From Nowhere to Nowhere and All That Lies Between

The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge. Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. 

This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.
{from "Reclaiming Travel" by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison}

This week has begun rather oddly. For the first time since I got my license, I am entirely without a vehicle and have to depend on the graciousness of my family members to get me to and from work and class. Thankfully, I also have a semester pass that covers trains, buses, trolleys, and subways in the area, and today, I very nearly used it for the first time to take the bus home from campus.

Perhaps it sounds silly and naïve, but I was kind of excited at the prospect. I have only once traveled by bus inside the US, and only once by myself. As a creature of habit, I don't ordinarily break out of my comfortable modes of existence, even in trifling instances. Sometimes I'll skip dinner on campus rather than trying to make a decision about where to buy food, because I'm unfamiliar with the various eateries and can't be bothered to explore a new situation. But as a product of the countryside who has just admitted to never really being without a car for the past seven years, even riding the train is still a novel experience, and a bus ride even more so. It has all the excitement of a challenge: coordinating subway and bus schedules, navigating unfamiliar territory, figuring out payment methods without coming across as a total moron, and people-watching.

When we throw ourselves into new situations, we learn stuff.

In my Intro to Interpersonal Communication class at community college, we talked about this concept illustration called a Johari window. Basically, it's a square divided into four quarters, and each quarter represents an aspect of the self in terms of knowledge and awareness: the blind self is the part that others see, but you don't; the open area where what others know coincides with self-knowledge; the hidden area, which is all the parts of your self that you hide from others; and the unknown is that which neither self nor others have had opportunity to discover.

These quarters are not equally divided, nor are they fixed in size. Over time, the parts that involve self-knowledge increase (theoretically - I've been accused of believing too much in the reflective powers of average human beings, but it seems like the more generous interpretation). So too, the parts of yourself that you share may change depending on whether you become more open and trusting, or perhaps begin to shut away more in order to protect yourself in reaction to circumstance and pain.

Since "stuff" is a taboo word for good writing, let me expand my thesis. When we throw ourselves into new situations, our learning experience is two-fold: we learn about the world with its inhabitants,  social construction, and material reality, but also about ourselves as we respond to and situate ourselves within that framework.

The journey to the center of the earth is simultaneously a journey to the center of the self, not in some deplorably egocentric way, but simply because we cannot help but change and grow responsively when we begin to think  critically about the experiences we undergo. That's why I love that quote from Stavans and Ellison's article, especially as I begin mentally preparing myself to leave for Cambridge.

On the one hand, yes, I'm satisfying a dorky preteen's goal to study at one of those old English universities, and as I am receiving my courses and meeting supervisors, I'm increasingly excited by the intellectual opportunities that are open to me. But travel is a holistic educator, and my mind is not alone in readiness. When we remain at home, we have to actively and intentionally pursue discomfort. It will not seek us out, except perhaps when an unpredictable entity invades our perfectly ordered space. But when we travel, we are ourselves the unpredictable entity, challenged to be vulnerable, to be humble, to ask questions, and to dare the awkward and uncomfortable. And if we are malleable and open, suffering the inconveniences and embracing the challenges, then perhaps we shall find that as we invaded the world, it invaded us: we are unable to see with our old eyes or think quite like we used to. You approach things differently when your concepts have faces.

So yes, in the end, riding on a bus is a ridiculous excuse for an adventure. But I can't always afford to be wandering over oceans and time zones, so it'll do for now.


Choosing Crisis

One of the earliest German tales of the Arthurian romances, Erec, was written by Hartmann Von Aue in the late 1100s, and it tells the story of a young knight who sets out on a series of adventures in order to gain a wife, a reputation, and a rightful place in society. Erec begins well and has the best of intentions. After suffering a grievous insult, he travels from the comforts of Arthur's court to the castle of Duke Imain, where he defeats Iders in combat, thereby avenging the insult, obtaining the lovely Enite, and gaining his first victory as a knight. He subsequently marries Enite and distinguishes himself in a tournament prior to journeying home and assuming kingship of his father's lands. There, however, things start to disintegrate. Erec abandons knightly virtues and instead of investing his time in contributing to society, he spends his days lazing in bed with his beautiful young wife. The crime of which von Aue convicts Erec is that of comfort.

What's so bad about comfort? Few of us would deny that we like our luxuries, however small they may be. But the problem isn't just indulgence: it's getting to a place where you're so comfortable being where you are that you forget to grow. 

Forget? Well, yes. Growth is not an automatic process. It is the very intentional result of learning from the potent moments, those times in our lives when we are brought to a crisis point of personal identity (to borrow from Jerome Miller's description in The Way of Suffering), and then acting in accordance with those revelations. We always have a choice in the matter. We can take the easy road and remain more or less static, maybe even regress a bit. Or we can choose the harder climb, which requires not just a once-and-done decision, but also a moment-by-moment commitment to change.

In von Aue's story, Erec recognizes this or, well, something like it (I'm over-simplifying here, okay). He dons his armor, takes his wife, and sneaks away from his castle to enter the forest at night, the place where, in chivalric literature, adventures take place. Throughout the journey thus commenced, Erec denies himself the comforts he permitted previously. He and Enite travel through the night without food, avoid the homes of noblemen where they might dine and rest, encounter dangers and injury, and travel far. Erec refuses even to share a bed with his wife, so committed is he to correcting his error.

Erec follows a typical medieval storyline, in that he swings between extremes before reaching the virtuous state of moderation that von Aue repeatedly praises throughout the story. While such moderation is every bit as important as von Aue states, Erec's journey does suggest an additional point: that growth can be accelerated by intentional discipline. 

We don't always face crises in our lives, not the really big ones anyway. There are only so many loved ones we can lose or big decisions we can make, and there are a lot of "everydays" in between, during which we must somehow not regress into old ways of thinking or acting. How do we motivate growth? Discipline is the process whereby we introduce a myriad of miniature crises into our lives. By determining to do that which we might desire, for our own comfort, not to do, we create a moment of crisis. We are forced to make a choice that we might otherwise have easily avoided. Discipline asks the question over and over, while growth is the sum of consistent, positive responses to that which is asked of us. 

Ultimately, Erec is able to return home and be re-integrated into society. He proves to be a just and respectable ruler, who never yields to the excess of comfort again. And that's the period on the sentence: that not all comfort is bad. It only becomes a problem when it's too much of a good thing. The key to living well is the willingness to dwell in a tension between seeming polarities and to know when to sway to the one side and when to sway to the other. It isn't easy, but when it is done well, it is well worth the doing. And perhaps with time that which once required conscious commitment may become easier to say yes to. At which point: "further up and further in," my friend, further up and further in.


Learning to Live or Living to Learn?

For a very long time, education has been a cornerstone of the typical middle- and upper-class life trajectories. High school students who opt out of higher education are told - with a brick worth of statistics to the head - that they will not make as much money and are perhaps missing out on one of the most important life experiences.

I am a student because I want to be. I have always enjoyed learning new things and exploring new ideas. The world is a beautiful mystery opening itself up to be understood. But I'm not entirely sympathetic to the idea that college is for everyone. In fact, I am not infrequently left wondering whether college is even for me. Let me explain.

This semester, I am taking five classes: Intermediate German, Medieval German Literature, Marxism, History of Modern Philosophy, and Language and Thought. In other words, my classes span foreign language, literature, more-or-less political and economic philosophy, general philosophy (dealing primarily thus far with epistemology and ontology), and psychology. Due to the nature of the school I attend, for each class except the foreign language course, I am required to read from a wide selection of scholarly articles on the subject matter. This means that in the course of a homework day, I'm going from a gender analysis of the Nibelungenlied to three papers on learning-from-observation vs. cross-situational methods of language acquisition, and none of these papers is at an introductory level. Neither of these topics is uninteresting to me (in fact, I'm intensely fascinated by the degree to which Kriemhild and Brunhild are labelled as she-devils or otherwise mocked for transgressing traditional female gender roles), but at the end of the day, I find myself deeply unsatisfied with this system.

Such an educational structure presupposes the path of higher education: that individuals become extremely well-versed in an increasingly limited field, such that they know a great deal about practically nothing. Dr. Jarosinski once used the German term, "der Hauptidiot," to describe such people. It translates roughly to someone who, as just described, knows a lot, but it is about such a small topic that they have basically become stupidly smart. Their knowledge is all depth without breadth. 

Perhaps it reflects a deficiency on my part, but I find it incredibly difficult to make the transition between reading in one field of study to another. The specialized language requires different vocabularies and even simultaneous retention of two different glosses on the same word and/or concept. I'm pretty sure that when Sterling-Hellenbrand talks about the self-other dialectic, she doesn't have quite the same understanding as Franz Fanon or Emmanuel Lèvinas. In a sense, prior knowledge of other subjects, because it is so tenuously grasped only through these relatively inaccessible readings, becomes a hindrance to the study of a repeated concept in a different context. 

The only way to cope with such a burden is either to embrace the challenge (with limited support mechanisms in place to ensure students' success) or to confine oneself, as the academic paradigm goes, to study in a very small area. The first option is what I would call learning to live, that is, receiving a comprehensive education in order to appreciate a wide variety of topics, acquire diverse problem-solving skills, and connect with the maximum number of different people from all walks of life. The second option is what I call living to learn, whereby your primary purpose is to acquire more knowledge about a limited field, using a small but fully master array of skills that do not necessarily translate well to other areas. Unfortunately, the college educational model seems to favor the latter situation.

At a surface level, it aggravates me, because I want to learn about a great number of different things. Whenever people asked me in high school what my favorite subject was, I had serious difficulty responding. Each different subject brought its own unique perspective to bear on the world, and while math might seem dry to the casual observer, the process of pattern recognition and the logical underpinnings are as lively and fascinating as a discussion of the Monroe Doctrine ever could be. I don't want to specialize, and everything within me resists it. 

At a fundamental level, this sort of partitioning denies the interdependence of all subject areas. If you want to become a really, really good psycholinguist, you are almost forced to abandon your casual interest in political philosophy. If, on the other hand, you've devoted yourself to political philosophy, you probably won't have the full flowering of appreciation for Sartre's analysis of time in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. There is a lack of appreciation, not because the individual has not the intelligence necessary to comprehend - most of my classmates are probably smarter than I am - but because he has no room left in his mind to entertain this entirely isolated web of new ideas. 

In the process of attaining to the heights, we struggle long and hard to gain inches, while below us spread the lowlands, rolling, green, and composed of hundreds of square miles of easily accessible and beautiful territory. Why must we fight for a peak, when a brisk, invigorating hike up the foothills will do just as well?

With the facilitation of technology, many areas have made leaps and bounds, not only in the scientific fields, but also in humanistic studies, and while I know there will always be some people who love and pursue their one thing only, it seems to me that this technology-fueled exponential growth has given those people power against the rest of us, who just want to love and pursue a little bit of everything.

And now that I've reached new heights of grandiloquence and flexed my analytical and argumentative muscles, I'm going to undermine my own argument by noting that I do go to one of the top research universities in the world, so duh, there is going to be an emphasis on depth in one field instead of breadth throughout many. But it does seem rather unfortunate that if one wants to be challenged properly and well, one can only do so at an institution that, by its very nature, is not favorable to the mental health and desires of the student.


So Special and So Alone

Some people pursue the news and filter it for themselves, other people let Facebook do the filtering for them. I'm somewhat ashamedly a member of the second group, so most of my article-reading revolves around interesting opinion pieces that show up on Huffington Post, like this one: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. Perhaps you've also seen the perfectly legitimate response piece: Actually, A Few Doodles Don't Explain Why "Generation Y Yuppies" Are Unhappy.

To sum up both pieces: we of the 20-35 age range are unhappy because we have been told since childhood that we are very special people who deserve fairy tales, so we have set our expectations high, but then reality (i.e. hard work) sets in, and we don't know how to cope with the drop from the Point A illusion to the Point B facts of life. The response piece points out that it's not just a disease of "specialness," but also that certain economic factors have changed with the generational transition, leading perhaps to the change in expectations and language that are so glibly explained in the first article.

I think Herman's critique is a valid one, but I'm not so ready to dismiss the Wait But Why article either. To explain, let me begin with two stories.

The first: A friend of a friend isn't entirely sure what she wants by way of career goals. She thought she really wanted to be a baker or pastry chef, so she procured a job with a bakery. After three days on the job, she quit. Why? Because they had her washing dishes and not doing what she thought she should be doing.

The second: On my first day of this semester, I had ten minutes alone with the professor at the beginning of my German epics class, due to the only other student confusing his schedule. We chatted a bit about our backgrounds, and somehow I came to mention that I feel like I'm so different from most undergraduate students. I'm older by a few years; I commute; I took two gap years; blah, blah, blah. My professor teased me about being so old, and we both laughed, because really, two or three years isn't THAT much different, but there's more to it then that, as I realized when I thought about the incident later.

See, we ARE told from a young age that we're all special and all unique. I can hardly remember a time when teachers, family members, and friends' mothers (much to said friends' chagrin) were telling me how wonderful and this, that, and the other I am. While it's true that I, like anyone else, possess an array of positive attributes, I think it's telling that we've gotten to a point where a villain in a children's movie is trying to defeat superheros, "because when everybody is super, no one will be." It's a thought that everyone has to have. At some point, we face the fact that we are not primus inter pares, but rather, one of many, all of us dependent on each other for our forward motion.

What the friend of a friend's story and my story have in common is this: we both thought we were something special. In her case, that meant that she didn't have to take the low road and do the dirty work to get to the good parts. Life 101: if you're not willing to do the crappy stuff, you don't really deserve to do the fun stuff. But we want it all to be fun stuff, because yeah, we're special right? And in my case, I tend to think that I'm so unique and strange because I took a different route to get to where I am, and oh, I have such lofty goals, etc., but it's kind of silly to think about.

Ultimately there's nothing satisfying in being special. The original article mentions the Facebook phenomenon. We see other people's lives, and we perceive that they're living at the top of the mountain. How did they make it, and we didn't? It's a self-imposed alienation. But the alienation starts long before we ever log on to Facebook. This mentality of specialness contains two poles. First, we become alienated because we think we are better than everyone else, or at least, in my case, different from everyone else in some way (i.e. unique). Then, when that belief fails to play out properly in the real world, we remain alienated because we believe that others HAVE actualized some potential with their endless strings of engagementweddingbabyItalianvacation photos. Being special is like drinking whiskey. You feel all warm inside for a little while, but it's a false defense that can't stand up long against the cold.

So where does that leave us? Well, dependent. I had to write a thank you note recently because I received a named scholarship this year as part of my financial aid package. I honestly wouldn't have applied for a named scholarship, save that the financial aid office asked me to, so I was rather bemused that I was then being called upon to do extra work, all because I got something that someone else wanted for me. While, granted, I may have called upon my more florid writing style to compose said note, it did make me think about how much of my education has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

I live with my sister, who not only has given me a room, but also tons of advice and being-an-adult guidance and a really awesome raincoat to celebrate the fact that I'm going to England. My dad spent his entire Labor Day laboring over the cv axle on my car, because I'm a poor, stressed college student who needs to somehow make her car get through another year. My teachers invest time in lesson plans, homework grading, and somewhat individualized attention, insofar as they are able. Some of them have written reference letters for me or helped me through seemingly endless series of drafts to produce an application-worthy essay. And, as the thank you note reminded me, there are people who are literally paying for me to go to a fantastic school to study a subject that may or may not result in a paying job. Furthermore, at the end of all of this, the hope is not that I will do something personally fulfilling to my special self (although that would be cool too), but that I will somehow contribute to society in however large or small a way, and thereby turn that education toward the betterment of my world.

The point isn't to be special, which really just means to be alone. The point is to be specially suited to a particular role that is a piece of a much greater puzzle, wherein every piece is essential to the completion of the picture, but no one piece can fulfill that task alone. It's much warmer when you're snuggled up with other people than when you're snuggled up with a whiskey bottle, and that's a fact.*

*Not a fact that I know by experience, just so we're clear.


Interlude: Shalom

During my year at IMPACT, we discussed at various points the concept of this thing called shalom. I think that Rob Bell also touches on it in one of his earlier books, but basically the way I've come to understand it is that shalom happens when something about a fallen, broken world is made right. (As the Wikipedia article puts it, "Shalom, as term and message, seems to encapsulate a reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world;" and also, "Literally translated, shalam signals to a state of safety, but figuratively it points to completeness. In its use in Scripture, shalom describes the actions that lead to a state of soundness, or better yet wholeness. So to say, shalom seems not to merely speak of a state of affairs, but describes a process, an activity, a movement towards fullness.")

A peculiar dialectic surfaces throughout the New Testament: the Kingdom of God (the ultimate shalom) is both already and not yet. I suppose you could say that it is, but it is also becoming that which it is. Shalom is this thing, I think, where we're moving and working, seeing small progresses but never the whole picture, but always ultimately growing towards the final proclamation of Revelation 21:

"Behold, I make all things new." 

Words that bring tears to my eyes. Because isn't that one of our deepest desires? Maybe it's not something that you think of right away, but you just have to cast it in a different light. Take illness, for example. You probably know someone who has been affected by anything from multiple sclerosis to Down's syndrome to ALS, someone who "doesn't deserve this." We somehow recognize it as an injustice, and we want desperately for it to be otherwise. Maybe it's a grandparent or a mentor or your best friend from college who is in the prime of life, and how can they be facing cancer now? What we want is some kind of fairness, that these beautiful people should attract more of that which is beautiful and not that which is twisted and ugly.

At the risk of sounding a little strange, that is what I was thinking about when I read this blogpost: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/06/13/154924715/surgery-restores-sexual-function-in-women-with-genital-mutilation

The thing is, something horrible has happened to these women. Their personhood was violated in a cruel way that goes beyond sexual pleasure and orgasms. They have been made into objects by means of mutilation, transformed into passive vehicles for the satisfaction of another person's desire. And while it's true that this happens even to women (and men and children) who have not been physically mutilated, it is yet one more thing that enforces the inhumanity of what has been done to them.

The surgery that Foldes and other doctors are performing, that right there is shalom.  Restoration of what has been lost to the robbed and broken. And no, it's not perfect. It's not 100% effective. But that's the already and not yet, the messy, strange, and beautiful glimpses of what might be, like holes through which we may catch a sight of heaven and come away brightened and transformed by hope.

Maybe it's not what we're used to hearing: that God could care about women like that and that His shalom is manifested just as much in a reconstructed clitoris (I bet you never thought you'd hear the words "God" and "clitoris" in the same sentence either) as it is in a bowl of food given to a hungry child. But maybe that's because we have limited Him. Thankfully, He hasn't limited Himself. We just, like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, have to say the spell that makes invisible things visible, so that our eyes are open to see that wherever there is restoration, there also is He.


Dreaming in Technicolor, Part I: Fix and Flux

In Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre makes the claim that our present moment or mode of being is separated from the past by nothing; that is to say, there is a sort of chasm between the past and present, a chasm that forces the present to be a product of our radical free will because nothing quite literally preceded this moment. (If I'm totally misrepresenting his argument, I apologize - this is primarily based on my recollection of lectures from a previous semester and may be quite inaccurate. Now that you really trust me, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.) The interesting and, for many - including those like myself who come from certain religious backgrounds - revolutionary consequence of this proposal is that there isn't really a human nature or a fixed, pre-existent personal identity. You can quibble with that idea as you like - I certainly don't agree with everything he has to say, although it's a fascinating argument - but it brings up a good question: are we fixed in who we are or are we malleable? That is, am I an unchanging I, or can I be other than I am? 

I would argue that it's a little bit of both. The aforementioned religious background has taught me that certain things are true of all people. For instance, people are inherently valuable. They can neither increase nor diminish this value, even as they are not responsible for its being true of them in the first place. But there are other qualities of personal identity that are much more fluid (and thankfully so) like whether one is merciful, selfish, or creative. As the Dumbledore quote on my new cell phone case says, "It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities." Even if we can't assign a value to ourselves, we can choose whether we will act selflessly or selfishly, and such choices made consistently over time cement themselves into personal characteristics (although perhaps "cement" is the wrong word to use about something we are always able to change, if with some difficulty).

That was my first point. This is my second (and slightly more important) one.

Everyone has dreams and ideas about where they would like to be in the future or what they would like to do with their lives. And everyone has failed, at some point or another, to make their dreams a reality. The thing is, we often sabotage our own dreams because we don't think we're a certain kind of person. Perhaps you want to have children, but you're concerned that you're not a very paternal or maternal person. You've always secretly been convinced that babies are ugly little aliens, no matter how cute everyone says they are, and you're not sure how to interact with kids, so you've convinced yourself that you really shouldn't parent any of your own.

In my case, I've always told myself that I'm not very creative. It's true that I'm all thumbs with a paintbrush in hand, and if you give me a sketchbook, I'll probably fill it with quotes written in beautiful penmanship that slant up on the one side because I can't write in straight lines. I've accepted this negative definition of myself ("not creative") without argument and almost doggedly, in spite of short stories, poetry, blog posts, jewelry, ceilings, sewing projects, and various crafts to the contrary. Which is why I've been haunted on and off by a note from my friend David since he gave it to me in Brazil three years ago. Alongside humorous observations about Oxford commas, he made the passing comment that I am a creative person. Who, me?

Clearly my view of myself has not thus far prevented me from actually doing creative things, but how many people really have decided not to have children because of how they've identified themselves? What we say to ourselves about who we are plays a distinct role in our willingness to take risks and achieve the things we dream about.

In sum, say nice things to yourself, and if they aren't already true of who you are, then make the appropriate choices so that they become true of you. Otherwise, you might miss out on a really cool life, and that would be super lame.


Vision Tests

I have this poster up on my wall - well, actually, three, if we're counting. It's no marvel of graphic design, but I drew it up myself, and on it are the words to Pete Grieg's 24/7 prayer poem. 

What is the vision?
The vision is holiness...

Holiness. Now there's an abstract word. And therein lies the problem of vision: even as we're expressing our ultimate desires and crafting a big picture future to live into, we've already shot ourselves in the foot by making those desires and that picture out of words instead of potential actions.

What, exactly, is "holiness that hurts the eyes," and how do I attain to that?

The thing is, we're creatures of a dual nature. We die when we're starved of hope, that stuff that big pictures are born out of and maintained by. But as any missionary in a third world country (or an inner city) can tell you, though man cannot live on bread alone, he still needs bread.

Somehow, we have to survive and thrive in a tension. There's the day-to-day, where we live every moment of our lives, and there's the future, where we determine our direction in order to grant retrospective meaning to the events of today. But that tension demands a lot, and often the two worlds are divorced. I was chatting with a friend last night about the aggravating problem of people who whine and complain about their day-to-day existence, but either have no dreams for an alternative life or else place a mile high and inch thick barrier of fear between their right now and the future they daydream about. They've gotten so comfortable that they don't know how to deal with the healthy pain of abiding in the balance.

It would be great if, in this world of Blackberries and iPhones and iCal, we could schedule a time for reality to pinch us every now and again. Comfort is morphine, dulling our senses and lulling us to sleep, until we've drifted so far into dreamland that we can't even remember where we were trying to go in the first place.

And don't get me wrong. I recognize that people change, and visions change, but we should not be too quick to abandon our projects unless they've been pursued and found wanting. Usually it's just a matter of impatience - we want to be where we're going in microwave time. But we have lost the art of making up our minds and sticking to them, even if it means permitting a desire to stew on a back burner for years.

I guess if there's a formula (to put it back into abstract ideas), it's this: be willing to take the lowest road to the highest point, and always keep your eyes on the end game. Nobody wants to live in the valley; they just quit because they look down and forget that there's a whole other world above the clouds.


Poem for Everyone by John T. Wood

I will present you
if you are patient and tender.
I will open drawers
that mostly stay closed
and bring out places and people and things
sounds and smells,
loves and frustrations,
hopes and sadnesses,
bits and pieces of three decades of life
that have been grabbed off in chunks
and found lying in my hands.
they have eaten
their way into my memory,
carved their way into my heart.
 - you or i will never see them -
they are me.
if you regard them lightly,
deny that they are important
or worse, judge them
i will quietly, slowly,
begin to wrap them up,
in small pieces of velvet,
like worn silver and gold jewelry,
tuck them away
in a small wooden chest of drawers

and close.


Pruning Shears

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love - a scholar's parrot may talk Greek -
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

I've been stuck on this poem by C.S. Lewis for a while - ever since I re-read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, in fact, since Miller quotes its first two stanzas. As much as I love those, it's really the second half that gets me.

"I see the chasm..."

We are all too wont to organize our lives, tweaking this and turning that, until we believe that we have found perfection. Whatever emptiness or shadow we may contain is hidden, usually papered over behind the cheerful wallpaper of determined self-ignorance. It is only when our eyes are opened, whether by a chance observation of another person or by a circumstance that obliterates our neat piles of Lincoln logs, that we begin to see all that we thought fit to exclude from view.

"And now the bridge is breaking."

What do we do when the things that spanned those gaps - not all of them mere wallpaper, some of them bridges that crossed and recrossed like stitches holding together the edges of a ragged wound - begin to collapse around us?

There is a time and a season... All dead things in our lives, whether good or bad, must be pruned away if we are to make room for the new growth. It hurts, God, does it ever, but if we do not submit ourselves to the pain, we stunt our opportunities and inhibit forward motion. Which is not to say that there are not times also to re-build what has been destroyed, but one can only hope to have the wisdom to know the difference at the moment of decision and perhaps there shall be vindication in time.

"Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
...Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which You have broken rejoice."


The Pain in the Process

"The growth of all living green things wonderfully represents the process of receiving and relinquishing, gaining and losing, living and dying. The seed falls into the ground, dies as the new shoot springs up. There must be a splitting and a breaking in order for a bud to form. The bud 'lets go' when the flower forms. The calyx lets go of the flower. The petals must curl up and die in order for the fruit to form. The fruit falls, splits, relinquishes the seed. The seed falls to the ground....

"There is no ongoing spiritual life without this process of letting go. At the precise point where we refuse, growth stops. If we hold tightly to anything given to us, unwilling to let it go when the time comes to let it go or unwilling to allow it to be used as the Giver means it to be used, we stunt the growth of the soul.

"It is easy to make a mistake here. 'If God gave it to me,' we say, 'it's mine. I can do what I want with it.' No. The truth is that it is ours to thank Him for and ours to offer back to Him, ours to relinquish, ours to lose, ours to let go of--if we want to find our true selves, if we want real life, if our hearts are set on glory.

"Think of the self that God has given as an acorn. It is a marvelous little thing, a perfect shape, perfectly designed for its purpose, perfectly functional. Think of the grand glory of an oak tree. God's intention when He made the acorn was the oak tree. His intention for us is '...the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.' Many deaths must go into our reaching that measure, many letting goes. When you look at the oak tree, you don't feel that the 'loss' of the acorn is a very great loss. The more you perceive God's purpose in your life, the less terrible will the losses seem."

{Elisabeth Elliot}



"August 17, 1948--Silence begins to drag on my soul. It is a kind of waiting which hears no voice, no footstep, sees no sign. I feel that I could wait ten years, if it were not this waiting, this silence. I have spent the evening by a little pool which held the silent sky in its heart. There was no ripple, no stir. Lord, let me be that pool."

{Elisabeth Elliot}


Learning to Love

Herman Melville's Moby Dick doesn't have the greatest reputation, and that's a fact. It seems to have stumbled into the canon of classic literature more by accident than democratic vote, or at least that would appear to be the case from most highschoolers' reaction to it. Thankfully, broad swaths of public opinion do not a statement of truth make, or Moby Dick (and probably most of Melville's other works) would be sunk. Frankly, were it not for a brief, but memorable encounter with this particular story, I would probably never have given it another thought myself. Why read something so universally shunned?

Such were my thoughts, until a quiet evening during IE break, which I spent with my roommate and her family. Her father is the sort of person I would like to call a kindred spirit, although I'm not sure how true that holds. We certainly had a lot to talk about, from G. K. Chesterton to monasteries. And at one point, we stumbled on the topic of Melville. As it so happens, Moby Dick is one of Pastor Brown's favorite pieces of fiction, so he had a lot to say about it, but even that might not have been enough to convince me of its worth if it weren't for the fact that he actually hunted down his copy and began to read from it.

Sometimes to fall in love, we have to see the object of our love through another person's eyes. I confess, I still haven't read it three years later, but the impression remains, along with a determined mental "eventually." Because the way he read those opening first pages was as if, if it were the only story in the entire world, that might not be such a bad thing, and that's about the best introduction you can possibly want, if you ask me.


Tracing Paper

Very nearly cast off husk
Of an old hive once
With life, old and new:
Now stirred only by the
Rattle and shake of a breeze
(So rare anymore,
This stagnant August).
You: mute master.
I: soft-skinned student do
Read the lines of your face
As the map to Heaven
Inlaid with sorrow, with joy.
You send me onward,
From life to life:
Breaking and unbroken.


Thoughts from the Morning Train

People aren't apathetic because they don't want to believe in something. Everybody wants to believe in something, even if it's just aliens or conspiracy theories. Rather, we choose apathy because truth demands a response out of us, and though we often acknowledge it guiltily and deep down, we are far less willing to make the requisite life changes that an open commitment would demand.


Towers of Babel

After an allusion to Babel, it seems a bit sacrilegious to begin with the great cathedrals of Europe, but if you'll pardon the poor transition, there's a point here.

When I first traveled to England, my friends and I had the opportunity to wander around the Durham Cathedral, a beautiful example of late Romanesque architecture that was built largely in the early 1100s and completed by 1135. Perhaps it is easy to criticize the medieval church-builders, who robbed parishioners of ludicrous sums of money in order to build unnecessarily massive structures with no function aside from community worship and the housing of relics. We certainly have little sympathy or understanding for the kind of mindset that produced the likes of this and other great European cathedrals. But at the same time, there is an undeniable beauty to the soaring heights of the nave with its massive pillars and ribbed vaulting, something that takes your breath away even as your soul takes flight on the heavenly sound of a chorus singing the evensong service. A moment's quiet contemplation reveals, as contemplation yields to exultation, why someone might go to the trouble of building such a gargantuan thing at such great cost.

Beauty almost always costs something. Things that last: they cost even more. The Durham Cathedral took 42 years to complete, and as building projects go, that's a fairly short time frame. The famed cathedral of Köln (that's Cologne, for you non-German speakers) was erected over the course of 250 years until building ceased in 1473. It was not completed until 1880. As noted earlier, not only time but also money was required for these projects - money that came out of the pockets of people who were pretty hard up to begin with. While, granted, they may not have shared the vision of their tax-collectors, their sacrifice contributed to the construction.

So what do medieval churches have to do with the tower of Babel?

I don't think that modern man could produce the likes of either those cathedrals or the Genesis tower. There are lots of reasons we could cite, starting with the prohibitive cost and moving on to the ways that religion is perceived and practiced (I will grant that there are modern churches that are ridiculously expensive, but they are rarely the product of years of work and painstaking effort, sacrificing form for function and expediency). But I don't think either of these possibilities really get to the heart of the matter, which is this: how many of us are actually willing to build toward a future that we may not get to see?

One of the most powerful concepts that I took away from my year at IMPACT was the idea of dash management. On your tombstone, there's a bare minimum of information. A name, two dates, and maybe an eloquent epitaph. Oh - and a dash. That's your entire life: a single two inch line carved in stone that will gradually wear away under the effects of storm and season. That's all the time you get in this world, so use it wisely.

But that's really hard advice to follow. We don't see our lives in terms of the dash. We see them in terms of the day to day. I'll be the first to admit that my projects are tiny. Most of the time, I'm lucky to get through the weekly chore of doing my laundry, so forget about planning a cathedral. If I can't even get my clothes onto hangers before the basket fills for the next round, I doubt I'm going to have the foresight to transcend my everyday life and enter the greater perspective of human history.

And yet, we're cheating ourselves out of so much if we get hung up on the small things. They're important too, don't get me wrong, but they're not necessarily ends in themselves. Their pleasure is fleeting, evanescent. The joy I take in steaming a perfect, velvety microfoam - and drinking the scrumptious latte that it goes into - is momentary and easily forgotten. We can and should submerge ourselves in these kinds of delights every now and again, but they can't be everything because ultimately, the foam dissipates and the mug is empty. They can't satisfy forever. And when we get stuck on the small things to the extent that we can't sacrifice their comfort anymore and can't see beyond them to the bigger picture, then we've lost something equally precious, which is the opportunity to contribute to and participate in something that will last beyond ourselves and our tiny moments, which, though lovely, are mere nanometers on an all-too-short dash.

I don't want to build a cathedral. But I hope that I don't get so wrapped up in little things that I never get to be part of something bigger than myself, something that might some day, hundreds of years from now, cause someone to pause and think, This is a good thing.


Sunrise to Sunset

I have a confession.

(That's not the best beginning, as stories go, but work with me here)

Every so often, probably more often than I'd care to admit, I sit at my computer or stare at my phone and try desperately to come up with something witty or profound or snarky to post as a Facebook status. And sometimes, I'm even furiously jealous of my friends, who can say cool things about what they're doing in foreign countries or for internships or just at a big music festival... Y'know. Cool stuff.


It's true, they got me.

I have nothing original to say about the way that Facebook makes us celebrate trivial moments. All of that was said back in 2008 by people who are better with words than I am.

But it does make me wonder: what does it take to live in such a way that every moment is profound?

Does that make sense?

I want to live breathlessly, always on the edge of my seat, not because someone is always amping up the adrenaline-rushing adventure, but because I'm always discovering the wonder of the amazingly ordinary. I spend so much time looking forward: to the end of my shift, to a long-awaited reunion, to January when I leave for England. And that's not bad. We have to anticipate and hope for the future, or we start to wither and die in the present. But if that's all we're doing, it's not healthy either, because we're missing the good that is laid out before us.

I might be exhausted, sunburnt (more like sun-charred, at this point), frazzled, and uncomfortable, but what about the fact that I'm alive? What about the fact that I am typing (what does that even mean?) on a computer (slim, portable device capable of incredible feats based on some kind of basic language and lots of tiny pieces and even if I did know how it worked, it should still blow my mind) using language (we can communicate with other people in a massive way; words open a gateway between two or more minds, making so much possible, and if they break sometimes, well, their very existence is pretty marvelous, and we can't expect them to be perfect) to share an idea... Every single part of speech is an incredible thing. Verbs. Nouns. Articles and conjunctions, adverbs and adjectives. Paper: woven plants that absorb a sort of dye and transmit aforementioned words and ideas. Who knew a plant could be a sort of mental storage facility?

Living profoundly is living in wonder. In awe. Because every moment is incredibly unlikely, and every breath is the height of improbability. If we can look for just one moment beyond the daily concerns to recognize the marvel of having days and having something to be concerned about and, for that matter, having the ability to be concerned about something, then maybe we'll be a little closer to the heart of the child and the heart of God, who says every morning, "Again, again!" For though the sun is old, the dawn is new, and we know it only fleetingly before it ages to day. So open your eyes and be humble enough to be amazed, lest you lose the chance for good.



"Dear brethren, our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn't want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be constant with the fact that God's cause is not always the successful one, that it could be 'unsuccessful': and yet be on the right road. But this is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm."

{Dietrich Bonhoeffer}


Context and Hindsight

The Apocalyptic visions of St. John used to terrify me when I was a child. I feared to even stumble accidentally into that part of my Bible, a sub-conscious nod, perhaps, to the way that ignorance and fear are so often intertwined. By the time we studied it in my senior Bible class, I had of course experienced the abatement of most of that anxiety, but I had not lost an appreciation for the vividness of the book. Over most of its twenty-two chapters linger bilious anvil clouds and the stagnant humidity of an unbearable August day, or so my imagination would still quite readily paint them. There comes a moment, though, when the storm breaks, and the rain falls. In the wake of a friend’s death, that moment brought me to tears. It still blows my mind, both from longing and from amazement at the beauty of the thing. And yet, it’s just six words.

“Behold! I make all things new.”

I like to read a fairly wide variety of books, but I do tend to gravitate toward certain genres more than others. Semi-biographical histories fall into this elect, for several reasons.

People love stories, because, because, because. The “becauses” are endless, but I think foremost among them may be such qualities as ordering chaos and ascribing meaning. When the story of an individual’s life is told in its chronological ordering with a sampling of the contextual influences that provided its environment, there is a certain sense of order that is hard to perceive from within. I do not see all of the people around me as a more-or-less objective observer might. I see only the two-dimensional panorama of bodies as they relate to my own body, not the three-dimensional depths of the web of human interactions.  And when the life story, thus composed and ordered, is seen within the lenses of hindsight, it becomes meaningful, vindicated: redeemed.

In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson describes the life and ambassadorial work of historian William Dodd during his time in 1930s Berlin. Dodd was not an ideal candidate for the position according to the standards of the time, but rather more of a warm body to fill an empty space. His ideology and approach to diplomatic life often came under fire, especially from those who would deliberately put out their own eyes rather than see the tumult unfolding within Germany’s borders. He himself began with similar ideas but was gradually forced to accommodate his views to the reality of the world in which he found himself.

Though his greatest critics don’t seem to have ever backed down entirely, Dodd also had his share of praise, as Larson notes in the end of the book. Those who experienced what he experienced saw not a man incompetent and irascible, but a rare, stalwart soul who resisted the moral contamination of playing along with a terrible regime.

Both St. John and Erik Larson’s stories are powerful, though one looks to the past and one to the future, because of a common thread: redemption. In the one case, the redemption of renewal that transforms everything in an immediate, irrevocable sense. In the other case, the redemption of vindication, as uncertain steps taken into an unknown future are proven true and right.

Not all stories are happy stories. I’m currently reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it’s a story with a well-known ending: for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracies against Hitler, Bonhoeffer is executed at the Flossenbürg Konzentrationslager mere weeks before the Germans surrendered in 1945. But all good stories are stories of redemption, something Metaxas clearly understands since he begins his story with Bonhoeffer’s funeral in London and the humanizing effects of bringing to the public eye, after years of hate, a good German. It’s something we crave, this redemption business, more than happy endings, more even than stories, because it gives us that which is more essential than air, because without it we shouldn’t bother breathing: hope.


Ongoing Conversations: What the Mirror Says

First things first, I apologize if any of this doesn't make sense. I'm on coffee number three, and the sun coming through this coffee shop window is about to give me heatstroke, so the circumstances are conspiring against coherency.

This morning, I was invited to a friend's graduation. It was an interesting experience, in part because it was my old high school, and I had the opportunity to sort of relive my own graduation. But things are so different from the other side of the platform. Between the series of epiphanies inspired by the setting and the fantastic address by the commencement speaker, I was wrestling with what to write, but the thing that immediately struck me as I sat there was that every single one of those senior girls up there on that stage was beautiful, and most of them probably don't even realize it.

Thanks to a recent encounter with Beachbody's "Insanity" workout program, I've had a lot of conversations and read several articles recently on the topic of body image. There was the Dove Real Beauty campaign video, which - regardless of motivations and continued adherence to beauty norms - starkly highlighted the break between how women see themselves and how they see others. There was the awesome blog post, Strong Is the New Skinny, that talks about the difference between being emaciated and being strong. There was an Existentialism class discussion of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex that led to Iris Marion Young's "Throwing Like a Girl" and the ways that girls are taught to relate to their own bodies versus the ways that boys are taught to relate to their own bodies.

But it doesn't take all those ideas and conversations to know that most of those girls probably fall somewhere between dissatisfied and deeply unhappy with the way they look. Not a single one of them looked unhealthily overweight, but I'm willing to bet that they poke and pinch themselves, lamenting imaginary fat and secretly hating everything they put on because every time they sit down, their belly roll is visible. I know these things, because I sat where they're sitting. And the part that broke my heart is that these insecurities don't just magically disappear as high school girls become college students and transition into adult life. Often, in fact, they just become worse. And it's so, so unimaginably stupid.

One of the hardest things for any woman to do is to stand in front of a mirror, look herself in the eyes, and say, "You're beautiful." It took me a month to get up the courage, and then I burst into tears and ran away. Why? What am I so afraid of? Why is it that when I look in the mirror, I find it so hard to see what you see?

When you see so much promise and so much possibility standing in front of you, if you're anything like me then you're filled with a lot of hope. Hope for the best of all possible worlds, filled with love, laughter, joy, and all of the rich experiences that life has to offer - yes, even the ones that hurt. Hoping all of this for others, who have yet to crack open the book of their lives beyond the introductory pages. And amidst all of these things, my hope for the women of the LCCS Class of 2013 is that they realize how beautiful they really are - not because their faces are pleasingly symmetrical or their curves fall in exactly the right places, but because the hearts that they've cultivated within themselves shine through in their expressions, their gestures, and their words. Who they are fills up the flat image of what they look like and gives it meaning, animation, brings it from two dimensions into four. It doesn't matter whether they go on to become world famous or never leave Lancaster County. In the end, they are, each and every one, the imprint of something special and inimitable, and I hope that they learn how to celebrate that, even if takes them the rest of their lives.



"'Murder is a sin,' said the immovable Highlander. 'There is no sin of bloodshed.'

'Well, we won't quarrel about a word,' said the other, pleasantly.

'Why on earth not?' said MacIan with sudden asperity. 'Why shouldn't we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they are not important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you call a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word "yes" and the word "no;"or rather more difference, for "yes" and "no," at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed.'"

{from The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton}


The Art of Saying Good-bye

The end of the semester. The last class has concluded, and only a few tests and papers stand between self and summertime. It's been easy enough to move on with most of my classes - when you commute and live off campus, you don't get a lot of opportunities to spend time with fellow students unless you expend a lot of energy on it.

But if I think about it, that's almost more sad than having to say good-bye. At least a farewell closes the door on a thing that was, even if it opens the void of the is-not.
If you have nothing to say to anyone, save perhaps the most banal of gestures like a distantly friendly nod or wave, what have you gained? Oh, you haven't lost anything in an obvious way, it's true. But consider: is it truly the case that you still have everything now that you did before?

Even if all else has remained equal, you come out the loser: you have lost the potential engendered by the presence of others in your life. And no one person is the same as another. We can never make up by quantitative accounts of one gain for one loss what has been missed and is now irretrievable. To make no gesture of friendship is to miss out on the only one of that person that will ever exist.

When I say farewell and hate having to say it, wish that I had never made the effort in the first place, I am like a miser, begrudging an expenditure from my storehouse of love as it walks away into a future distinct from my own. I am blind to the wealth that I myself have received, only losing because I fail to account for the gift of a few months' time.

This is not a loss, not in an economy of relationship. It is the kiss that seals the letter, the best kind of closure, signifying at the last that something good has happened, and I was privileged to be a part of it. The farewell is gratitude, delight, and a smile.


Twenty-Something Good-for-Nothing and Free to Fail

Just to start out with a good ol'-fashioned disclaimer, I do not view myself as a good-for-nothing. Most of the time. I mean, there are Wednesday nights around 10:20 when my three espressos and a cafe au lait have worn off and amidst the sludge that remains of my brain, all I can think is, "what the hell am I doing with my life?" I'm not convinced, however, that these are the most honest, soul-searching moments, because things tend not to look so dreary when I can assemble a little perspective (and get some sleep).

My educational experience is a bit unique. After high school, I launched into two gap year programs. Then, when college plans fell through one fateful June, I moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, there to diddle away my time in community college until I was able to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania, against the discouraging words of at least one transfer adviser. [Tangent: college people are incredibly cynical and not particularly helpful. Maybe they realize that the only way you'll get anywhere in life, for the most part, is if you fight for things, so they make a resistance for you to fight against. I don't know. I just know that they're not my friends.]

All that being said, it's a little weird to be a commuting, twenty-two year old sophomore who transferred from community college and whose experiences are asymmetrical with those of the average college student by grade or age bracket. But the weirdness and awkwardness are only true of my attitude if I try to define myself relative to the normal expectations. What about when the categories fail? Then I just have to think about my goals for education and life in an entirely different way. Which is kind of fun and freeing, if a little tiring.

Just to make things more interesting, I have already determined that I have no desire to spend the rest of my days in academia. When you're a philosophy major, there aren't a whole lot of other options, or at least, none that are too appealing. So how do I explain why I'm taking philosophy? Am I just wasting my precious time in ways that are even more painful at twenty-two than they would have been at 18 or 19?

Well, no. I am still getting something out of my education, confused as it may be at times. Here are the sort of goals I've made for myself:

1) Learn to take risks. I don't have to graduate with a 4.0. I just need to maintain above a 3.75 until next Spring, if Cambridge accepts me, which leaves me a solid year and a half to mess around in the most intelligent way possible. Knowing that you don't have to reach some crazy academic standard that includes coursework in classes that are not your strongest point is really, really awesome. Because it means that you don't have to toe the line. I still do the work for the classes, but what I'm trying to get out of it can be entirely different, and I can pursue riskier tracks for assignment ideas, because ultimately, how well I do on them according to one teacher or class's standards is less important than how well I can think through them.

2) Learn how to think well, in terms of both critique and comprehension. This takes more time. Understanding a 20 page pdf worth of philosophy article makes me really, really sleepy by the time Thursday rolls around, sure, but if I don't take the time to understand the full import of what I'm taught in my cosmology class, for instance, then every hour I spend there is time wasted, and it doesn't have to be. I may not want to be an astronomer, but what I'm learning there has implications for my worldview too, and if I grasp the ideas, then I expand the variety and depth of conversations in which I can and do participate.

3) Learn how to communicate. I've been working on a study abroad application to Cambridge's Pembroke College for the past month, and it has been an exhausting series of miscommunications. It started last Fall when the secretary told me I didn't have to deal with anything until this semester (the office's internal deadline was December 1, 2012), and it kept going with notifying my academic references, working out writing samples, and such. My lesson is that good communication involves making solid goals, communicating them explicitly, and confirming that they are understood. Otherwise, I get a huge, chaotic mess. That's my usual result because I don't play well with others. I figure that if we all know what we're doing, then you're not my responsibility. There is a positive flip side that I tend not to micro-manage, which can be empowering, but it's definitely requires sensitivity to circumstances.

Confession: I'm making these goals because they're all things that I do poorly, if at all. The Cambridge example probably made that clear, but the more general problem is, freedom to fail is hard to live out. I got a B+/A- on my first two papers in my existentialism class this semester. The first one was kind of funny. I've never gotten less than an A- on a paper. I felt like I was adding a little color variety to my blue ribbon collection. And one B+ can be made up, especially when lowest grades are dropped. But the second one gave me an existential crisis. Sorry, but it does actually apply, irony aside.

See, if I define my being by the letters that I get on my assignments or my transcript, then a B+ is a serious problem. It's like sinning or something, because I haven't just gotten a lower grade, no, I've betrayed who I am. And that's just foolishness and Unsinn. I bet nobody else in the world sees me differently. Most people don't even know it happened. It's not in the least bit significant to my life. And that's when I realize that I've tied myself into completely unnecessary knots. Because if I care so much about that letter, I'm not going to take risks, because they might not pan out. I'm not going to learn how to think critically and independently, because other people's thoughts are more authoritative. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, I'm also not going to communicate when I do hit problems, because what I really need is for my professor to think that I have it all together and I know what I'm doing, even if it's not true.

Moral of the story is, I'm going to fail a lot in my life, so I might as well learn how to take the knocks now. The other moral of the story is, the fact that my life is my own means that I choose how I'm going to live it. So basically, the moral of the story really is, we're all free, so we might as well embrace it in all its gory details and just get on with the business of living.


The Agony of Metamorphosis

"It's all bullshit anyway. What does it matter whether I say "he" or "she" for the genderless one? Do you really think that the words you say make that much of a difference?"
"Do you really think that you don't make much of a difference?"

…The silence of the thought. The panicked flicker of insecurity and fear brushing against a revelation of responsibility, of being-in-the-world. It is easier to forget, most of the time. To think oneself small. All of those inspirational quotes, like the one that got passed around a lot in meme-fashion after "Coach Carter" came out, they hid stark truth behind psychological comfort food. They said one thing, and they meant responsibility. Humanity: a massive weight pressing down around a morbidly obese man, folds and flub descending upon the single skeleton as it sags under its burden, bending but not breaking because the body, though weak, can withstand more than it knows.

This is the way that most of these conversations go. We talk about anything, and with a newfound flippancy, the brilliantly meaningless reflection off of a newly jade-gilded surface, there is the readiness to dismiss. "Everything is meaningless." Nothing is new. The world line of the stationary observer moves upward, ever upward, but there is no deviation, no progress, because [the gender neutral, "es"] can barely propel itself in time much less carry all of humanity in tottering forward steps along the change-in-x axis.

All of it, a covering for fear: I am not enough. I want you to see me as not enough, so neither of us will be disappointed when I fail. Oh, I will be, even if I convince myself that I shouldn't be, that it is only to be expected. But at least that is only one of us, and then too, it will be the compounding of failures, the confirmation of self as failure. When you say, "Enough. You are enough," the salt stings the wound but brings no healing. Where there is no blood, self-exsanguinated by the wounds of cruel words spoken in hate against soft skin, there can be no renewal, no scar to begin the future.

"Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself."*

The only answer is to will within, take in nourishment, revive dead tissue with the means to reproduce lifeblood. The body doesn't change. The fissures remain, the pain is real. But there is always the choice: to remain dead or to be renewed. All is not lost.

*"Song of Myself" 46. Walt Whitman


An Inconvenience Rightly Considered

It is one of those odd little facts about life that how we think about something can sometimes affect what it is. In my epistemology class, we've been discussing theories of knowledge and of justification. What do I mean by justification? Consider something you believe and ask yourself why you believe it. Whatever those reasons are, on a basic level they're your justification. Whether someone else will accept that your belief is a case of knowledge depends on whether they also accept your justification for believing it to be true. They also might make a distinction between what are called "epistemic" reasons and "pragmatic" reasons. Say you are about to run a half marathon. You haven't trained more or differently since your last race, but you still believe that you will beat your last time and do pretty well. Perhaps you've even slacked off in the meantime. Epistemically, you don't really have good reason to believe this. But pragmatically, your belief that you will do well can actually cause you to do better than you otherwise would have. Though the belief is not epistemically justified, it is pragmatically useful and perhaps even self-fulfilling. The point is that how we think about things affects the way they are.

I've been thinking about this recently because I dislike the all-too-human tendency to avoid what I would call privation. Some of my best experiences have involved having to take cold showers (which, in Peru, was actually kind of pleasant), not having any showers at all (there's nothing better than team bonding over your general lack of hygiene), going on international trips with barely a cent in my bank account, or having to throw things out/go without essentials for a time because they just don't fit in a suitcase. Clearly I'm thinking more about trips here, but the same could be said of the time when Katrina and I went sightseeing at a palace complex on an overcast, drizzly day. The peaceful beauty of the Badenburg in the rain is not something I would have missed out on for anything. And really, is rain or cold or relative lack of finances truly a privation when you have the option of shelter, clean water to bathe in, and the opportunity to experience something even if you can't take it back with you? Even if you could get yourself a souvenir, it would be like flowers picked from a beautiful meadow: their charm too becomes a memory rather than a present reality. If one simply leaves them in their right environment, one need never have the experience of their decay, only the memory of their perfection.

This morning before class, I woke up early and caught a train to meet a friend at a coffee shop in a nearby town. I got to the station early, and when a train rolled in, I didn't think to consider that it might not be the one I wanted because I didn't check the time and so climbed aboard. Of course, that train happened to be an express that skipped the station where I wanted to disembark. I ended up getting off at the next stop on the line, but rather than wait 40 minutes for the next train back, I chose to walk the mile and a half, since it would take less time and would certainly keep me warmer than standing outside by the tracks. It was fantastic. The air was just chilly enough to be invigorating. The world was slowly waking up, some houses sleepily blinking their eyes, others not yet having stirred. The quiet streets welcomed my feet without protest as they led me through and by the most marvelous little places and things. We always live, but we are not always alive. My mistake with a train schedule turned into a surprisingly delightful ramble that led me by places I never realized existed, much less expected to see.

Chesterton put it like this: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered." The way that I think about my past or present experiences affects what I call them. And as the nature of pragmatic reasons suggests, the way that I approach a future event is strongly determined by my expectations and my attitude toward it. Simply by calling it a different name, I open myself to greater possibilities and, more broadly, to the incredible experience of being alive.


The Space Between

In German, prepositions take certain cases, most of them only one. A handful, however, take one of two cases, depending on whether it is used as a verb of motion or non-motion. Hence, "die Liebe zwischen ihnen," takes the dative case, because it is sort of existing in the space between two people, i.e. not moving.

So much time is spent in this space between; not between people, of course, but between goals, ideas, desires.

To be alone is not to be lonely. To be alive is not to be lively.

How to be lively?

If we cannot maneuver the space... What becomes of us? Man, more than pulse, intake of air, neurons firing. To be fierce, and to be known. Heidegger's truth and falsity: a proposition is true if and only if it reveals. It is false if and only if it conceals.

Like a one seated in a slingshot, ready to fly. Each side a source of tension, and the legs too that burn to maintain force against the ground, on the other side of pain they send a thank you card to friction. Using physics, math, engineering, philosophy, psychology, to be. Does that even make sense? Where is art?

The art is the question that is asked. The science is the method to the answer. The answer is.


Above ground

The degree to which we viscerally react to fictional characters is in direct proportion to the precision of their correspondence with reality.

Dostoevsky's man from underground is NOT lovable, by any stretch of the imagination. A friend recently told the story of a cat lady who would trap strays and take care of them. One of her specimens was a pathetic, oozing monster, for whom caring meant a brief alleviation of marginal sources of suffering in order to usher it respectably toward its demise. Sam described it just flopping at the top of the stairs, sort of yowling in abject misery. That's how the reader sort of wants to view the underground man at first blush, and maybe even at second. The things he says to Liza are cruel, while his petty tyrannies and small-minded obsession with trivial vengeance make him an unbearable scumbag.

But why do we react so strongly to him? He is merely trying to work out the stuff of life, and if he goes back and forth, debases his own propositions as falsehoods, and seems to be trapped forever in a tiny, cramped room filled with the rebounding echoes of circular self-reflection, then that is his own problem. It only affects me insofar as I choose to take his words to heart.

The thing that makes the underground man so loathsome is that we fear him. We fear him because he represents the part of any self-aware individual who has ever been trapped in the self-perpetuating crisis state of realization that beneath the deceptively tight weave of our terrifyingly fragile justificatory cobwebs there lies an uncharted void. Here be monsters, because our senses are useless in the space beyond conception. We cannot look the underground man in the eye for fear that the cycle from which we escaped by God alone knows what means ("time heals all wounds" being merely another way of saying "we don't know") will trap us again, perhaps this time for the last time.

In his essay on the maniac, Chesterton says that the cure for tight circles of rationality is poetry. I understand that more fully now, I think. He speaks of the one who can do meaningless things, like stroll in country lanes and lop the heads off of daisies with his cane for sheer bedevilment. The man from underground cannot do without thinking, but that is the only way to escape. If for one moment, one could stop thinking about the impossibility of walking through the wall, he might in fact just do it. It is his only way out.