Rod Dreher, in his new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, writes about his sister Ruthie’s fight with lung cancer and about his complicated relationship with his family and small-town life in Louisiana. After her diagnosis, Ruthie told her doctors and loved ones not to tell her specifics about her condition, nor even how long she should expect to live. Dreher didn’t understand why:
If I had cancer, I’d demand to know everything at once, on the theory that information is power. And then, me being me, I would surely brood over it incessantly. Ruthie, on the other hand, figured that information would be disempowering. She understood that she was in some respects living an illusion, but if she was going to live at all, she had to be able to curtain off the terror of death.
Dreher later expands on how Ruthie’s way of dealing with information that collided with her worldview or pre-existing opinions was often handicapping to her and harmful to him, but this is an instance where it seems her ruthless resolve served her well. Like Dreher, I am someone who values information-gathering for a number of reasons: to expand my mind, to gain sympathy for the other side of an argument, to weigh all consequences of a decision or action. I’ve found this trait has served me well in a number of ways.
But I also get stuck in my own head, and the constant theorizing and hand-wringing and countering my own inner arguments gets very tiresome. In a situation like Ruthie’s, throwing on more hard truths wouldn’t have helped: “All the extra information could only sap her will to resist. The truth — the whole truth, that is — would not set her free, but would make her captive to anxiety, and tempt her to despair.”
Though I’m not battling cancer, I know that the more voices and information I add to my thought-stream, the more overwhelming it seems to get. (Maybe I’m the type of person Matthew 11:28-30 is talking to.) Sometimes I would love to be more like Ruthie Leming — sure of my life’s purpose, simple in my goals, and sacrificial above all. But I’m not. At least, not always. This has been Dreher’s discovery, documented in Little Way, and will continue to be part of mine. The book contemplates what made him eager to leave his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, and decades later what brought him back. Ruthie’s way is central to this story, and it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.
(Meanwhile, Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative has become essential reading.)