Aza wrestles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For her, the world is a teeming mass of predatory germs. Not just in the surrounding environment. Not just on her skin. Germs have insinuated themselves into the dark recesses of her body, lurking deep within her intestinal tract slowly but surely infecting her with c diff (clostridium difficile colitis).
Eating a peanut butter sandwich in her high school lunchroom can trigger a vortex of what she calls invasive thoughts. Her psychiatrist’s term for them is actually “intrusives,” but Ana experiences them as invasive. Thoughts, one after another, arguing back and forth, swirl in an increasingly tight spiral that goes down and down into her psyche with no bottom in sight.
Aza narrates John Green’s young adult novel Turtles All the Way Down. We learn toward the end of the book that the title describes Aza’s experience of her own mental illness. She cannot tell which of the invasive thoughts is really her. So much so that she doubts that there is a real her.
Instead of a self, she frets that she is like one of those Russian stacking dolls. Larger ones have smaller ones nesting inside them. Only in her case you can never arrive at that last doll.
Her friend Daisy tells Aza that her illness reminds her of a story that her mom likes to tell. A scientist is giving a lecture about the history of the earth from the Big Bang forward. A person in the audience interrupts.
“The earth is flat,” she says. “It rests on the back of a giant turtle.”
The scientist responds, “And on what does that turtle rest?”
“And that turtle. What does it rest on?”
“And that one?”
“Look, it’s turtles all the way down!”
You get the point. It can’t be turtles all the way down. Right? There has to be something that everything stands on that doesn’t need anything else to stand on. Something that ultimately explains everything and needs no further explanation.
Of course, for some Christians that “something” is God. And turning on that notion of God, faith comes down to this: Everything happens for a reason.
That idea of faith goes something like this. God is good. God is ultimately the cause of everything. So not only is there an explanation for everything, but there is a good cause for everything. Things are as they should be. As the philosopher Leibniz put it, this is the best of all possible worlds.
Interestingly, I most frequently hear the phrase “everything happens for a reason” when something has gone terribly wrong. Despite working hard, a person goes broke. A marriage crumbles. A child dies. God must be teaching a lesson or achieving a greater good or have an even better plan for their life.
If the suffering, confused or grieving person says it, I wince inwardly but sympathetically. He or she is struggling to be faithful when life doesn’t look like the doings of a loving, just God. I believe in God, too. Just not that kind of God. (See also Kate Bowler.)
When a friend or casual observer tosses stuff like this out as a spiritual bromide, I’m offended. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, I can’t say what I’m thinking because it would make Jesus drink gin straight from the cat bowl. That’s because what I hear is something like this, “Well, that’s too bad for you. My faith has guarded me from that sort of thing.”
In other words, you’re sick or grieving or out of work or have OCD because you don’t have enough faith. Best case scenario: God has decided to teach you a lesson or use you to make some point to the rest of us.
There’s just one thing. I don’t remember Jesus saying anything like this at all. Ever.
Honestly, I think Jesus says something more like this. “Sometimes it really is just turtles all the way down. Crummy, unfair, heartrending stuff happens. It’s not fair and often makes not a bit of sense. But here’s the deal. I’ll show up. I will love you. That love may not fix everything once and for all. But it sure will change things. Decisively.”
Following Jesus means to follow his example. Lean into people’s lives when their lives have stopped making sense. Don’t expect to fix things or change things forever. But trust as best you can that the love you bring makes a difference. But be aware. Leaning into other people’s messy lives makes you vulnerable. It’s going to leave a mark.
I think this explains Jesus’s odd exchange with a prospective follower.
A villager on the road to Jerusalem—on the road to the cross—said, “I will follow you wherever go.” (Luke 9:57)
Jesus responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
Following Jesus isn’t about getting right answers. Being able to explain everything. It’s about learning to love fearlessly. Wherever it’s needed. Even when it makes precious little sense.