“God was in fact doing me a big favour, in making me unhappy”
Bruce Charlton’s Notions (December 6, 2019)
When I read Charlton’s line this morning, the beatitudes were simmering on the backburner of my mind, and I was therefore primed to feel the truth of what he says. It helped that much of my life as a young man was spent in a melancholy funk very similar to Charlton’s, but it was only because I had just read the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount that I could fully grasp the blessing of that wretchedness.
Although intermittently exhilarated by vivid stimulation and strong drink, I was for most of my twenties very “poor in spirit,” and in those days I saw the long intervals of despondency as a great curse. My condition seemed to resemble the “curse” with which my lady friends were monthly visited, with the difference that I was miserable for many days together, and then happy for only a few. There were oases in the desert of early adulthood, but they seemed to me too small and widely spaced to be gifts of a loving God.
My wretchedness in those days was not merely spiritual, but I now see that my material destitution was also a blessing.
After taking an undistinguished undergraduate degree in 1980, I worked through a string of jobs that were even less distinguished. In the spring of 1983, I was living a life of sub-bohemian squalor in Washington D.C., where I sustained myself on the wages of a bicycle courier. I was employed by the Archer Courier Service, and was paid on a piecework basis. This arrangement rewarded speed, and in the life of a bicycle courier, speed equates with danger. If an employee of Archer Courier Service wished to eat, he had to ride very fast, often against traffic on the centerline of a busy one-way street, and be undaunted by rain, snow, stoplights, or the law against bicycling on sidewalks.
Because I wished to eat, I learned to do all of these things; and because I learned to do all of these things, I one day found myself sailing over the roof of a car that had the remains of my bicycle stuck in its radiator.
And that was, as it happens, a blessing.
I lost a good deal of skin and blood when I came down on the pavement of Fifteenth Street, N.W., but I gained my first inkling of unhappiness with the life of a bicycle courier. This unhappiness was brought to maturity a few months later, when I once again found myself briefly air-born, and then painfully reunited with earth.
Rock climbing was one of my vivid stimulations in those days, and the rock I most often climbed was an outcrop called Carderock, hard alongside the Potomac River in nearby Maryland. Like many climbers in pursuit of vivid stimulation, I sometimes dispensed with the rope, and this is what I had done one afternoon when I lost my grip and became the plaything of gravity.
The bones that were smashed in my foot hurt to this day, but my hapless fall from Carderock was also a blessing.
I had no medical insurance in those days, and no money in the bank. I also had no inclination to call my parents and play the part of a prodigal and penitent son. So I recuperated from that fall by lying in bed until all my groceries were gone, which was a matter of five days. Then I went back to my bicycle and the delivery of messages for the Archer Courier Service.
But I was, alas, no longer the dashing courier of former days, for in that line of work a badly broken foot is a cruel disadvantage. Peddling was painful, walking was more painful, and depositing my shrunken weekly paycheck was most painful of all.
Yet blessed are those who fall from Carderock to smash their foot and grim-facedly limp down the sidewalks and corridors of Washington, D.C., for in them will be born a hunger for a better life.
This hunger came to me in one particularly long corridor in a vast office building occupied by the Department of Commerce. Because this building is so very large, robotic dollies carried (perhaps still carry) internal communications from office to office, guided down the corridors by magnetic strips affixed to the floor. Because these robotic dollies moved more swiftly than the Federal employees, and even more swiftly than a bicycle courier with a broken foot, they were equipped with a warning bell that advised pedestrians to move aside.
It was upon being overtaken by one of these robotic dollies and moving to the side of that corridor that I at last perceived my material wretchedness; and it was while leaning against the wall to ease my broken foot that I resolved to seek a different and better life.
If I had suffered the misfortune of securing a better job when I first moved to Washington, I might not have formed that resolution. If I not been blessed by being dashed to earth on Fifteenth Street and at Carderock, I might not have found that new and better life. These beneficent calamities shattered my body, but they set in motion a much-needed reformation of the material arrangements of my life. Thus God blessed me when he shed my blood and broke my bones.
The beneficent calamities with which he would later shatter my soul are another story, but they were in many ways analogous to those wild flights that ended in bloody arms and a broken foot. And these spiritual calamities likewise set in motion much-needed reforms in the spiritual arrangements of my life, and were also, likewise, blessings.