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The Devil of the Noonday Sun

Photo by Wisconsin Public Radio

“This is not the end.  This is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

—Winston Churchill, November 1942

Springfield, Illinois, my hometown, is situated smack in the middle of some of our planet’s most fertile farmland.  Consequently, no matter where you travel in this metropolitan area of 100,000 people, you will never be more than two miles from a cornfield.  That meant, that in the 1970’s, a common form of work available to enterprising high school, and middle school students would be the yearly chore of de-tassling hundreds of acres of corn. 

The way it worked, was that parents would drop off their children at designated pre-dawn parking lots.  There, rickety old school buses would arrive to scoop up forty boys and girls, equipped with brown paper lunch bags, in hand.  The adolescent-stuffed busses rendezvoused with the fields just as the sun was coming up.   The cool, dew-dappled fields of corn silk would welcome the waves of teenage energy.  Semi-clever jokes and ribald songs would carry motivation all the way up to lunch.  Hard to say exactly when the unwelcomed daily guest would arrive.  Some days it would be right after lunch; other days, just after the last afternoon break.  Hours after the dew had burned off, sometime after the last morsel of food had been thoroughly digested, and the tongue began to taste of cotton…that’s when a phenomenon known as “The Devil of The Noonday Sun” would arrive.  This concept requires little description other than the obvious one.  It connotes that experience when all motivation has drained away, and what is required is a kind of one-step-in-front-of the-other slog to the finish line. 

The original usage of the phrase, “The Devil of the Noonday Sun,” came from the spiritual journals, books and manuals of saints and spiritual writers from centuries ago.  Just like it is almost self-explanatory when applied to manual labor, it is also easily identified by anyone who has tried to live an intentional spiritual life.  For anyone who is trying to grow intimacy with God, there comes a moment when prayer is dry, and the phrase, “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) becomes a frequent mantra.  Sometimes a good spiritual mentor can suggest an adjustment in practice.  Frequently, a spiritually informed counselor can locate the source of the problem.  But from-time-to-time, the solution is simply to know that this is a normal experience through which the spiritual wayfarer has to travel one-step, and one-day-at-a-time. 

Which brings me to the above-cited Sir Winston Churchill’s quote.  For about the last month and a half, there is a common phrase that my mental health colleagues and I are hearing in our tele-medicine sessions as if it were a refrain to a song.  “I am so over this!”  With just a little coaxing, the antecedent to the pronoun, “this” reveals itself .  For example, “I am so over this “pandemic,” or “sheltering in place,” or “wearing a triggering and uncomfortable mask,” or  “Zoom meetings,” or “at home schooling,” or “cooped up conflict with my spouse, …].  I cannot speak for the rest of my colleagues, but when I hear, “I am so over this!”  I want to say, “ME TOO!”  But the problem with that phrase, “I am so over this,” is that COVID-19 is not over us!  By the lights I have to see by, it seems to me that Churchill’s words apply to our moment.  We are not at the end, nor are we at the beginning of the end.  I really do believe that we have recently crossed the threshold of the end of the beginning of this pandemic journey.   That leaves us smack in the middle passageway of the pilgrimage.    

Lately, I have been viewing our current pandemic challenges through the lens of the late Twentieth century, researcher and author, Dr. William Bridge.  In his own right, a resilience expert, and organizational psychologist, Bridges would say, that like Moses and the Israelites, we are smack in the middle of the “Desert” part of this journey.  Another way to articulate his insight, is that we are in the middle of the experience of “The Devil of the Noonday Sun.” The characteristic experiences of this moment, according to Bridges, are feelings of impatience, anger, and grief (i.e. sadness, depression, and anxiety).  Rather than regarding these experiences as pathological, in the desert, it is important to normalize these painful feelings.  To accept that uncomfortable feelings are here, and have to wash through you allows for the ability to accept half of a loaf of bread when you wish you could have the whole loaf.  Failure to normalize the “Devil of the Noonday Sun” dimensions of this challenge leaves the wayfarer vulnerable to fleeing what is uncomfortable and real, in favor of a more comfortable, but false and dangerous reality.      

In the Exodus story, God gave the Israelites just enough manna as food to get them through the day.  Another skill set for the desert besides that of normalizing the pain of it, is to find those sources of refreshment and nourishment that give you “just enough” refreshment for today.  Do you have examples of people who have found creative ways to locate their daily oases, or manna?  For example, my friend Mitch and I are meeting for a weekly (and sometimes semi-weekly) physically distanced cup of coffee.  My brother Bob is gotten my quarantined mom a computer tablet for better virtual meetings than are possible on her shaky phone.  All three of my kids are utilizing a fire pit to meet with friends at a safe distance, sometimes with smores, sometimes not.  None of these daily oases totally satisfy, but they provide “just enough” for that day.

Above all, Dr. Bridges recommends that, in the desert, mutual support is the most important thing that will get us through the middle passageway when our arms have grown weary, our shoes have worn thin, and our throats are parched.  Good leaders, parents, and partners in the desert practice supportive communication.  In the desert, they look for opportunities to voice appreciation, reminisce over the good times, and construct a vision for the future that includes wisdom that has been accumulated in the desert.  A theologian once told me that the least wrong thing we can say about God, is that “God is love.”  Let’s resolve to see the word, “God” as not just a noun, but a verb as well.  Let’s resolve to be an oasis for one another as we make our way through the desert.       

2 Responses to The Devil of the Noonday Sun

  • Laura Westhoff says:

    Tom, this reflection hits my radar just as I’ve joined a “spiritual support and accountability” group. A friend invited me and while I have been struggling for sometime to have any sort of personal relationship with God, I jumped at the chance. What the first month of this new group reveals is that I am indeed in the Noonday Sun (I like this image!), not due to pandemic but of life. And it feels a 40 years wandering, rather than 40 days or weeks of Covid! I’m grateful to have mutual support for the journey; but the very first thing I’ve had to do is be vulnerable and accept the support offered. I don’t do that easily, and every time I show up, I’m truly shocked how kind and supportive these people (who I don’t even know!) are. Saying yes to this opportunity was a first big step, though not a difficult one. Showing up every week and admitting that I’m still in the noon-day sun is much more difficult. What I’m finding most has little to do with CoVID or any new normal; it is something like that Talking Heads song, “Same as it Ever Was”–patience with myself, the trust that the the noon day sun brings a beautiful sunset, occassionally a bright moon, and that the sun rises the next morning maybe bringing me a bit closer to accepting the God that is right next to me, waiting for me to lean in just a little bit. Thanks for giving me these images to reflect on!

    • Dr. Tom Wagner says:

      Laura, I have only recently learned how to respond to my readers messages, so here goes….
      My first reaction to your response is to be moved by your generosity in sharing it. You mentioned “vulnerability” almost like a doorway that you stepped through to join in your community of spiritual support and accountability. I see that same vulnerability shining through your response. It brings to mind some of Brenee Brown’s work that identifies courage and vulnerability as flip sides of the same coin, and the guts of real intimacy. Your words are a reflection for me in their own right. I loved the idea that the noonday sun can give way to beautiful sunset, moon glow, and a morning cup of coffee with God. Thanks for the challenge. Thanks for joining in the conversation!

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