I recently finished reading an intriguing book by William Styron entitled Sophie’s Choice. Styron is the same author who wrote Darkness Visible, which I have commented on before. As a disclaimer, I will say that there is LOTS of poor language, sex, and other generally in appropriate things in the book, and that as a Christian reading it, you need to be prepared.
Having said that, it really is an amazing book.
Sophie, a Polish refugee who survived Auschwitz/Birkenau, is haunted by the terrible things she did in Cracow and again at the concentration camp. She went face to face with a great evil, and in her mind, she failed. Depression doesn’t even begin to describe her mental state. She is suicidal clearly, and is in the midst of a bizarre abusive relationship that the reader doesn’t truly understand until near the end of the book. Her boyfriend is schizophrenic, and so goes through periods of extreme violence and periods of “normalcy” along the way. In the end, she and her boyfriend complete a suicide pact which they had aborted some months earlier.
[spoiler: don’t read this paragraph if you want to read the book and be in suspense.]
The choice which she had to make was which one of her children would get to live, and which would get to die. She is forced to make this choice because she was Polish; for the Jews at the time, all the children died. But she got to choose one to live. The ultimate evil, or pretty darn close.
Now a number of things about this book have gotten me to continue thinking about it. First, the obvious traumatic event which triggers as deep and dark a depression as one can imagine. There was no history of depression in her family. Of course, I expect that seeing those kind of horrors will change a person no matter what. But to be asked to choose which child lives, and which dies. That would be the ultimate breaker of a personality, I would say.
The second is her obvious desire for redemption and forgiveness, even though she has abandoned her Catholic upbringing, because God “abandoned” her. Here is a perfect example of where do you go to look. She tried them all. Music, alcohol, sex, living the wild side, the whole gambit. She went everywhere except to the One who could help. The narrator (Stingo) is also an agnostic, and so the thought never really occurs to him.
Finally, we can see in Sophie’s Choice the devastating effect that events and how they are interpreted in our lives can have on us. There is no happy ending or making good with choosing between two of your children, only to have both of them die in the end.
For the Christian, how one address people in pain and suffering is a critical understanding. On the one hand, we can’t simply dismiss despair in whatever form it takes as merely unbelief to be squashed. In sin, every sinner is both the participant and the victim. Our task (esp. as pastors) is to minister to them, to draw the sin out, and to provide healing that is real and lasting. A part of that means when it comes to despair that there are real reasons why people fall into despair.
It also means providing them with hope to give hope where it belongs, in Jesus Christ and him crucified. But this doesn’t mean pat answers. It means tackling tough questions, admitting when we have no idea, and weeping with those who weep.
There is a fascinating paper out in cyberworld that addresses this topic by Dr. Bev Yahnke. It’s called Prescriptions for the Soul: The Taxonomy of Despair. Read it. And read this book. I look forward to your thoughts on the matters