Eight days after I began work there, as the organization’s first staff member dedicated to supporting its personal computer users, the unionized employees at my local community hospital went on strike. It was February 1, 1990.
Early that morning, as instructed, I drove across a picket line for the first time in my life, showing up for work in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. I was handed a mop and bucket, and along with several dozen others, I suffered through a fifteen-minute in-service on the “right way” to clean a patient’s room. Then I was put in charge of a housekeeper’s cart and I spent the next 57 days scrubbing up the Labor and Delivery Unit. This was in the days before the hotel-like “birthing rooms,” where family members gather and watch Mom in extremis, surrounded by flowers, floofy bedding, snack trays, and piped-in music. This was in the days when Mom was wheeled off to the “delivery room” to have the baby, into a forbidding and sterile environment with four gurneys in each room (the hospital had two of these rooms), klieg lights overhead, lots of sharp-edged stainless steel, with no rounded corners on anything, and not a bit of floofery in sight. The floor of each of these delivery rooms was, I can testify, having mopped each of them twice a day (and more, in the case of messy emergencies) for almost two months, about the same square footage as that of an NFL football field.
I enjoyed my time in housekeeping, actually (perhaps mostly because I knew it would not be my life’s work). I got plenty of exercise, and I got to know a side of hospital operations that folks who work in non-patient care areas rarely see. Because I was new to the organization, and because it was a welcoming place, I made lots of friends very quickly. Meals and breaks in the cafeteria (which was also affected by the strike, and where the cooking and serving were also done by non-unionized staff) were social occasions and the source of much dark humor and enjoyment of our mutual plight.
One of the first friends I made at my new workplace was Marion, the Director of Instructional Media. I expect she and I bonded so quickly because she, like me, worked in a technology-dependent field, and because there were not, at that time, many “power users” of such, at this little hospital I came to love.
Marion, considerably older than me, and in less robust health, had been spared the more physically demanding jobs (housekeeping, maintenance, garbage collection, etc.) and had been assigned during the strike as a clerk in the Medical Records department. (I always figured this was down to the fact that Marion had, in a previous life, managed to pick up a PhD in mathematics, and that the powers-that-were who placed salaried staff in union positions during the strike assumed from this that she could reliably file things in alphabetical order, and that she knew how to count beyond ten without taking her shoes and socks off.) She was, in all aspects of her work and life, a very good egg, and she and I remained firm friends for the twenty years we worked together.
Once I got to know her, I realized that Marion, who could be a bit prickly and off-putting around strangers, had a quiet and rather mordant wit. A month or two after the strike ended, she and I were struggling through a PageMaker upgrade together, and she remarked to me that more than anything else, her experiences during the strike had caused her to lose her fear of death. “Oh, and why is that?” I asked.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve always figured that after I died, I’d be sent straight to Hell, and that was pretty frightening. But the thought of being in Hell doesn’t scare me anymore. Not after I’ve been in Medical Records.”
C.S. Lewis devotes an entire chapter in The Problem of Pain to the nature and meaning of Hell, and why the Christian doctrine of Hell is just and moral. His concept of how Hell works is quite different from that so flippantly expressed by my friend Marion. (Although Marion’s view of the matter is not uncommon–that Hell is a place, similar in lots of ways to other human places–just more horrible, rather like Medical Records in fact–into which one is consigned by an all-powerful Deity, after having lived a unChristian and unrepentant life. Consignment to Hell, many believe, is something that God does to one, after one has shown oneself unworthy of Heaven.)
Lewis believes (I think) that consignment to Hell is something one does to oneself through one’s choices in life, a result of one’s free will, and of what he calls “successful rebellion” against God. In his spare, elegant prose, he makes the case that Hell is nothing like a hellish and perverse mirror of human life on earth, full of screaming and tortured people, because there is nothing remotely human about it at all. People who end up in Hell are there, he believes, because they have turned away from both their own humanity and that of others. (I think Lewis is defying any notion that “Hell is other people,” and explicitly saying that Hell is the absence of other people and humanity in one’s life. Because by rejecting humanity, one rejects God.) Such people have made themselves inhuman outcasts, and they have chosen Hell for themselves. God’s part in this process and its outcome, Lewis believes, ends when He gives us the freedom to reject Him, and to condemn ourselves to everlasting Hell. (Lewis also has a fascinating bit of discourse on the time-space continuum and the physical world, at this point in his story).
This is a portion of what he says:
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside . . . they enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.
God is comfortable enough with his own omniscience that He empowers us to make our choice, without His interference. And we do. And the chips, as they say, fall where they may.
I first read parts of The Problem of Pain when I was in college, and, more than anything else, the phrase “the doors of Hell are locked on the inside,” has stuck with me. I find it to be such a powerful metaphor, not only for those of us (and Lewis makes it clear it might apply to any of us) who intransigently reject God and our own humanity, and who are determinedly condemning ourselves to eternal damnation, but also as an object lesson for some of the lesser trials and tribulations of my own daily life. There have been times (more than I can count; probably not more than Marion could count), that I’ve made myself thoroughly miserable trying to solve the unsolvable or fix the unfixable, or when I’ve found myself alone with destructive and hellish thoughts whirling around inside my head, as if in a maze with no exit. That’s when it’s helpful to remind myself that I do have a choice. That no useful purpose is served by making myself miserable. That I might be making things worse for myself by trying to handle everything on my own. That there are other people in the world. That perhaps I should, metaphorically, open a door inside my head and let some light in. That I might, if I’m feeling especially brave, try sticking my head through it (a clever trick that would be), and having a look round outside to see if there is anyone close by, made in the image of God, who might offer me a hand. Amazingly, there almost always is someone. Equally amazingly, when I do that, when I grab hold of that hand, when I reconnect with humanity, mine and someone else’s, I almost always feel better, and my problems very often become much more bearable. And I exit the temporary hell I made for myself.
In every instance, small or large, it starts with a choice. And if I make what I think is the right choice, the human choice, it gets easier from there. At least, I think so. What do you think? Do you agree with Lewis? Or do you believe in, or approach the matter, differently?