David Brooks’ most recent op-ed discusses the late career of Ernest Hemingway, how he became in his later years “a prisoner of his own celebrity.” Hemingway was a famous writer by 25 and by middle age he was simply “playing at being Ernest Hemingway.” Of course, this is where most of us might roll our eyes, and say few are so lucky. It’d be nice to a prisoner to your laurels instead of your demons. But when it comes down to it, Brooks isn’t just talking about fame. He is instead talking about works righteousness in a most literal sense: that becoming righteous (or noteworthy, or well-regarded) in light of one’s work is as damning as having utterly failed. Being defined by the good work you produced suddenly mummifies you. You become the prime candidate for more noteworthy, well-regarded work, and therefore some deeply held and hidden insecurities. The way Brooks describes it, this is what happened to Hemingway, and why his early mentor Gertrude Stein called him a coward.
Still, Hemingway was able to write some of his more notable novels during this later period: For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. And Brooks notes that his ability to do this–amid all the pressure and fakery–was dependent upon his “getting to zero.” In order to write like he did before, in order to connect with whatever gift had been given him, he needed to do some digging (ht PZ):
This is a process that we might call “getting to zero,” when an artist — or anyone, really — digs through all the sap that gets encrusted around a career or relationship and retouches the intrinsic impulse that got him or her into it in the first place. Hemingway’s career got overlayered by money, persona and fame, but sometimes even at this late stage he was able to reconnect with the young man’s directness that produced his early best work.
This idea of “getting to zero” is as true for our work as it is for our relationships, or anything else for that matter that gets “overlayered” with commentary and self-awareness. “Getting to zero” is deconstructive. It eliminates all the distracting detritus and goes back to reconnect with the heart of the matter, what Brooks describes as that “intrinsic impulse” that got you here in the first place.
Of course, this deconstructive work is at the heart of Christianity. In the New Testament, Jesus’ ministry seems to consist solely of reversal; of returning the self-righteous human being–overlayered with his wounded defensiveness and his petty excuses–to the sinful human being he actually is. In the majority of Christ’s interactions with people, there is a reversal of some kind, and not just in the blind seeing and the lame walking kind of way. An optimistic young ruler walks away saddened. A group of rule-toting scribes are bound up by a group of Sabbath-breaking vagrants. His stories exemplify this reversal, too: in the story of the Good Samaritan, the good guys leave a man to die, and the untouchable throws him over his shoulder. A party is thrown for all the rednecks and freaks because the initial invites had something better to do. It seems the heart of Jesus’ ministry is getting everyone back to zero.
This is all so easy to theorize, though, or read from the bible. But the beautiful thing about a living Christ is that these cruciform moments of reversal happen, today, in our own very personal ways. Whenever the gospel is heard, we are brought again to zero. This is the gospel’s “A-ha!” moment, when we suddenly look strange to ourselves. Whenever the gospel is communicated, our faith is found to be fraudulent (we were hoping in ourselves), our righteousness is found to be bankrupt (we did it for all the wrong reasons), and our wisdom is found to be foolish (we were, yet again, fooling ourselves). These are not one-time, blinding conversion moments; it happens every time. Every time the gospel reaches the heart. Every time “Basic Christianity” is preached, it upends our world order. This is because, as sinners, we reboot our modicums of self-assurance every seven seconds or so.
This happens when all the prayers for the “strength to love” someone is really a plea to ignore ourselves. Or when our flattering words are turned over to expose an ugly urge to manipulate–not love–people. Or when our good work–at home, in church, at work–is actually fueled by a competitive need to win.
Anne Lamott has a great example of a moment like this. It’s from her book, Small Victories, and she’s describing a fellow mom in her son’s first grade class. The woman, it turns out, is Anne’s sworn enemy. She’s young, fit, wealthy, and conservative–and even worse, she’s really sweet. As fate would have it, the two boys become friends, and Anne’s son Sam is often over at their house to play. Anne is called over to pick up her son, and that’s when the great righteousness reversal happens:
Everywhere you looked was more façade, more expensive stuff–show-offy I-have-more-money-than-you stuff, plus you’re-out-of-shape stuff. Then our boys appeared, and I got up to go. Sam’s shoes were on the mat by the front door, next to his friend’s, and I went over to help him put them on. As I loosened the laces on one shoe, without realizing what I was doing, I snuck a look into the other boy’s sneaker–to see what size shoe he wore. To see how my kid lined up in shoe size.
And I finally I got it.
The veil dropped. I got that I am as mad as a hatter. I saw that I was the one worried that my child wasn’t doing well enough in school. That I was the one who thought I was out of shape. And that I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself.
I wanted to kiss her on both cheeks, apologize for all the self-contempt I’d been spewing out into the world, all the bad juju I’d been putting on her by thinking she was the one doing harm. I felt like J. Edgar Hoover, peeking into the shoes of his nephew’s seven-year-old friend to see how the Hoover feet measured up, idly wondering how the kid’s parents would like to have a bug on their phone. This was me. She was the one pouring me more tea, she was the one who’d been taking care of my son. She was the one who seemed to have already forgiven me for writing a book in which I trashed her political beliefs; like God and certain parents do, forgiven me almost before I’d even done anything that I need to be forgiven for. It’s like the faucets are already flowing before you even hold out your cup to be filled. Before forgiveness.
The veil dropped. The God of the universe stares before a sinful, bad-juju-spewing human being, and meets her with his grace. And, of course, this is what makes this reversal so relieving. We are taken to zero–where the righteous are found guilty…and then, miraculously, the guilty are exonerated. We find ourselves simultaneously killed–upside-down and inside-out–and then, new.