April 2020

Vox

by Nam Le

Powerlessness

What can children before God learn about parenthood from the Psalms?

This is an edited version of an introduction to a “150 Psalms” concert at Adelaide Festival in February. The theme of this concert was “Powerlessness”. The Song Company performed choral settings of Psalms 38, 42, 54, 55, 56, 59, 64, 69, 70, 88, 102 and 140.

 

Why are things the way they are? Why are they not the way I want? Why is everything so unfair? Why am I in trouble? Why do I have to do this – and why can’t I do that?

These pleas, which toll through these psalms of “powerlessness”, would be familiar to any parent. The parallel makes sense: Scripture commonly describes us as children before God: Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him (Psalm 103:13). Powerlessness, in fact, might be said to be not only our original circumstance – we come into the world without having been consulted, without having given consent; we arrive in a condition of (compared to other animals) exceptional helplessness: within hours of birth, foals can walk as fast as their parents; malleefowl can hunt, run and fly; we cannot even lift our own heads – but also our formative circumstance: our very natal helplessness has, over generations, favoured parents with greater intelligence, driving the cycle that has raised us above the other animals.

Of course, this is the language of evolution. And though it may seem unbecoming set beside the Old Testament, the juxtaposition is telling. Science and religion are related by language; language births them both, gives form to their bodies of doubt – that are incorporated by our memories, metabolising our mentations – that can exist outside our bodies. Language tells us we are never alone in our workings out of the world. As our children grow up, it is language that yields new dimensions to their powerlessness: they can express it, giving it grammar and gravity, making it real – making flesh of Word – and they can also express it, wringing it out of themselves. This is the dual method of the Psalms, and, ever since becoming a father, I’ve found its movements of hurt and complaint, reproach and supplication, taking on ever deeper pathos.

Psalm 88:1 – O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee. Before language, the crying in the middle of the night of your children alone in their blacked-out room – you’ve been told to paste alfoil over the windows – coming over the cyclonic AC unit – you’ve been told to set it on high-fan for white noise – a crying that even has a name – “night terrors” – that you can’t believe is so casually bandied about, a crying utterly without performativity, forsaken, bewildered, and how your chest freezes to hear it, how your breath shallows, and stalls, in time, in sympathy.

Psalm 38:21 – Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God, be not far from me. Psalm 42:1 – As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. Perennial, the separation anxiety: Don’t go. I want you to stay. Closer, scooch closer!

Psalm 102:2 – Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble. Psalm 88:14[ W]hy hidest thou thy face from me? Look at me! I can’t see you.

Psalm 70:1 – Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me. Psalm 102:2[A]nswer me speedily. Come now. Why aren’t you here yet?

Psalm 38:1 – O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. Don’t be mad at me.


The other day, I heard myself trying to explain to my three-year-old daughter the difference between a suggestion, which she could listen to, or not, and, well, not an order, never that, but something it was really important that she try to listen to because we were just trying to do what was best for her … and eventually I recognised, from the look on her face, that my answers were, as usual, unsatisfactory, clearly scrambled for, cracking under the pressure of her periodic “why?”, “why?”, “why?”. And the absurdity hit home: I spent so much time underplaying my power as a parent over her, despite the fact – or, perhaps, because of it – that this power was absolutely preposterous.

The power to command, to countermand. To reprimand. To judge. To coerce, including physically. To be desperately depended upon. To provide or not. To hear or not, to be near or not. The power to ultimately decide, undergirding the power to construct falseworks of choice, of agency and autonomy. This one or this one? I’m going to count to three. The power of first influence, and of the last word. Blood and teaching and tongue. Save me, O God, by thy name, declares Psalm 54:1, and truly is this power not most godlike: to control the borders of belonging? To dictate that deepest of desires? Is it really a stretch to say that, as parents, we have dominion over our children?

In a way, I find myself comforted by the analogy. As our knowledge of the world lies beyond the scope of our children’s comprehension, beyond their frames of reference and experience, so lie God’s ways before us. Such power is necessary, the argument goes, is benevolent. We subject our children to it; we are subjected to it in our lives, the childhood of our immortality. (This also happens to be the handiest workaround in any theodicy.) Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee (Ps. 102:1); Incline thine ear (Ps. 88:2); Hear my voice (Ps. 64:1); [G]ive ear to the words of my mouth (Ps. 54:2). These are the pro forma invocations of prayer, yes, but to me they also evoke the wild panic of a child who, despite repeating herself, is not being understood, not being heard. If even King David, God’s most elect, despairs of God’s ear – why should I be overly concerned about my failures of parental response?


But the flaw in the analogy is fatal. We parents are fallible, God is not. We parents are imperfect in knowledge and power, God is not. This is axiom. We parents comprise the sum of the selfish and insecure, the deluded and deluding, the mediocre, weak, dangerous, immature, unfaithful, incapable; ours is a state of – to use the biblical lingo – total depravity. Being a parent is one of life’s greatest tests and there is famously no test for it.

Is this why Scripture so forcefully backs our power as parents? Why God Himself ordains our authority – such that rebellion against us is rebellion against Him? Because our authority would otherwise be merely self-declared? Sham? No power exists but by God. How else justify our power over our children? How else justify their powerlessness? We say “God knows” to mean we don’t. When my children ask why they should believe me or obey me, my answers spiral to a stop at “Because”. This is no answer; how can it be justification?

On these points, these psalms can be only silent. And the more time I’ve spent with these psalms, the more this silence has started to surge in me, creating seethe and rift in me. God has no need to justify His authority. It is its own justification, and against it all creation – as first principle – is powerless. [T]he world is mine, and the fulness thereof (Ps. 50.12). But the powerlessness in these psalms – or, more accurately, the language of powerlessness – feels, to me, indecorous in its abjection. It’s a wounded, noiseful, defensive, petulant, paranoid, vengeful powerlessness. Its emotionality is infantile. It compasses itself about with evil, violent enemies, who hate wrongfully and without cause, who conspire wickedly, laying snares, sharpening their tongues like serpents. Putting swords in their lips. And when lament is turned into confidence – God will deliver me – God being the ultimate friend in a high place – no mercy is considered: [R]eward evil unto mine enemies (Ps. 54.5); Add iniquity unto their iniquity: and let them not come into thy righteousness (Ps. 69:27).

Why does there seem, to me, to be something static about this attitude? Something stunted about this dynamic? Kids will be kids: they’ll bully and sook and sob and dob; they’ll ask you to fight their fights, solve their problems for them. Isn’t our purpose, as parents, to wean them away from these ways of being? Against God, whose omnipotence shadows us as we suffer, we can be only and ever powerless. But does that mean we have to stay forever locked in emotional infancy? How does that qualify us for power over our own children? And if such power lacks warrant, might it be at least consoled by love? It feels this way to me. But why? Why does it so strongly feel as though we’re alone with this love? Why does it feel as though this love – the love of mortal parents who, in relinquishing power over their children, to their children, seek to make themselves redundant – is utterly alien to the all-knowing God of these beautiful, terrifying psalms?

Nam Le

Nam Le is the author of The Boat.

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