactly what they want in life. Or, more daunting, people who already seem to have what they want.

And even though I’m doing reasonably well, found a job that I love, and am living in a place I’ve dreamt of for years, the uncertainty of what comes next keeps me awake until the terrible hours of the morning. (Which, due to how far north I am, look more or less as dark as the terrible hours of the afternoon.)

The uncertainty is relentless. I’ll spare you, whoever you are, from reading my long lists of worries that have filled a journal cover-to-cover in record time. Instead, I want to leave you with another small original song. Perhaps it is odd to take comfort in my own words and music, but this song reminds me of earlier this year when things felt just as terribly uncertain, perhaps even more so.

And yet, here I am, six months later and still moving forward.

In the time since I wrote this, the lyrics have taken on richer meaning, deeper hope, and a more mature understanding that while everything feels uncertain, there is true certainty in hope. Unlike my high school essay, it seems now that uncertainty propels me back to my certain hope in Christ and the blessings He prodigally bestows on me even in the most lonely, frightening, and uncertain seasons.

It’s a love song, as usual. However, there is meaning beyond its romance. It is an expression of hope, which unites uncertainty and certainty. This hope, like a song, relies on moving forward through time toward its realization.

A Dream Deferred: A Reflection and a Resolution

“A Dream Deferred”

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore– 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over– 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

     Until yesterday afternoon, I deceived myself with the notion that I understood this poem, believing it to be a simple outpouring of despair in the face of disappointment. But an unfortunate fall broke not only my arm, but my innocent insight into Mr. Hughes poem. You see, I am a competitive pianist who practices for hours each day. Ever since I began piano before kindergarten, I knew that (alongside literature, of course) it would be my passion. I would not allow myself to play volleyball and such sports and remained the dorky kid who wore wrist guards whenever active, all in attempt to protect my arms and hands for piano. Who would have guessed that I would slip on an empty strawberry carton whilst making breakfast the week of a competition and the AZ Piano Institute camp? And who would have thought that three little words- “You busted it”, thrown out so casually by the surgeon, could be so heartbreaking? Certainly now I know the meaning of a “Dream Deferred.”

    But while a deferred dream may be painful to both body and spirit and I confess that I felt that my life ruined as scholarships, competitions, and accompanying gigs fell away before my eyes, there is hope and even purpose to be found in my accident and within the lines of Langston Hughes’ poem. Notice that he does not write anything definite; every line is a question, a mere speculation about the fate of a challenged dream. Failure is not fatal and we can choose how we respond to the obstacles placed in our paths to success. In my case, God blessed me with enough strength to drag myself up and use the time I spent practicing to begin learning a new language and read the books of the AP Literature list so that my ambition does not “crust and sugar over.” I have also been introduced to wonderful people to advise and inspire me, sharing left-handed repertoire for piano so that I now can enhance my musical ability rather than let it “dry up like a raisin in the sun.”

     Notice also the final two stanzas. These clearly indicate the overarching idea that there is a choice in the face of a dream deferred. Hughes simply states that a deadened dream may “sag like a heavy load,” burdening its bearer with regret and unfulfilled desire to the point where he or she is too bitter and weary to find a new path. I will readily admit that I am tempted to give up and sit at home crying into a bowl of ice cream for the rest of the summer, but I do not believe that is what Langston Hughes would have done. In contrast, the final line returns to the open-ended question: “or does it explode?” Even in the face of great obstacles, dreams may be realized, if in a different way than we initially planned, thereby “exploding” into a grander accomplishment than possible on a wide, smooth path, free of danger or difficulty. For instance, I had never even considered left-handed piano music, but with my right arm in a cast, I am forced to adapt and may emerge an improved musician. The question presented in these final lines demands an answer: shall we allow ourselves to wallow in the proverbial “Depths of Despair” when our plans are interrupted? Or, will we allow ourselves to acknowledge that though we may “walk through the Valley of the Shadow,” all hope is not lost?

     Finally, I leave you with one more of my inexperienced thoughts: A dream deferred is not a dream demolished, a dream destroyed, a dream devastated, or a dream defeated, all of which describe something completely and utterly annihilated and irreparable. Rather, a dream deferred, by definition, is nothing but a dream postponed. Interrupted? More difficult? Disappointing? Yes, but hopeless? Never.