I recently finished reading an excellently dark novel called The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a story about a Baptist family from Georgia whose father moves his wife and four young daughters to the Congo to fulfill his missionary duty to baptize Congolese children. In 1960. Just as Congo gains its independence and Lumbumba is killed and (thanks to some corrupt American influence) Mobutu takes power. If the backdrop wasn’t so dark and the stakes weren’t so high, the father’s missionary pursuits would be a comedy of errors. His single-mindedness about the Bible and Jesus blind him to the beautiful and dangerous reality of the Congolese people and his own family.
The story is told through the distinct eyes and voices of the four daughters as they each grapple with big questions about the world, their relentless father, a God who grows distant, and their own selves.
Near the end of the novel, shortly following the invasion of flesh-eating driver ants that destroy their village, one of the daughters Rachel is desperately sorting through whether or not her family should have ever come to the Congo. She pleads with the family’s sole Congolese ally, Antole, confessing to him, “I want to be righteous, Anatole. To know right from wrong, that’s all. I want to live the right way and be redeemed.”
She goes on to say, “We never should have come here. We’re just fools that have gotten by so far on dumb luck. That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
When Antole refuses to answer her question, Rachel pushes him further and he admits – and this is so good – “No, you shouldn’t [have come here]. But you are here, so yes, you should be here. There are more words in the world than no and yes.”
The rest of their exchange is beautiful but requires too much unpacking of the narrative to capture here. However, if you’ve read the novel before, it’s worth a reread – page 310 in the 2005 edition.
When I’m in one of my more honest and introspective moods I often have the same pleading confession and fear as Rachel. I want to live the right way. This single thought leads me down a rabbit hole of wondering if I should or shouldn’t have made the choices that have brought me to this particular moment. Should I have left or quit or stayed or ended the relationship sooner or fought harder or said what I really thought or kept my mouth shut or…
And the list goes on. Choices and consequences. History and hindsight. What was right and what was wrong? Where could I be? What sort of better life could I be living? If only.
There is something so upsetting and so fitting about Antole’s response. “No you shouldn’t. But you are here, so yes, you should be here. There are more words in the world than no and yes.” No you shouldn’t. But yes you should.
I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to want to live the right way. As a first born perfectionist trying hard to grow up and make good choices about my life, it’s an unavoidable desire (at least for some of us). But there is no way to address Rachel’s question as she asks it.
Hindsight may reveal some veneer of what was right and what was wrong. At the same time, however, my ability to ask the question with hindsight means I am somewhere in the present – I am here. And I think that to occupy a “here” (i.e. to be somewhere) is as close an answer to Rachel’s question as she is going to get. Was I right? Was that wrong? Am I redeemed? There are more words in the world than no and yes. You are here, so you should be here.
Life and all of our big questions about God, self, relationships, and the world, really begin to unravel as we explore the multitude of words and colors between no and yes. But it’s only through the unraveling that we get to be here.