On my last trip to the grocery store, I saw something that made me pause as I passed the floral department. Half a dozen glass vases sat on a table, each with a flower bulb whose thick roots reached down into the rounded bases of their container. Unlike typical roots, these were growing in clear water and pointedly visible, rather than being submerged in dirt. As a flower display I did not think them particularly beautiful. As a symbol of some aspect of our humanity—I knew not yet which—I found them powerful. Those roots meant something, to me and to the person who had come up with this particular way of showcasing them.
In two places (2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 30) the Bible tells the story of the king of Assyria invading Israel while Hezekiah—a God-fearing soul—was king. The foreign king sends a master rhetorician to speak not only to the leaders but also to the common people of Israel. This speechmaker both cajoles and threatens, assuring Israel that neither Hezekiah nor the God he serves will be able to save them from the brutalities they will endure if they do not surrender. Understandably, Hezekiah and his ministers totally freak out, because the Assyrian king has conquered so many other countries before them. But they do hold it together enough to approach Isaiah, the court prophet, to see if the Lord God of Israel has anything to say about the matter.
The prophet’s response radically could be reduced to, “Thus says the Lord: Puh-leez. Don’t listen to all that drivel. Trust Me. I got this.” A more elegant distillation of Isaiah’s words is captured in a single verse: “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward” (2 Kings 19:30 and Isaiah 37:31). Meaning, you might be under siege now, but you’re a survivor. Some day you’re going to sow and reap your fields again and return to a more normal existence.
For Isaiah, the image of going down into a dark, submerged place is actually a hopeful one, because he knows it represents a fruitful enterprise. It’s what you do to grow. When I consider that same image in the context of my own life, it seems far less positive. Every day, while my son is at school, I go underground in the sense that all writers do. We delve inside our hearts and minds and look at what’s there, trying to articulate what we see in a way that will prove valuable to ourselves and to others. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, we enter a world not of our own making, in that we cannot entirely predict what we will find or how our discoveries will affect us. It can be a lonely and daunting endeavor, this excavation. As a screenwriter friend recently pointed out to me, unless you work on a show or something else that involves other writers in a setting outside your home, writing by its very nature is isolating.
What if the plot of ground you’re digging into is not a manuscript but the text of your own life? Either some part of your past that’s been giving you trouble, or some part of your present that you know needs to change? What if the voice shouting threats and enticements exists in your own head and affects how you make your decisions? How you treat others and yourself?
Let me put the question this way: if someone were to pull you up from your everyday life and expose your roots, what’s got you freaking out?
At present, my own reply would be: what if.
What if my son’s speech never improves much beyond his current—quite limited—level of communication?
What if he never has any true friends?
What if my own health issues do not resolve the way I want them to?
What if my writing goes nowhere?
What if something should happen to my husband, whose love holds me secure?
What if something (else besides autism) hurts my son?
And the list goes on and on.
My guess is that even if I could peer into the future and see the answers to these questions as clearly as I was looking at the bottom of those bulbs, it would not alleviate my fears. Because they are all rooted in the same thing: my smallness. My inability to control the circumstances constantly trespassing my borders on every side, like a foreign invader.
Question is, do I have sense enough to seek out another, higher perspective? One that stays steady during times of crisis and promises life will get better again, if I just hang on? One thing I have learned about such voices over years of pursuing emotional and spiritual healing is that they do not speak automatically. I know, it’s totally unfair, because the recordings of fear seem to play non-stop, unsolicited, and at high volume. The voice of reassuring truth must be sought out, like a rare diamond. Many other voices compete with it. And you may find you do not trust the hope it puts forward initially. (I’m gonna be fruitful someday? C’mon.) But keep letting it repeat itself in your head. It certainly can’t do any more harm than what’s being done already.
One particular statement has proven helpful to me repeatedly. Years ago when my husband and I were still childless, I decided for some reason that I needed to learn to ride a bike. I had grown up in a condo on a beach in the Caribbean. Swimming was much more relevant to my life back then, and I thrived at that instead.
Attempting to balance and pedal all at once at age thirty-four was quite challenging, not the least of which because my body was much bigger than a child’s and my thoughts kept getting in the way. I couldn’t quite make myself believe that the faster I pumped my feet the more stable I would become moving forward. The whole affair just seemed so out of control to me, and it shamed me (and still does) because I see young children who have mastered the art of it.
As I struggled that afternoon in the church parking lot we had chosen for our first attempt at riding, my husband kept calling, “Keep peddling! Keep peddling!” to make sure I did not lose my momentum and tip over. He must have shouted this phrase at least a hundred times during the hour that we worked on biking. It seemed the best instruction, the most encouraging mantra. And it did indeed work. By the end of the hour, I could ride a bike in the most basic sense. I was developing a feel for the truth of going faster to stay safer.
Many times since that afternoon my husband has had to whisper, “Keep peddling!” in my ear when I have been reduced to tears or overcome by some hardship that threatens to swallow me whole. It still helps me to this day, helps me to know that if I keep pushing forward, however minimally on some days, I am going to get to the other side of my affliction and start sensing something different taking root.
And so I offer this same encouragement to you. Whatever you’re going through at the moment, however incontrovertible the bad news appears, keep peddling. However deep-seated and widespread your suffering, keep peddling. Deep inside, in a place you can’t quite see, roots are stretching down into clear waters so the planting up top can flourish. Trust the process. Trust the One who guards and guides the process. Trust in your own ability to grow and overcome, given the right nutrients. And some of those nutrients you can provide for yourself, by reading Scripture, a good book, listening to a podcast, having an uplifting conversation, taking a nice long walk.
As Mother Theresa suggested, trying to focus on doing some small things with great love, for others and for yourself. I think you will find that that’s what keeps the wheels of your bike turning, so that you can balance and continue moving forward. I also think you’ll be surprised at how many there are of us peddling along beside you, our eyes fixed on the terrain in front, our hands gripped tight. It’s hard work, this forging ahead. But we do it together.
Keep peddling, my friend. Don’t give up.
May your own what ifs be silenced. And may your roots grow strong.