Let me tell you one small mercy of our Lord’s.
A few weeks ago Sara and I were on the Oregon coast (my boss had bought us a stay there). Waves crashing futilely against great rocks and dissolving in wild, white fountains, wind and rain, seagulls shrieking somewhere above. I liked it immensely.
Still, as we were about to leave, I had a dark experience. I suddenly envisioned a tidal wave sweeping along the shore, burying us in dark water and dirt and boards and concrete slabs. I saw perfectly that in such conditions (my body incapable of understanding that escape was hopeless) I might well claw and trample my wife, if she were in the way of wherever my frenzied instincts told me might be air. It was horrible. I couldn’t brush it off, either. We like to kid ourselves that the real measure of man is what he does when he’s calm and has time to think. This is nonsense. A man is what he is, instincts and all. It would be me, not my body, clawing at my wife.
I was shaken. And then I saw, clearly, that my imagined dark experience was real for some. My brothers and sisters have died trapped, fighting like animals with the ones whom they loved for the futile hope of breath. * Their bodies betrayed them. Why, God? Why? Nobility in suffering I can understand, but nobility in betraying everything you’ve ever lived for? What was their fault? They sinned by not practicing drowning enough to learn self-control?
I shoved the thought aside and tried to think and say cheerful things on the drive home. I successfully forgot all about it.
Recently I ran across some accounts ofthe origin of the Birkenhead Drill (the Birkenhead Drill is ‘women and children first!’). In 1852 a troop transport called the Birkenhead ran up on an uncharted reef off the South African coast in 1852. Everyone boiled up to the deck. Lt. Col. Seton, the commanding officer, ordered his men into ranks while the wives and children were loaded aboard the ship’s cutter. When the cutter had drawn off, the ship’s captain proposed abandoning ship. “Lt-Col Seton, his sword still drawn, raised his hands above his head and told his men, ‘You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast.’” They did stand fast. They shook hands and said goodbye as the ship sunk. A deed it would be worth almost any price to have to one’s credit.
I told a friend about it today who could appreciate that sort of thing. We got to talking. I realized why Colonel Seton had asked his men not to abandon ship and why they didn’t. He knew and they knew that their resolve to sacrifice themselves was a fine but fragile thing. Who knew if they could restrain themselves, once they couldn’t breathe, from swimming to the cutter? Best to give it more time to pull away. Part of their heroism was their knowing the weakness of their own instincts and their taking steps to avoid it.
Out of nowhere the impression came to me,”are you comforted now?” And then I saw that though I had put my anguish about the evil of instincts to one side, He had not. Indeed, he had used that same imagination and empathy that had me question instincts in the first place to show me that a certain kind of heroism was impossible without them.
Perhaps the Birkenhead Drill doesn’t justify instincts much to you. Perhaps you’re right. I think redemption and justification are darker and bloodier ground than we’re prone to think, but perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps you think there are other, better justifications for instincts. There you are certainly right; I’ve thought of some myself and time allowing I’ll post them today. But that’s not the point. For me, the Birkenhead Drill was the perfect salve to my concern, and the Lord’s leading me to it shows that he is mindful even of my stray, painful thoughts. It is good to know that.
* Update: This is not hypothetical. I’ve since heard of some of the accounts of the rare U-boat survivors in WWII. They talk about the special comradeship the members of the crew felt for each other and then the wild tearing and biting when the hull was breached and they fought against each other and the high-pressure water shooting in to get out.