Book REVIEW - "All the light we cannot see"

I recently finished Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." Dubbed with the accurate moniker "instant New-York Times bestseller" because of the author's former critical success, I had seen this book at the top of several must-read lists around the internet for the past couple of years. I think I finally decided to pick it up after an interview with the author on an NPR show. 

The 2 sentence synopsis of the book is that it tells the parallel but separate tales of two young children living in WWII France. Marie-Laure, a blind daughter of a museum locksmith has her life upended by the war in unspeakable ways, and yet proves astoundingly resilient and resourceful. Werner, a German academic and engineering prodigy is conscripted into the German war-effort. The two stories finally collide in the closing scenes of the book which is near the end of the war. The novel is relevant both as a modern reminder of the lingering and overlooked effects of war, but also as a portrait of how children live through ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences as named recently by authors and researchers).

Aside from the many messages and ideas the story communicates, I found it to be simply a delightful and engrossing read. Doerr's technical ability as a writer is excellent. Of course, perhaps it could be argued that a blind protagonist lends herself to the medium of writing because to paint the world from her viewpoint requires very careful descriptions. The other side of that coin is that if an author's protagonist is blind, the writer better well be dexterous, careful, and descriptive because the risk otherwise is high. Doerr pulls the reader into the world particularly of Marie-Laure and for certain also into that of Werner. 

For me, a mark I look for in identifying good storytelling is whether or not, by the end, I care about what happens to the characters. If I'm disinterested or dis-impassioned, for right or for wrong, I lay that at the feet of the author. Perhaps I ought to judge myself as not being empathetic or loving enough - as I analytically believe that every person is of the utmost value and has a story worth telling, celebrating, protecting, and learning from. However, it's possible to undersell, to under appreciate, to do disservice to an otherwise inspiring and powerful story. In this case, Marie-Laure and Werner were served well by Anthony Doerr's masterful work, I was drawn in emotionally to their lives - and by the end of the story, I cared about the outcome (which I will not reveal here :). 

The most striking line in the novel for me came near the end of the tale as Werner finds himself in a state of existential (and literal) hopelessness. Starving, waiting, alone, and abandoned, the author makes the observation (which to me seems to come from the little boy inside him): “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”

I have felt this kind of despair in my life before. Hopelessness is its own kind of grave. Dark and stifling. 

I have experienced this kind of doubt at times before. Where my worldview is called into question, where even the notion of the spiritual or the divine is in the air, hanging in the balance. There is something freeing about admitting it; and also something terrifying about it. 

As a theologian, I can't help but critique the implied conception of God in this utterance. I realize it may just be the despair underneath taking hold of the philosophical wheel, but this notion is something I come into contact with often as a pastor. God is not, in my mind, nor I would argue in the portrayal of the scriptures, an old man in the sky as this quote envisages. God is not, another being, like a human or a fish, a tree, a planet, a could of ions, or even sub-atomic particles moving through dimensions. God, as David Bently Hart writes in his book "The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss," is being itself, not a being alongside others, but the source, essence, and beginning of being. As he writes, sometimes those who would take the role as evangelists for non-belief set up the same kind of straw men that unscrupulous Christian proselytizers do, casting down any notion of the divine, let alone Theism, on the basis of incomplete pictures of God. Doerr's quote, while true to human experience, is not true to solid orthodox Christian theology, that criticizes a theodicy that paints God as a kind of superfluous puppet master who controls all that happens on planet earth, good or bad, and thus purports to claim no responsibility. Any robust philosophical system, in my mind, dismisses this childish picture at the start.

We can certainly say and believe that God is all powerful; but I don't think we can flippantly say it in the sense of God as a genie. All that happens is decidedly NOT according to his will. This is the story of the Christian scriptures, which in the broadest brush strokes paints a picture that has God working with, shaping, molding, creating in a world that resists his influence at just about every turn. Trusting this God, who is in control and yet who is not, is perhaps the most recurrent motif in the Bible. God is not a white old man staring down like the moon, entirely able to set every evil right in every moment, and yet coldly, unsympathetically, mysteriously, refuses to act. 

Of course, at the core, the point of the observation by Werner (or the author) isn't to make a theological treaties about the nature of God. He simply is being authentic. He is stating what is true for him in that moment. And this is what is tragic to me, as a pastor. While I might come across as all attached and intense about theological hair-splitting, the reality is that I care about people - and certain notions of God create real and avoidable suffering. Our worldviews matter - they shape how we think and feel and move through the world. Inferior perspectives on God as the bringer of all good and all evil into our lives do not make the world a better place to live in. And in that sense, I couldn't agree more with the critique of non-belief. 

The conversation could, and does, continue on. I highly recommend "All the Light We Cannot See" despite my critique/triggering illustrated above. Quite obviously, it is deeply thoughtful, stirring, and powerful reading. 

To Sleeve (or Not to Sleeve) Seres - #2, How My Weight Affects Me

(This is part of a series I posted on my other (formerly anonymous) blog, tobypass.wordpress.com)

As I referenced in my first post, I am currently 6’1″ and 308 pounds. This churns me out at roughly a BMI of 41.

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I carry most of my weight around my midsection. The other day I joked with a coworker that my fat is mostly between my ears and my butt. Perhaps surprisingly for a person at my weight, my legs and arms are relatively lean and actually quite muscular. I’m in a 42in waist pants now and my shirts are 2XL but they need to be long because my torso is where my height comes from. My neck is a fabulous 19″!

While I’ve been ‘the big guy’ for about as long as I can remember (first grade?) I’ve always been very active, strong, and engaged in sports. I love to be outside and to go on adventures. The caption here is one my oldest son snapped of me one day when we were out romping around in a nearby park. This actually makes me think of one of the key ways my weight is impacting my life.

I am seeing myself struggle getting around more and more. This is hard to admit. Hard to write. I get winded more easily than I used to — I feel the burn in my butt and thighs far sooner on in walks and hikes. My knees hurt at night after I’ve played hard or exercised. My back spasms up when I try to jog or run. My ankles pop and click as I jog along. I can’t do many pushups or sit-ups, which means I have hard time getting down onto or up from the floor to play with my boys.

Overall — physically — I am struggling. And more and more. I know that some of this can be a product of age (I’m 34). But I also know that I’m at my heaviest weight in my life — and I feel it. Over the past year, I’ve even witnessed myself turning down invitations by friends and acquaintances to go do something active — because I’m worried about my physical limitations or inabilities. Or even moreso, I’ve turned them down because I’m embarrassed of my limitations. I don’t want to hold them back or be humiliated by my lack of physical acumen. This, I know, is only a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve never been one to have a lot of hangups over body image or appearance — but now that my size is actually starting to hinder my ability to be a good dad, to have fun, to do things I want to do, I’m starting to have difficulties. I feel shame about how I look not so much because of how I look — but because of what that means about what I can do.

Next, I do have some medical issues associated with my weight that have cropped up. One is Sleep Apnea. This may have been latent in my life for a long time before my initial diagnosis 4 years ago. I never remember getting really sound sleep as a teenager or young adult — and when I started using the CPAP machine, WOW, I felt amazingly better. Recently I’ve found that I have a pretty severely deviated septum and also really really large tonsils (they pretty much touch all the time). The ENT doctor said both could be fixed in one surgery and that my apnea would probably be helped — but that because of my weight, he couldn’t recommend it. This was an experienced physician in a large city hospital. And his message was: “lose 10 BMI points and this surgery will help you leaps and bounds. At this point, it will be a waste of money.” So that’s fantastic

I have High Blood pressure due to excess weight, and my cholesterol is consistently high (in the mid 200’s most recently), but who knows if that’s primarily because of my diet/weight or family heritage? In any case, I’m on a couple different medications to treat both of those issues. And I’m also taking Metformin in a low dose as a form of appetite suppressant (and I’m not sure if It’s to try to stave off insulin resistance). So far, my blood sugar labs have always come out normal (even if sometimes on the edge) — but I feel as though that is just a ticking time bomb.

Finally, I think my weight is also threatening my longevity – which in turn has implications for relationships with my kids. I feel sad and embarrassed about this. Of course this is related to the previous item but I see it as another effect altogether. If I have 10 fewer years than I might otherwise because of my current weight (as compared to a healthy one), this represents untold relational depth, experiences, wisdom passed, and loved shared. Once I’m into my 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s — we’re talking about the season of retirement and enjoying grandkids. My weight right now is threatening cutting that time unnecessarily short! What a price to pay for a little steak and ice cream today!!

Stringing throughout each of these is the emotional impact of all of these. As I’ve alluded, i feel great shame and embarrassment for where I’ve allowed my body to evolve. I keep my eating secret in many circumstances and I hide the full extent of my addiction to food. I feel depressed and hopeless about my situation more often than not and if I allow it — I can slip into despondence, helplessness, and a sense of victimhood. It’s a terrible state of mind — both in terms of its unhealthiness as well as it’s negative experiential nature. It is unpleasant feeling for me to be the weight I am.

And the truth is probably that It’s a pipe dream for me to imagine that all of these negative thought patterns are gonna just poof into thin air if I were to simply lose weight. My process needs to be both getting healthy physically and emotionally. Just like any addictive process.