“Extremes Too Hard to Comprehend”

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In his poem, “The Armful,” Robert Frost beautifully describes an everyday occurrence:

Every parcel I stoop down to seize,

I lose some other off my arms and knees,

And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,

Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,

Yet nothing that I should care to leave behind.

With all I have to hold with, hand and mind

And heart, if need be, I will do my best

To keep their building balanced at my breast.

I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;

Then sit down in the middle of them all.

I had to drop the armful in the road

And try to stack them in a better load.[1]

How many of us have tried to make into the house with an armful of groceries? One bag contains eggs and fruit, while another holds a carton of milk or cans of vegetables. One we have to hold lightly; the other requires a firmer grasp. We lose our grip on one, and it slips to the ground. We bend down to retrieve it, but as we do, we lose our grip on others. Despite our best effort to juggle “the extremes too hard to comprehend at once,” we fumble the whole load.

The everyday experience Frost describes speaks to a deeper reality. All of us have tried to balance other “extremes too hard to comprehend.” What of the moments when life has turned against us, and all has turned to ashes? What of the hard questions that keep us up at night—questions we know have no answers? What of the things beyond our control such as our inability to alleviate another’s suffering or our own? This is the real balancing act. This is the difficult armful we all have to carry.

Frost’s poem not only describes the effort to balance the load; it also suggests the ways we grapple with these hard extremes.[2] We come at such difficulties with “hand, mind, and heart.”

For example, our first response to “the extremes too hard to comprehend” is to do something. Get busy. Take action. Fix whatever is broken. We commonly speak of trying to “get a handle” on things. We figure if we work hard enough we can resolve whatever difficulties come our way. When we grapple with the extremes with our hands, we’re trying to maintain a semblance of control. Our first impulse when confronted by life’s extremes is to get busy and make life bend to our will.

But some things are simply beyond our ability to shape and redirect by our efforts. Eventually, all of us run up against circumstances that simply will not yield. Try as we might, we cannot tame the storm. When we run out of things to do and have exhausted ourselves in the process, we then engage the struggle mentally. We try to think ourselves through the mess. We tell ourselves there has to be a reason, an explanation. There has to be a way to put the extremes together so they make sense. If we can figure out “why?” then we can hang on until the extremes become manageable again. Unfortunately, chasing explanations often leads us to the same dead-end as action alone. Sometimes we can’t come up with a solid reason or explanation. Stuff just happens, and sometimes it happens to us.

It’s at that point that the heart is our only refuge in trying to comprehend the extremes. When we can’t do enough or come up with satisfying explanations for the hard edges, then and there we run slap into the fact that life is indeed a mystery. Life is much more than our efforts, and life is much more than our vain efforts to explain it. Here bitterness and cynicism are live options. Indeed, some have endured so much hardship in this world that I don’t blame them for becoming hard and cold. Beyond bitterness and cynicism, however, lies the way of the heart. The way of the heart calls on us to acknowledge our limits and do our best to live through life’s extremes while hanging on to love, faithfulness, and gratitude. We choose to hang on to the odd bundle of life as best we can even though some of it will never make sense. As Gerald Janzen puts it, we embrace life with the heart, “a heart that finds itself called on to grow along with the growing mystery it harbors.”[3]

All ministers and leaders confront “extremes too hard to comprehend.” Obviously, we will do everything in our power to resolve those extremes to the benefit of all involved. Our best example and help, however, will likely not reside in what we do or what explanations we offer. Instead, who we are and how we face those extremes with others will likely have more lasting effect. Sitting down with others in “the middle of them all” brings more life and hope than we know. 

[1] Collected Poems, Prose & and Plays (New York: Library of America, 1995), p. 245.

[2] I am indebted to J. Gerald Janzen, At the Scent of Water. The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 2-10 for his insights. I have borrowed liberally from his thoughtful application of this poem to Job’s experience of undeserved suffering.  

[3] Janzen, p. 6.

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