About Grace, a novel by Anthony Doerr is about a hydrologist named David Winkler who occasionally dreams events that later come true.
Winkler spends his childhood in Anchorage, Alaska. He is a quiet boy who is at home in the natural world. His mother encourages his interest in the weather. He has a particular passion for snowflakes.
At the age of nine, he dreams a man is decapitated by a passing truck on the path outside his family’s home. He witnesses an exact replay in real life.
Winkler’s gift is a burden as he feels powerless to alter the outcomes of his dreams. When his mother dies he has no-one to share his concerns with. His father is unwilling or unable to provide any emotional support. Doerr writes,
“After his mother died, he and his father lived together like timid roommates, almost strangers, never touching, speaking softly over meals about nothing important.”
Winkler meets Sandy, his future wife, in a supermarket. He chooses not to tell her of his ability to see the future. He is afraid she mightn’t understand.
His worst fears are realised when he dreams of a severe storm in which his daughter Grace dies. Despite his efforts to rescue her they are both swept away in the swirling water. Grace doesn’t survive the ordeal.
Winkler is plagued by the horrific images and worries the dream will come true. When a severe storm is forecast he tries to convince Sandy they need to move away from their riverside dwelling. She doesn’t appreciate the danger and believes he is over-reacting.
Winkler is convinced his presence is putting his baby daughter at risk. He reasons that if he were to run away the dream wouldn’t come true. At the height of the storm he flees to New York where he boards a ship to St Vincent in the Caribbean.
Winkler is distraught, not knowing what has happened to his family. He cares little for himself, giving no thought to his own needs. He finds shelter with a couple who have a young daughter and takes a job as a caretaker at a new resort.
His life is consumed by his thoughts and memories. He makes every effort to contact Sandy but she cuts him off. The next twenty-five years are given to resolving the doubts and fears. Any hope he might harbour is challenged.
One evening he climbs into a boat and thinks of taking on the breakers beyond the reef. The boat capsizes and Winkler thinks for a moment of allowing the sea to claim him. He grabs hold of a section of the boat and eventually washes ashore.
Doerr describes the darkness that descends over our lives when our burdens become too much to bear. He says,
“The night outside, the night within. This was the place where dreams and reality could intersect; where night would be the dominant feature of the landscape.”
What are burdens? They are a weight so heavy that you would be crushed underneath it without help.
Winkler’s burdens are a constant reality. He is in danger of succumbing to the internal pressure.
People who are suicidal find life a burden. They feel the unbearable weight of life’s stressors and they feel powerless to break free.
Winkler is burdened by knowing. Knowing always comes with a cost. There is a price to pay. He struggles with the concept that life is predetermined. He wants to believe his dreams are not a snapshot of the future but his experience indicates otherwise.
People who are suicidal are burdened by knowing. They know their minds are unravelling. They recognise their life is diminished. They fail to see a future.
Winkler believes if he tries to rescue his daughter Grace she will die. His intervention will ensure a tragic outcome. It is his destiny. So he runs away.
We have to believe…
… the future can be shaped by our actions
… our choices count for something
… we can make a difference
… there is hope
Throughout his years in the Caribbean Winkler is able to put this to the test. He discovers that his dreams are not fixed. He can exert his will and change outcomes. He can shape the future.
Winkler is also burdened by shame. He recognises that he failed to honour his commitment to his wife and child. He let them down when they needed him most. He removed himself from their life. He was no longer present, no longer able to make a contribution to their lives.
Popular author and speaker Brenè Brown says,
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
Winkler feels disengaged. He no longer has a relationship with the people he cares for most. Despite his best efforts he is unable to establish whether his daughter is alive.
People who are suicidal feel the burden of shame. Shame produces feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Shame speaks to our incompetence and powerlessness.
Feelings of shame can be about any number of things – an inappropriate response, a careless action, a broken promise, an act of betrayal, a loss of purpose, a failed investment, a disabling addiction, a medical diagnosis, a criminal conviction.
Shame erodes courage and damages confidence. It can lead to self-destructive behaviour.
Social media has become the public forum for shaming. Public shaming can cause irreparable damage. It exposes people to ridicule. It highlights their personal failures and broadcasts their vulnerabilities without consideration for their mental wellbeing.
We don’t need to be burdened by shame. While it reminds us of our limitations it can provide an incentive for change and greater accountability.
Shame says that because I am flawed, I am unacceptable.
Grace says that though I am flawed, I am cherished.
Clinical psychologist Dr Kelly Flanagan says,
“Grace is the assurance that everyone is of equal value and equally worthy.”