A man once discovered a chrysalis tucked under a shrub in his yard. Upon inspection, he found a moth trapped inside. The little pod rocked back and forth in the mulch as the insect strained in seeming futility to be free of it. The sight of the moth’s wings bound awkwardly by the unyielding silken straps, and of its mortal struggle, moved the man to compassion—it looked to all the world to be dying. With a nearby twig he began delicately nudging away the bonds; carefully picking and prying the suffering moth from its dire enclosure.
At last, the moth was extracted. It stumbled awkwardly across the uneven ground. Its gangly, asymmetrical wings curling inward like fallen autumn leaves. The man used the same stick to place the moth up on a broad green leaf and left it to its liberation.
The next day, the man came back out and wandered over to the location of the dramatic rescue. He found the moth lying just beneath the leaf where it had been left. It was motionless—dead. Its wings still scrunched malformed atop its thorax. The man concluded wrongly it had been diseased, not knowing that it was he who was responsible for its untimely ruin.
Those who study Cecropia moths, and others like them, know that it is by this belabored, heaving struggle that they come to fully develop. It is by this straining and writhing—easily mistaken for death throes—that the wings strengthen and extend, and by which the hemolymph fluids begin to course through their tiny veins. It is an irreducible, albeit excruciating, process of maturation and health; that is to say, there is no way around the struggle.
How our world must learn the value of such struggles; brimming with meaning and import. How me must come to our uneasy terms with their startling value. We in the Judeo-Christian tradition are heirs to a rich heritage of sacred struggle; one for which I fear we are losing our will and skill. Outrage and nonchalance are both alike shortcuts; an attempt to side-step needful pain. But there is no side-stepping without imperiling ourselves and our society. We must wrestle or withered and wiltering remain.
Scripture is marbled through with this rich heritage of struggle, but nowhere is it more defined than in Jacob’s riverside encounter with a mysterious theophany—God in human form! By the end of the encounter, he had received a new name—Israel, “he grapples with God”—but the backstory matters. (This is all in Genesis 32.)
Jacob’s name means “grasps the heel” or, to quote Angelica Schuyler, “he will do what it takes to survive”. And “do what it takes” he did. His was a life of machinations and schemes, with an uncanny knack for landing on his feet. Still, it was also a gradual whittling of possibilities and a drift into dread and isolation. Jacob had just made what he assumed would be his last death defying escape—a flight by cover of night from his father-in-law, ending improbably in a mere heartfelt scolding—when the event in question takes place. He finds himself on the banks of a small brook, with his avowedly vengeful brother (from whom he’d stolen both birthright and blessing) bearing down on him with 400 armed men. He sends forth all his worldly wealth as appeasement, followed by women and children for pity’s sake. He himself spends his last night on earth in solitude—his tricks all exhausted—that is until he is confronted by another combatant.
We’re not actually told how it all went down, but Jacob is suddenly and without explanation found engaged in a fierce wrestling match with a man. How Jacob knew this man to be God is never really clear, but what is clear is that Jacob is fighting for his life and will not suffer the man to break free; even though he wrenches Jacob’s hip out of socket!
“I demand the blessing!” Jacob insists. (And this is so important for us to note.) To which his combatant replies, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he replies through undoubtedly burning lungs and groaning agony.
“Not any more,” replies the mysterious wrestler. “You will now be known as Israel—because you have got some serious fight!” (I’m paraphrasing.)
And so it was. This pitiful and manipulative man who had secured and stolen all those things which had been freely offered him—this grasper—had become a God-grappler. He came away limping, but his fundamental self had been overhauled. He had emerged from his chrysalis of isolation and pain a new being.
I haven’t been writing much lately. I don’t expect many or any of you to have noticed this. (Although some of you have been so gracious as to tell me my writing has been meaningful to you.) I’ve been wrestling. I’m not sure I even knew that was what was happening, but I sensed that I was running out of tricks. The burgeoning pressure to respond to every rolling, roiling tide around me—swept up in the currents of outrage and overwhelmedness—was shrinking and shallowing my soul. Was I myself becoming a grasper? Maybe you’ve felt that way lately too?
The wisdom of the bumper sticker goes: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention!” And for all I know it’s true. This world feels like such an outrageous place; unrelentingly so! But why? As I mentioned, I’ve come to name both outrage and nonchalance as shortcuts. Flip between the right two channels on the TV and you’ll see each being sold like snake oil. Neither have inherent value; the one being self-evidently “outflowing of rage” and the other being the cousin of the French, “without concern”. We’re supposed to chose a side, I think. Shrug of the shoulders or shake of the fist. Our world places scant worth on the process of wrestling. Wrestling with God. Wrestling for the blessing.
Nonchalance would sooth and assure us—always with a benevolent smile—that there is nothing to be worked up about. As I write I find myself suspecting nonchalance would nestle us down to inhabit our moldering cocoons. Still outrage would jerk us out prematurely, misshapen wings and all, into harsh realities we are not yet ready to confront. Unexamined outrage arrests the growth of our capacities for love, truth-telling and wisdom, and we become floundering flightless reactionary bugs.
We are told God had always meant to have his blessing fall to Jacob. This wrestling match in no way secured it. Still maybe it did. Maybe Jacob’s blessing was to be meta-re-morphosized into a human; his birthright immemorial. God alone knew this could only be realized through struggle. He wasn’t rewarded the blessing, he was resulted it.
A friend once observed the intimacy involved in wrestling; two bodies merged and entwined in physicality. It might make you blush, but this is the Maker’s method of choice for molding humans. It was of course God’s original technique to dig his hands into clay in the forming of our primordial ancestor. When it was time to make his counterpart, God actually wrenched out one of his ribs. I’m just saying how God works, people! Should we be surprised that he invites the contact? Sweaty and bloody and oftentimes painful? But would we accept such an invitation? Would you accept God’s permission to do so? His mandate?
So much more could be said at this point, but I will leave it here. Our world needs (yes needs) wrestlers. If you are paying attention, you probably are outraged—but we must pay closer attention still, lest our outrage become recklessly haphazard, lest we forfeit the birthright of our humanity! And let us no longer misnomer our lazy nonchalance as wisdom, when it is nothing if not the folly of sloth. But let us wrestle in earnest! Not flailingly in obstinance or panic, but with the resoluteness of those who demand what only God can give—even should we limp away from the encounter.
All the great women and men throughout history have been wrestlers, whether they knew it or not—and whether or not we ever knew them to be great.
You can tell them by their limps and by their otherworldly strength.