When in Need of Wisdom

In the movie Six Degrees of Separation, Stockard Channing’s character, Louise “Ouisa” Kittredge, the sophisticated spouse to Flan, a wealthy international art dealer played by Donald Sutherland, blithely narrates for him as he rotates a two-sided Kandinsky on a vertical axis:

“Chaos…Control. Chaos…Control…”

Around and around he shows the double canvas, one side painted wildly with scratch-like marks and amorphous forms, and the other painted carefully with smooth, distinct, colorful orbs suspended in negative space. In the sitting room of the couple’s New York penthouse, a young Will Smith (the interloper) and a middle-aged Ian McKellen (the distinguished guest) watch the interchanging canvases revolve in Sutherland’s hand as Channing rhythmically chirps her thematic line:

“Chaos…Control. Chaos…Control. You like? You like?”

Even though I couldn’t tell you where or in what medium I first saw this film (on some big screen in Cincinnati, OH or the now-gone Von Lee theatre in Bloomington, IN? On my dad and step-mom’s HBO, a friend’s VCR?), the line has been deeply rooted in my psyche ever since. Particularly in moments when an artistic or clinical pattern emerges from a mess, or when seemingly random coincidences produce new meaning or direction, the detached yet engaging timbre and pace of Channing’s voice bursts into consciousness and reminds me:

On the other side of chaos is control. On the other side of control is chaos. And perhaps, it invites me to consider, you might like this juxtaposition, this paradox, this dance (truth be told) of Creation.

This past year, as have many American souls, my soul has been disquieted. More recently still, my husband and I encountered a particularly unexpected detour in our lives here in Texas, a detour which itself came on the heels of my completion of a drawn-out seminary degree, recovery from illness and surgery, and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Especially in the chaos of that particular moment, my disquieted soul needed the evocative Wisdom behind Channing’s line.

Call me weird, but in moments like those I find the stories and narrations of God in scripture to be too sentimental. Besides, I don’t know where I am enough in those moments to know how to relate to stories. I need instead the grounding, situational, orienting Wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the one spoken of in Job 28, Proverbs 3 and 8. I need to connect through the one who lives on, in and out of that dynamic border between chaos and control, the one who reflects the very Master of the edge between mystery and revelation, the one, to answer Ouisa’s question, I like.

But for weeks after the emergence of this disorienting detour (the story of which is for another day), Wisdom and its beautiful edges evaded my half-hearted attempts at connection.

Fortunately, as Wisdom is inclined to do in times when such edges can’t be found in the blur and mush of daily life, it nudged me out of blur and mush and into a period of focused reflection, this time at the Ruah Center’s silent retreat at a monastery here in South Houston. There, during a blessed break from sub-tropic heat and humidity, it plunked me down in a rocking chair on a wrap-around porch

and insisted

I behold

the Behemoth.

Yes. The Behemoth. The enigmatic cousin of Leviathan. As my new CEB study bible, a graduation gift from the seminary, reminded me, scholars now believe that the Behemoth, the one to be beheld during God’s interrogation of Job, is likely the preposterous hippopotamus…the pond-grass grazing pachyderm with its mouse-sized ears twitching and bugged-out eyes bobbing above the watery surface, its bulbous-body submerged below…the same one who also lumbers on land, lug-headed, lethargic, laughable.

Do you remember when you learned that the happy hippo was one of the most aggressive of God’s creatures? I do. Or at least I remember my reaction. It was defensive denial which quickly gave way to despondent disappointment. Admittedly, this was a little dramatic for a mammal I’d likely never encounter on a walk in the park. But the hippo—the stuffed animal, my fourth-grade cartoon drawn version—was my “favorite animal” and I didn’t want my favorite to be mean, dangerous, and fatal. (Or, for that matter, nasty. Seriously, who wants to think of Fiona projectile defecating all over her visitors? Let’s just giggle over her little fart bubbles and forget the rest, ok?)

I think, though, that Brother Job could have related to my discombobulation. Wisdom teaches us through life or lesson that increasingly right-oriented behavior increases positive outcomes. As the positive outcomes increase in our localized lives, we, like Job, not unwisely allow ourselves a deluded sense of generalized control. It takes fewer calories to do so. And Job knew himself to be righteous, so the “evidence” was all around him (right?) in a surplus of resources and easy contentment.

Then Chaos entered, stage left, and Job nearly came undone.

It matters, doesn’t it, in which order the Kandinsky is displayed. It matters where we put the period. Limited to linear time, our human experience of “Chaos…Control. Chaos…Control,” feels very different to us than “Control…Chaos. Control…Chaos.” One we like, we like; the other not so much.

Yet the Behemoth I beheld on the wrap-around porch can pull us out of this human problem of punctuation. It reminds us of the deeper truth. Though the hippo looks absurd, harmless, and tamable to us, it–at the very same time–is powerfully brutal and will not be pierced with our hooks. While this creature cannot be seized through sword or understanding, it delights children and adults alike…from a distance. Similarly, we might like to imagine the butterfly emerging out of the mysterious cocoon. But we have to come to terms with the fact that the once fuzzy little caterpillar is chthonian stew inside. We can’t savor grandma’s pot roast recipe but not recognize the slaughter of Bessie and the carrot ripped from the ground.

God’s interrogation of Job was forceful and even aggressive, too… Where were you…? God bellowed. But it was an interrogation, a responsive one at that, and not a command. It was a set of questions, an invitation to Job from our God to consciously enter through the wisdom of Wisdom into right relationship with his Creator. It was both revelation and mystery at the same time; a revelation of mystery, the mystery of revelation.

So, behold! dear child in the throes of chaos, dear nation in the tumult of division and disillusion, dear Church in the advent of Advent, behold the Behemoth, and know Who is and Who has been and Who will be in control, the very one who made this comical, powerful creature out of a mystery.

“…You like? You like?”

2 thoughts on “When in Need of Wisdom

  1. Wow this is so powerful! I’ve never seen that movie and so appreciate how you tied all these stories and reflections together. And kid you not, I’m currently knitting a hippo, much smaller than yours, but for my mom who wrote a children’s book when she did her Masters in Education about a mean hippo!!! Love that you went to the Ruah Center and love that more will be coming. And had to look up chthonian 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lee Ann. While writing, I kept thinking about my adorable Augustina Hippo you knitted for me.
      I think I will have to see your mom’s book, by the way.
      And isn’t “chthonian” a great word! One of my favorites.

      Like

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