Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When the Metaphors Fail: Nature, God, and Individual Suffering

When I was eight, I came face to face with a bear and learned a lesson I would never forget: I am a mere part of nature, a mere mammal amongst mammals, no more, no less.

I was living up in a remote, Canadian mountain range at the time, and a bunch of adult hippies and I were skinny dipping in a stream. I was uncomfortable with the nudity but knew better than to say so. Instead, I disobeyed instructions not to wade around the bend in the stream where the adults would no longer be able to see me, and, more importantly for me, I wouldn't have to see them.

And that's where I saw the bear crossing the stream right in front of me. As I'd been taught, I stood perfectly still and showed no fear. In fact, I was not afraid. The bear was so obviously calm and relaxed. As it walked, it swung its head slowly from side to side, as bears do, and, when it swung its head toward me, our eyes locked. I could see in its eyes that it found me utterly and completely boring, unexceptional, just another of the various mammals of the mountains. I was neither a threat, nor food, so I was of no interest.

It swung its head in the other direction and kept on with its slow, steady wade to the other side of the stream. I returned to my humans, who were far more threatening to me than the bear, and told them nothing of what had just happened.

But forever after, I have known that I am a part of nature, that I am just one more animal among many.

This knowledge is a source of many emotions for me. I feel joy in being a part of something so wondrous and immense. I feel somehow spiritually connected to that which encompasses nature and is nature: something that might be called God. I feel a great sense of responsibility as a part of the animal species -- humans -- that has the power to destroy or save the very thing that gives me, and all other creatures, life. I do try to lead a lifestyle that takes this responsibility seriously.

Boots, cape, brooch, sunglasses, and earrings: vintage; Shirt and jeans: Reitman's; Right hand ring: Birks; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds
Knowing I am a part of nature also makes me keenly aware of my own frailty, as one tiny piece of this vast natural world. Nature tenaciously sustains and creates Life, often in the most cruel and improbable of circumstances -- but within the logic of Nature and Life, there is no value or importance in the sanctity of individual lives and identities. When that bear died, it did so alone, with no-one and nothing to rescue it, no-one and nothing to ease its suffering, and no-one and nothing to mourn its loss.

Just silent indifference.

So too with the small animals that the bear killed and tore apart for its meals. They too died alone, as did any young that were depending on them.

Nature is beautiful. It is also cruel.

As a victim of child sex trafficking, I should know. Like a rabbit torn apart by a bear, I too was torn apart by animals -- human animals.

The difference is that humans are the only animals who know the difference between good and evil; they're the only animals with the ability to choose evil. And choose it they do. Humans are the only animals I know who can be cruel merely for fun and pleasure. 

I've heard pedophiles' behaviour described as beastly and inhuman. I beg to differ. The desire to harm for pleasure is a distinctly human trait. The willingness to earn money in the trade of human depravity? That too is a particularly human trait.

My torturers' only concern was their own pleasure in the repeated, sadistic rape of a small child with no defenses and no defenders. Me. That child was me. I had a name and aspirations and interests. I was an avid reader and a lover of nature. But nothing about my identity was of interest to my attackers. They were utterly indifferent to my suffering, utterly indifferent to me

They permanently damaged my back, in more than one place. That's why I use a scooter. That's why I use a cane. I am in pain all the time.

I try to find some comforting metaphor for my own experience in the tenacity of Life in Nature -- but I'm failing. I'd like a metaphor that permits for truth and justice, not just for the survival of Nature as a whole, but for the survival of individual victims and the punishment individual tormentors. The logic of nature has no room for this, and the tidal wave of human cruelty -- against nature, against other creatures, against each other -- and the deafening, silent indifference of the witnesses, make a mockery of my naïve little dreams of justice and the victory of good over evil.

With all that's been in the news in the last few months, I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately.

A white police officer in Ferguson shot an unarmed black youth twelve times -- and he was not even indicted for the crime, because it was not seen as a crime. Indigenous women and girls have been going missing on Canada's famous "Highway of Tears" for years but the powers that be say there is no problem. Recently, the beaten and raped body of Tina Fontaine, a fifteen year old Native girl, was found dumped in a river. The police had found her earlier, alive, in a stolen car driven by drunk, adult man. Even though she had been reported missing, they did nothing to try to help her but instead let her go. But there is no racism against Natives in Canada. Really?

One of our most popular, Canadian radio hosts, Jian Ghomeshi, has been charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. Bill Cosby is now said to have drugged and raped numerous women over the years. 

People had heard rumours. People knew. And they did nothing.

Me, at about four or five, my misery evident in my face.
The same is true of the abuse I suffered. Looking at my little face, people knew something was wrong -- they have even told me so now that I am an adult -- but they did nothing. The police have repeatedly heard rumours of pedophile rings up in those Canadian mountains where I was abused -- but they do nothing. Just as they did nothing year after year when people kept telling them that there was a serial killer of women -- "disposable", drug addicted prostitutes, many of them Native -- in Vancouver's skid row. As far as we know, Robert Pickton managed to kill 49 women before he was caught. It did not have to be like that. 

Closer to home, after eleven months, Victims Compensation has turned down my claim for lack of, as they put it, "corroborative information." In other words, they're insinuating that I'm lying about the abuse I endured. I have been to the police three times about the abuse it. Without ever telling me, they closed two files and, it would seem, lost the third. Thus the lack of "corroborative information." Ironically, when women stepped forward to corroborate Jian Ghomeshi's accuser/victim's claims, he called it something else. He called it collusion. And, for a while, people believed him.

Injustice rolls down like a mighty river (Amos 5:24). The simile is from nature. It is apt, I guess.

When I was in university, the philosophers I read kept saying that only two things were really important: Beauty and Truth. I never really understood that. Now I do. Truth ... well truth seems in short supply in our world.

So I turn to beauty. At least that I can find. And I find it most poignantly in nature, even as nature simultaneously provides me with metaphors for the absence of truth and its natural cousin, justice.

Nature has been a comfort to me since I was a small child listening to the roar of the maple trees in the wind, drowning out the sound of my parents fighting.

I'm the teeny one on the right, wearing a cape even then, and falling in love with the mountains.
When I moved to this part of the world, I fell in love with the mountains. I remember the exact moment; it was when this photo was taken. That's me on the right there, in the autumn of 1976, in a little cape just like the one I'm wearing in the park in the autumn of 2014: same cape, same mountains, same feeling. I remember exactly what I was thinking, all of six years old, as I looked at that view: "I get to stay here!" I could not believe my great good fortune in coming to and living in a land of such beauty. 

The mountains were my friends, my silent witnesses, closer to God than either I or my abusers would ever be, even if an abuser was standing right next to me. That was a comfort to me.

I used to jog in this park. Year after year, no matter what the weather, I'd jog here. This was my favourite view. I would stop here and gaze at the mountains and feel something that I call God, something bigger and more benevolent than humans or nature, yet encompassing both.

I can't jog anymore. My damaged body just couldn't stand forever.

In thinking of myself, I have often thought of Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help." I always thought the word was "comfort," not "help." I knew nothing and no-one, not even God, could actually help me in any practical sense, but I did value the comfort.

Recently, though, I've learned that there are two conflicting readings of that line. Does the speaker lift her eyes to the hills and say that they are her source of help, or does she lift her eyes to the hills and, finding no help, ask, desperate, "Where does my comfort come from?" Is she saying something hopeful or something devoid of hope? I always thought it was the former, but now? I don't know.

Regardless, given my own experiences with nature, I am not surprised when so many people say that nature is their cathedral. It is often mine too.

I think most of us have felt it in nature: that sense of awe, that sense of the nearness of something bigger than ourselves and bigger than nature -- that sense of God, if you will. The Romantic poet, Percy Shelley described it as "a certain propinquity [nearness] with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion." A person, he said, could only achieve such nearness in nature.

The Romantic poets called this the sublime, and it is from this idea that I named my blog Sublime Mercies. That sense of the divine and of beauty is a mercy to me, a balm to my wounds. I too feel it most keenly in nature.

But the sublime is also that which is beyond human comprehension. God, beauty, nature: I surely can't understand it all, not its beauty and not its cruelties.

I think it is in autumn that I experience the sublime in nature the most. Perhaps because of my auburn hair, which matched the colours of the changing leaves back east where I was born, I have always had a particular affinity with autumn. 

I'm the teeny one on the left.
I've always thought of autumn as my season.

Is it fitting that the season with which I feel the most affinity is the one which always brings with it melancholy and a distinct sense of loss and death. Leaves fall, flowers die, mammals hibernate, birds fly south.


It is autumn that gives us one of our most poignant metaphors for the impermanence of beauty and individual life.

We are told that, just as the deaths of autumn feed the new life of spring, our own deaths are just a part of the cycle of nature. We never truly die, and our suffering is never really in vain, because Life will prevail.

This is supposed to be a source of comfort and joy, and sometimes it is, but, as Sylvia Plath says in her poem, Black Rook in Rainy Weather, "I admit I desire, occasionally, some backtalk from the mute sky... [something in nature] to seize my eyelids up, and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality." 

No matter the beauty in nature, its absolute, neutral silence in the face of suffering can be ... dispiriting. 

Okay, so I'm a part of nature. Even my aging hands are proof its cycle of life and death.

I may suffer greatly and die ...

... but I'm still a part of nature's glorious magnitude ...

... larger, I'm told, than my individual struggle to walk, or the pedophiles that made even the simple act of walking a daily challenge for me.

I am a part of nature's minutae ...

... its patterns ...

... just a mammal among mammals ...

... and birds ...


... its flora ...

... its colours ...

... and its death and decay.

Death feeding life and life succumbing to death, all for the greater survival of Life.

So does my suffering somehow feed future life?

I raise my tiny voice, railing against the mighty river of silence and human indifference to the suffering in their midst. And I hope that this makes a difference. I hope that, even in my mortal suffering, I am feeding the rich soil of the future.

Like a naïve child, I still hold out hope for justice, for a victory of good over evil. Those who came before me, fighting for justice and often dying in silence and obscurity, fed the rich soil that feeds my own life and contributes to my own courage to speak out.

But the rewards are few and the suffering is often direct and immense. Recently in Germany, a young woman stepped in to help two teenage girls who were being sexually harassed. Tugce Albayrak's reward? Death at the hands of one of the harassers.

Even with such risks, I live in a country where I have free speech, and can't be imprisoned for the crime of telling the truth. So I'd damn well better speak out! I've always considered it my God given duty. I just never really understood how useless it sometimes feels. Lately, it feels useless.

I hate that the injustices in my own life forced me to contemplate these issues in what was supposed to be a carefree childhood. By the time I was seven, I was keenly aware of my own mortality ...

... and I longed for death. I longed for death most of my life. Then, I thought, I could be with God, and far away from the torments and entrapment of having a body, what Shakespeare called this mortal coil. Being one with nature was all well and good, but nature brings pain too. It was a source of comfort in my childhood, but it was also the source of my pain. 

If I had no body, nobody could assault it. So death seemed liberating.

I was so god damned alone!

Beau has changed that for me. I don't want to die anymore. I couldn't leave Beau alone!

For the first time in my life, I fear death. Not mine. His!

And having a body -- even a body in constant pain -- is kind of nice, when it means I can kiss and cuddle my Beau.

With Beau, I experience the same gentle warmth of affection that all animals feel when they are cuddled close and safe in love. It is my very body, my part in nature, that makes this possible.

That warmth of love makes the world a better place, even while the world's cruelties make it a worse place.

I don't know what it all means. I really don't. But I'm asking the questions and I'm trying to do what very little I can do to keep truth and beauty from dying in the face of lies and human ugliness. It doesn't feel like enough. But I don't know what else I can do.

I cannot be silent. I cannot be indifferent. It's just not in my nature.

(I'm sharing this with Share In Style, Not Dressed as Lamb, and Visible Mondays at Not Dead Yet.)


  1. Charlotte,
    Your text remind me of “No attempt should be made to cure the body without [curing] the soul,” wrote Plato nearly 2,400 years ago. I am so happy that you found your beau to light your life after so many dark...

    1. Thanks. A few years ago, I stopped even trying to think of my body and soul separately. Both need curing after the hell I lived through as a child. Curing the body is curing the soul, and curing the soul is curing the body.

  2. You are a beautiful woman, a beautiful writer and a beautiful soul, Charlotte!
    Amazing story about your meeting wit a bear.
    Amazing photos of Fall.
    You look wonderful in your cape, you do look like a child of this season.
    Sending you all the warmest wishes, my dear xxxxx

    1. Thanks, m'dear. My birthday is in October too. My great grandmother and I have the same birthday, and about six of her nine children were born in October, so it was always a special month. Now I'm getting married in October!

  3. Oh my goodness, I;m so sorry that you have gone through all this. It's terrible to have lived through something so horrific. Beau is gorgeous, well worth the wait!

    1. He is gorgeous, isn't he? I told him you said so and he gloated. He also happens to be very smart, intellectually curious, and sweet and tender.

  4. Thank you, all I know to say is thank you for your truth.

    1. I'm glad you appreciate it. I do hope it helps others in some way.

  5. Thank you so very much for joining Share-in-Style once more, a true honour
    Ps: do not forget to vote on Thursday please, please

  6. Beautiful post, as always, Charlotte. Life prevails - thank you for writing this. Your tiny, sad self gave me a full throat. Thanks for sharing your writing and lovely pics with Visible Monday.

  7. Charlotte, you are such an inspiration. I especially love this post. Thank you.
    On a light note, with your love of MSW and glamour, have you watched Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries? (on Netflix here in UK) The fashion is amazing :-)
    Lara x x

    1. I have indeed watched Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and I completely drool over the clothes. Miss Fisher is very wealthy so her clothing and jewelry are the best of the best.