Exploring where life and story meet!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dystopian novels and their uses

I remember reading 'Brave New World' in junior high and hating it, mostly because I was hoping for a good story and did not understand dystopian novels and their warning to those who think to somehow create a Utopian society here on earth.  I personally prefer the 'happily ever after' genre but anti-utopian novels certainly have their place and purpose and now that no one is forcing me to read them, our paths can safely bifurcate.  But one thing that still stands out, even twenty years later, was society's insistence that the government could raise and educate children ever so much better than their parents, that the family had outworn its necessity to society and its usefulness thereto.  I remember a bad version (bad in that it was unfaithful to the book) made for television back in the 90's with a scene with babies growing in gallon jars or something like that; people were no longer born but made or grown like so much corn.

At the time I really did not 'get it.'  Family was a concept foreign to me, though I didn't know it back then.  What was so scary about the government taking over the raising and nurture of children?  I was technically one such myself after all.  At home I basically got fed and had a corner to sleep in like some stray dog, but for anything important or vital to my knowledge of humanity and society, that was left to the day care and public school to impart.  I was a content little automaton, mostly because I was completely ignorant of what I was missing at the time.  The main problem with this little equation is that there is very little of humanity left to it.  Humans are not robots that absorb information and then go out into society to function for the benefit of all.  We are living, breathing, feeling, thinking, creative, social beings and need to be treated as such.

The government wasn't there to congratulate me at my graduation or to celebrate my wedding or condole with me while we languished on an adoption wait list.  And anytime I have tried to interact with it, it has been an impersonal, confusing, frustrating, inefficient disaster (yes, I just filled out my health insurance stuff!).  If they can't manage the post office, they definitely shouldn't be in the childcare business.  People to them are not people but problems, more work, a nuisance, a number.  But a number is by definition not a person, it is a unit.  If we were automatons or sheep, we could be mass produced but we are not, we are unique and feeling individuals with unique needs and wants, which is where the family comes in.  Your mother (in general, in situations such as mine, it is not true) knows and cares about you far more than any teacher or day care worker and thus is far more likely to produce a happy, healthy, and well adjusted person than any government program.

I had an education, I had knowledge, I was relatively healthy, but I sure wasn't happy or well adjusted. I wasn't even human.  Then came love and sorrow and suffering and waiting and frustration and joy.  And now I'm human.  I have a soul.  I am a person.  I'm broken and I cry sometimes, but I don't have to pretend to be perfect because I'm not and I'm loved anyway.  That's what it is to be human.  We need love, joy, hope, purpose, not just an education and food and clothes and a job and an iPhone.  Otherwise we are just automatons.  I think that's what that whole book was about (Brave New World): a man finding that he had a heart, discovering what it was to truly be human.  Strange that it took so long for me to discover such a parable about my own life.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Failed subplots

Just when you finally get life figured out or have it all together or the stars finally align and everything is going to work out perfectly you turn the page and there's a big fat plot twist.  Yes, you are living in a novel or rather a fairy tale, because novels of the usual generic sort aren't allowed to have happy endings and don't allow for miraculous happenings.  'Miraculous happenings?!' you ask.  But of course.  Take a breath: miracle!  Look at that picture on the wall: miracle!  Your very basic body functions, your thoughts, your senses are all quite miraculous in and of themselves, but we have become so used to them we take them very much for granted.  How about the computer or device you are reading this post on?  Sunsets?  Stars?  Cells?  Organisms?  Life?  Birth?  The Universe?  Conscious thought?  Literature?  You get the idea.  There is no such thing as 'normal' or an 'ordinary life.'  Every breath, every heartbeat is a miracle and wonder in and of itself, how much more an entire lifetime of such?

Plot twists?  Ah yes, I get a little distracted…squirrel!…as I was saying, plot twists…yes…I should have known better.  Just looking back at the strange tale that is my own life should have taught me that, but I fell victim to the formulaic expectation of modern materialistic thinking: it will work out because it should, it must!  I had my checklist, everything was perfectly in order, we had only to wait and wait and wait and well then nothing.  All that anticipation and dread that it wouldn't work out (or that it might) was in vain.  And strangely, I am much more at ease with myself now that I know it won't happen than I was in that state of hopeful anticipation when it might, should, must happen.  Where do you draw the line between hopeful anticipation and getting yourself so worked up with false hope that the failure thereof leads to dejection?  How do you keep from becoming cynical and bitter in the face of dashed hopes?

We are in a story after all.  Go to the Author!  The one advantage we have over fictional characters is that we are aware that we are actually characters in a story (His story) and we can also petition our Creator if the plot line becomes a little distressing.  So that minor subplot didn't work out, there will be others, and for all I know there's a better one just around the bend.  The Author knows far better than I what I need and supplies that rather than giving me just what I want, when I want it.  My toddler is also starting to figure that out in relation to his parents, you'd think I would be a quicker study!  At least the tale is never dull!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The salt and its savor

I wish I could have an actual discussion with people, I mean about something besides the weather or the price of cattle (yes, we live in a rural area and no, I don't know anything about sports).  But in our 'enlightened' modern culture, I run into two major stumbling blocks to real conversation: people are not used to thinking and don't know why they do or do not agree with a certain idea and anything you say might offend someone.  It used to be quipped that politics and religion were not to be discussed in polite company, now it seems that just about anything of substance is anathema unless you know exactly what your companion believes and you agree wholeheartedly with one another.  In this civilized age, disagreement is a form of hatred, just post something slightly controversial on Facebook and see what happens: you'll be virtually stoned.  I thought we had progressed beyond mob violence?

First, people have lots of opinions, many of them contradictory, but few know why they actually believe what they do.  They read it online, their mother said so, their professor insists it is true, everybody knows that or whatever is reason enough to defend something vehemently.  What is so dangerous about GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?  Why is Christopher Columbus evil?  Vaccines cause autism?  And ten thousand other things that if you say something contrary to someone's deeply held belief, you are suddenly a hater and the worst of all people even though they haven't a clue why they hold that opinion in the first place.  So instead, we talk about the weather.  It saves us from having our feelings hurt, offending someone, and having to think about anything.  It also limits us to superficial friendships, tedious social interactions, and we'll never learn, grow, or change as people.

The crazy thing is nobody agrees on anything, let alone everything!  Try ordering a pizza for a group of three or more and see what happens.  How much more so on topics of actual importance.  But no, we'll discuss that latest episode of whatever or that new movie (the 34th remake of that particular film) instead.  Yawn.  We'll just fiddle while Rome burns.  There are major problems in the world and in our own town, but if we just ignore them, they'll go away.  We'll turn on our media device and pretend they don't exist, and better yet, then I don't have to interact with anyone either as 'I'm busy.'  We'll create our own little virtual world where it is happy and safe and non-threatening and I won't be exposed to 'offensive' material and don't have to think but can just 'be,' whatever that means.  Double yawn.

I look back at the insipid and 'educational' TV shows and books I was exposed to as a child and wonder if that is someone's ideal of what the world should be.  I was insulted that they thought I would enjoy such a dull presentation of the world.  No danger, no uncertainty, no sorrow, no risk; no flavor, no zest.  Like soup without salt, it was a presentation I just could not stomach.  Where there is no risk or danger there is no hope, no joy, nothing worthwhile.  The price of Love is the risk of sorrow.  We could be robots: programmed to be good and perfectly obedient, but our world would be dull, drab, and colorless and completely lacking in meaning.  But we are not robots, we can rebel, we can disobey, we can be naughty, but we can also be redeemed.  Someone took a risk, gave us a choice, paid the price for Love and even though it cost Him everything, He still gives us that choice, everyday, every moment, we may crucify Him anew if we wish.

But we are afraid of Love, we saw what it cost Him, and fear what it might cost us.  So we hide behind phrases like 'live and let live,' 'politically correct,' and so forth.  We insist on being robots, on being unsalted broth, on foregoing any color in our lives.  We would rather exist than live.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Character study

I've oft repined that I just can't find a modern book with which to fall in love.  Perhaps it is that our societal and cultural tastes and expectations have changed and I was just born in the wrong century.  It is quite interesting to read an old book or even to watch an older movie (try 50's, not 80's) and then compare it with more modern works.  Just look at our current theatrical fare: a romance movie now centers around a mere fling, a comedy is a senseless collection of raunchy jokes, an action movie is all action and no plot or character development.  We don't see a movie to think or to be moved but rather to be entertained.  The same goes for our books and our relationships.

There are some who find Jane Austen the dullest author on the planet, but I find her ideas of romance, characterization, and humor unrivaled by any modern heir.  There are no zombies, superheroes, explosions, or high speed chases.  People mostly just sit around and talk.  The same with Anne of Green Gables.  I found them both exceedingly dull as a child, but once I learned to listen and then to understand, they have become some of my favorites both in the literary and cinematic realm.  What do they have that modern works do not?  Heart.  Personality.  Wit.  Warmth.  Soul.  There's a cultural revolt against over processed foods, why then do we accept without question or critique the mass produced grist that passes for entertainment in this day and age?  A steady diet of junk will ruin your physical health.  What then does a steady diet of mediocre or rotten media do to your mind and soul?

The sad fact is, many of Jane Austen's characters have more depth than your average modern American.  I wish it were not so, but so it is.  We don't think, we don't reason, we don't empathize with others; we exist solely for our own pleasure and heaven help anyone or anything that gets in the way of what we want most at that particular moment, that thing most vital to our own happiness, which if we were truthful, never results in the joy we had at first anticipated.  We are trying to fill our vacant souls from the outside in, rather than trying to build them from the ground up and the inside out.  Character development and the pursuit of virtue are the last things on our to do list, which is why our society is a nervous wreck and no one is content in the least.  As a mother, people are always asking (especially other moms) if my son can count to such and such or if he's potty trained or if he can do whatever.  No one ever asks if he's polite, generous, gentle, listens, considers the feelings of others, etc.  These are not traits we encourage in our success driven, socially shallow society.  Perhaps he can't count as well as the next kid his own age and hasn't taught himself to read, but as a person, he's coming along splendidly, and that's an accomplishment that will bless him and all around him his entire life, and something he won't learn in any school.  I'll take Miss Austen's comedies of manner over zombies any day, and I think, as a society, we'd be the happy if we all did likewise.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Self esteem and other myths

Self-esteem was all the rage when I was in school, and I don't think it has lost any of its popularity amongst teachers, parents, coaches, and the political class.  But it is one of those things, like organic chemistry, that I just never 'got.'  Now I believe certain individuals are smart and talented enough to understand an actual science like o-chem, it is just a subject beyond me, whereas this self-esteem thing is beyond bafflement.  I remember sitting in class, we actually had an entire semester dedicated to the study of this perplexing enigma, staring out the window, and wondering how someone could drone on for literally hours upon the subject, even as a fourteen year old, with no social skills or wider cultural awareness, I knew it was all just a bunch of nice sounding gibberish.  It was a light, fluffy frosting on a cake, meticulously whipped, but after an hour, it just goes flat, tasteless, and makes the cake soggy.

Self-esteem is basically the art of feeling good about myself.  Umm, okay, so in other words, vanity?  The last thing any mortal living in the modern world needs right now is to be told yet again that they are the very center of the universe, and for no greater reason than that they exist.  Then I go to biology and they tell me I'm an accidental mass of randomly produced atoms that will eventually cease to exist, as will the entire planet, when the sun blows up?  So nothing really matters in the long run.  Isn't there a little contradiction there?  First period I am everything and second period I'm nothing?  Which is it?  No wonder modern teenagers are rather confused about 'life, the universe, and everything.'

I was one of those kids that probably could have benefited from self-esteem classes, if they actually had any foundation in reality.  I had been taught from the very beginning that I was horrible, loathsome, and worthless, then along comes the self-esteem fairy that says I am special and wonderful just because I know how to breath.  Well, fairy, where were you those hopeless nights I cried myself to sleep because my mother had just threatened to let me live in the street when I was neither a rebellious nor a disobedient child? It is just so much fluffy frosting and nothing more, the only problem is the cake is broken and hurting, but then, what does that matter, as I'm just going to disintegrate in a few decades anyway?  Is there no middle ground?  Nothing in between?  Something that corresponds to this reality in which we find ourselves, a reality of mingled joy and sorrow, love and pain, hope and despair?

This is not a new question, it has been asked by every mortal who has ever walked under sun and moon, as Tolkien might say, "childless lords sat in…high cold towers asking questions of the stars."  The ancient manuscript of Job puzzles over the reason for suffering and pain while Ecclesiastes tries to make sense of the meaning and purpose of life, both come to the strange conclusion that man is neither an accident nor an end unto himself, but that he was intentionally made yet not for his own enjoyment, but rather for the pleasure of his Maker.  We have value, not because some sappy textbook says we do, but because we were intentionally and wonderfully made, our lives have a plan and a meaning and a purpose, yet we did not make ourselves, so we cannot boast over anything of which we are possessed or in who or what we are.  And this is a freeing thought indeed: we are loved, not for who we are, but for Whose we are.  I don't need to pretend anymore, or wonder if I can be good enough, or wonder if there is even a point to any of it: there is and I'm not, but He is.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

In Pursuit of Darcy

While scanning the frivolous, cute, and occasionally interesting minutia of the Pinterest-sphere, I ran across a rather interesting idea: only Elizabeth Bennet was able to catch Mr. Darcy.

For the last 200 years or so, women have been obsessed with this rich and silently mysterious man, though I have yet to hear one guy tell me he's pined after 'Lizzie' his entire life.  As far as I know, there are no spinoff books for guys or even t-shirts proclaiming their ideal of finding their very own Miss Bennet.  The argument is very one sided: nearly every woman wants a Darcy and most guys (who have not been guilted into a Jane Austen marathon) don't have a clue as to what all the fuss is about.  Yet this rabid pursuit of a real Mr. Darcy is rather pointless if the pursuer is no better than a Lydia or even a Mary Bennet.

Why did Elizabeth end up with such a prize gentlemen, even one that liked her against his own better judgment?  Because there was something there to like, but she isn't a fluffy, one-dimensional disney princess without faults or a personality.  She's very human, yet her integrity and virtue stand out and attract that otherwise indifferent gentleman.  Even then, society and your closest kin told you to marry for wealth and prestige, and you were thought a fool if you ever turned down such an offer, regardless of the qualifications of the suitor as a person.  We (at least the females amongst us) all want Darcy, but I think very few of we modern ladies are willing to be an Elizabeth, and thus have little hope of actually attracting our Darcy; there are far too many Lydias in this day and age, which is a good thing for the exceedingly numerous Wickams out there, but it is certainly a sad societal trend.

So how do you find a Darcy?  That I really cannot say, but what you can do is work on cultivating your own character, so that when Darcy happens to show up, he won't take one contemptuous look at you and walk immediately out of your life ere he's ever entered it.  Even if Darcy never happens by, character development is certainly not an exercise in futility, as it will certainly improve all aspects of your life and you will end a better person than you began.  Old fashioned?  Yes, but never out of style! Just like Jane Austen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Prodigal Nerd

I found a rather interesting article here, about nerd culture and its root cause: desire.  I have proudly donned the nerd (or preferably geek) hat in my day, and still profess a love of all things nerd, especially Star Wars and Tolkien related, and no I will not get into the latest movies within the confines of this blog post, sorry.  Strangely, I'd also put those of us with a Jane Austen fetish in this category (guilty!) too.  I suppose an obsession with any book/movie or whatever franchise is enough to qualify one for nerd-topia, but whatever your predilection, the one thing all nerds have a very strong desire for is acceptance and community.

The article above mentioned that many self-proclaimed nerds are victims of abuse, and one result of that is oftentimes they will seek belonging or healing or whatever, within the relative safety of nerd-dom, for while there is a healthy rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek fans, nerds in general are a rather accepting and non-judgmental lot, truly understanding one another as the cold, indifferent culture at large cannot.  I guess I am no different, for in chasing after all those idols of clay (or plastic), I was in fact chasing a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of worth, all which had been denied me during my abusive childhood.  Here was something I could cling to, a thing in which I could share and interact with others and talk about and feel a kinship with fellow idolaters.  The strange thing was, God was ever patient.  He was there, I felt Him, as I chased other ideals.  Whether it was an obsession with Star Trek or living for Taekwando, He let me chase these false gods, not only that I might grow and come to the place where I knew I needed something more than these manmade worlds, but also therein I learned something of interacting with my fellow men, for neither did I have any social skills when once I endeavored to leave home.

I threw my heart and soul after whatever took my fancy at that particular moment.  Mankind had failed me, perhaps fantasy would suffice.  It did not, I was still hungry and unfulfilled the moment the movie was over or all my nerdy friends went home.  I wanted fellowship that would never end, I wanted a community that would be there even when they were not, I wanted meaning and purpose rather than living for the next episode or book or movie.  That's when I realized being a nerd was just not enough.  Perhaps Peter would have used the term nerd or geek had they existed back then when he referred to Christ's followers as pilgrims, sojourners, and strangers, for that is what we are: people uneasy in our current reality (much like my fellow geeks) because we know it is not our true home.

He waited, and when I was ready, I came to Him, willingly, on His terms, as it must be.  He did not ask me to be perfect, but just to come as I was.  He did not fault my long and wandering journey, He simply smiled and welcomed me home.  I still indulge my nerdiness from time to time, but it has its proper place now: a pleasure to be enjoyed, not a god to be worshipped.  And that is as it should be.