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.