The old woman in Catherynne M. Valente’s novel, Deathless, has no name, yet she still suffers. Her soldier son, Vitaliy, died when a bullet pierced him through. Even so, when Ivan Tsarevich wanders by, a stranger to the woman as she is a stranger to him, she invites him into her home. She shows him the food on the plates and tells him to eat. He should eat, he should get fat, he should live.
“Be alive,” she tells him.
She says this because she knows about holes. Her son died because of the hole inside him, and she, too, has a hole “like a bullet” in her heart. No longer is she someone’s mother. Now, she feeds everyone else, everyone who is not Vitaliy, everyone who might yet live, might yet escape without being riddled with holes. No one should have holes in them. 
Yet we all have holes in us of one kind or another. Not all holes are created by bullets or machetes. Most are invisible to the naked eye. We see grain on wood, paint on walls, clothes draped over bodies, but we don’t see the hole of a broken heart. That means we can pretend the holes aren’t there. We tape them up or cover them. But if, like Valente’s old woman, we can admit we have holes in us like bullets, perhaps we will have the strength and wisdom to feed strangers.
“She’s a really good cook,” one of our members said about her. “She is offering what she has to offer: her food.”
In this way, she gives life to those around her.
What Can We Do?
As the old woman knows, war fills us with holes. Troops and citizens die. Buildings are burned out and bombed, leaving holes in neighborhoods. Survivors have holes in their hearts where the dead once lived. Trauma puts holes in our minds. When we kill others, our spirit becomes riddled with the holes of moral injury.
But war is not the only game that puts holes in bodies, hearts, or minds. Gang violence, police brutality, theft, threats, the isms of the world, rage that spills out in uncontrolled madness, all leave holes in the actor and in the watcher. These days, when life seems unkind and uncertain, when non-violent resistance seems a thing of the past, it takes little to provoke violence. We have forgotten what it is to stand for peace.
In this kind of climate, how do we stop putting holes in one another?
Perhaps we can start by offering what we have. Bread, soup, shoes, limericks, yellowing newspapers from another war, prayers, comfort, snow angels, song, the things that touch our spirits and bind our hearts, one to the other. It may be harder to do this during a pandemic, when so many of us are alone, but we can still learn from the nameless, old woman in Valente’s novel. We can, as another of our members said, “reach out in our sadness and share compassion with a stranger, even while we are in the depth of our grief.” We can share what we have so as to encourage healing, to buttress life. By doing so, we may find we benefit the most.
The Healing of Holes
This is how we we help the holes fill in. We staunch the blood, pack the wound with gauze and cobwebs, hold the hand of the injured like one holds a fluttering bird, gently and with respect.
We who are interested in healing would treat one another this way. We would feed one another, cry together, sing duets, form choirs, let our holes seep right in front of strangers who would cease, anymore, to be strangers. If we were more proud of our courage than of our hardness, if we could open the secret chambers of our hearts so the light might shine in, and if we did this with the laughter of delighted children, we would never put holes in anyone again.
One way we do this, to heal the holes, to welcome the stranger, is to listen with our whole being. I call this “sacred witnessing.” It arises out of compassion and a holy stillness and thus transforms both the speaker and the witness. It heals divisions, protects the victim, holds the perpetrator accountable, yet never resorts to shame or aggression.
These days, such witnessing may seem absurd. Yet only this kind of listening has any hope of seeing us into a future, for when we have been listened to in this way, when we are able to allow the listening to hold us and free us, we will treat one another with compassion and honor the earth that is our home.
Is It Okay to Create Holes?
But not all tragedies can be mended, nor can all people can be healed, at least not in this life. First, it takes time, patience, and determination to get better. Unless we feel worthy, we’re not likely to start, and unless we have support on the way, we are likely to give up before we know what wholeness feels like. Therefore, we must first be given enough love and faith to face our fears, which is not something everyone has access to.
It takes months to build a home, but only an hour to burn it down. In the same way, it can take years to heal, but an instant to destroy. Thank God so few of us willingly put holes in others, and so many reach out to create a wholeness from what remains.
Even so, not everyone thinks we would be better off if we stopped putting holes in people. At least 4% of us are sociopaths who don’t care about others. Others believe that some people, such as serial rapists or child molesters, deserve to be shot on the street.
If we seek to shame and punish those who have done wrong in our sight, we will just make more holes. We might try to justify our actions by claiming that we are saving our children, our wives, our homeland, that we are the protectors. This will carry us for a while. But one day, the dust will settle. We’ll realize we just put a hole in someone’s brother or sister or uncle or mother or friend. We might even understand that if we kill for retribution and revenge, we end up with holes in us, too. Is this justice, this continual making of holes?
The Confusion of Evil and Good
But perhaps it is all moot. Last week, at the recovery church meeting, we concluded that suffering may have a purpose. Without some pain, we cannot grow, we cannot become who we are meant to be, we cannot claim that sweet compassion that heals the holes that make us suffer so that we might become kind and holy. The old woman with a hole like a bullet reached out in her sadness to feed the world. Can we be so certain, then, is evil and what is good?
In the novel, Xenocide, Orson Scott Card postulates different species with different ways of understanding the world. He considers what is just and what is not, what makes someone a hero, whether there is a god, and what that god wants from us.
In one scene, a brave and wise Chinese servant lies awake on her mat pondering the nature of the gods. She wonders about good and evil. She concludes that we all want to believe our actions are right and good, so we invent reasons for our actions that make them seem right and good, even if they are terrible. Does this mean, she wonders, that evil people believe they are good even when they are not, and good people fear they are bad, even when performing a good deed? How, then, can a person tell evil from good? 
There Must Be No Holes
Although she finds no definitive answer to her question, the girl knows what she knows, and feels what she feels, so for her, some things are wrong even if they might be done for a greater good. We must not destroy worlds, for instance, or wipe out entire species. The fact that we humans do this, that our own planet is burning up because of our greed and laziness, that we feel little remorse as one species after another disappears, that we set out to kill entire ethnic or religious groups, does not make it right, no matter how we justify it.
That’s why the Chinese girl decides she will fight against such evil, even if it is a thing desired by the gods. She concludes that any god who harms people and says it is for their own good does not deserve to be worshiped. How can one love a god who watches us put holes in one another and does not weep? I don’t care if the holes are for our own good or not.
As one of our church members said, “It is so important not to justify it. I want no one to have holes in them.”
A Good Way to Start
We humans are so creative. We come up with innumerable ways to rationalize our violence. It doesn’t matter. We still don’t want anyone to have holes in them. But even if we don’t like it, we’ll never stop making holes. Even if we believe that compassion is better than retribution, we’ll make holes in others sometimes. Maybe we’ll put them there by accident or out of ignorance, and maybe they won’t be very big, but they’ll be there. To deny our culpability makes things worse.
That doesn’t mean we should give up, though. Healing is vital for our world. We must heal ourselves, but also seek to heal the holes of those who would put holes in others. It’s a challenge. Many people won’t admit they are riddled with holes, so how can we help them?
If nothing else, we can listen with love and patience. We can plant a seed, as they say. It’s worth it, no matter who we’re talking to, for no one deserves to have holes in them, not even those we hate. If we feel hate within us — and who doesn’t sometimes? — it indicates that we, too, have a hole within us that needs healing. So let’s try to heal each other. We can be better than we are right now.
No life deserves to have holes put in it. This brilliant and beautiful world is worth saving, as are we humans. It’s not easy to figure out how to do this, but healing the holes in our hearts is a good place to start.
In faith and fondness,
- Valente, Catherynne M., Deathless, New York: Tor, 2011, ebook, location 2397.
- Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide, New York: Macmillan Audio, 2006, 30:47.
Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash
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