--Rainer Maria Rilke
My father recently observed that he and my mother have two types of children: “those who are content to live life as they are told it should be, and those who need to wrestle with everything.” He then went on to say that they used to think I was one of the first type, but that it's now obvious that I've always been one of the second.
This is something I've been seeing more clearly these past few months. In learning to embrace this aspect of myself, I am discovering that I must wrestle with life in delight and in expectation, not in fear.
It's not that one focuses on being good and the other on living passionately (although I feel that I am in the midst of a transition from one to the other). Not that one is judgmental and the other free-spirited--or one wise and the other careless, for that matter. Not that one is blind and the other has its eyes open. These are two different ways of dealing with the same world.
As a child, I loved discovering new things. Like Rikki-tikki-tavi and his mongoose family, my motto was “run and find out.” I asked questions, delighted in uncovering new connections between facts or ideas. As soon as I learned to read, I was caught up in experiencing life from other points of view. C.S. Lewis speaks eloquently about this in An Experiment in Criticism: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
I'll give an example that some of you have heard before, because it's one of my favorite childhood memories. My dad used to sit with my brother and I and rub our backs as we fell asleep. One night (I must have been six or seven), I asked him why it felt so good. He told me, “It's because your skin gets hungry to be touched.” I was delighted by this fact, and by the metaphorical nature of it--the idea that my skin could get hungry just like my stomach could.
Another example: I was deeply upset when I read in my science book that colors are produced by reflected wavelengths of light. This view seemed implausible to me, because it rejected the notion that color was an attribute of any object. I struggled to accept this fact until I realized that there was such a thing as pigments, and that it was the physical nature of an object that determined which wavelengths it would reflect.
I was rarely content to assimilate data; I had to think it through, link it with other facts, find out what implications it had for my understanding of the world at large.
I've kept learning, kept thinking and searching out and piecing together. But along the way, I learned that the unknown is terrifying. For someone like me, who loved to seek out new things, it only took a few instances where something hidden turned out to be more ruinous and poisonous that I imagined it could be to teach me that such things (even if hidden only by inexperience or misinformation), the more hurtful or horrible that thing is likely to be. I hated this learned cynicism; tried hard to reject it and think of good things, but all that did was make me more afraid.
“Truth” sprouted a dark shadow, as if it were a concept that could only be applied to things that were hard to face because of how nasty they were.
It didn't stop me looking for truth. In fact, I became quite courageous about that in college, hearing for the first time the aphorism that “all truth is God's truth,” and that therefore we should not fear to explore the world and our own selves. I thought of the world as a puzzle that I would fit together, true piece by true piece.
But that shadow did stop me from enjoying the search the way I used to. It stopped my unreserved reveling in the world around me. It's hard to revel when you're braced constantly for disappointment and disaster. And if I'm honest, between my 12th year and the past 6 months, I was always waiting for that other shoe to drop.
I still noticed beauty, because that's hardwired into me. I still experienced joy, for the same reason. But there was so, so much I did not dare to seek out, for fear I would fail, for fear I would discover that the good I saw and wanted wasn't real after all, for fear I would uncover some secret perversion or poison in my own soul.
The world was beautiful and amazing, and I loved it. (The cure for momentary depression for me, in university, was to go outside and stare at the expanse of sky.) Yet that same world was so tainted. I bitterly rued the necessary (as I saw it) loss of my childhood wonder and exultation.
I was a wrestler even then; I can see that as I look back. And yet even the wildest dreams in which I pictured myself as an artist did not dare to suggest that I could challenge the shadows inherent in the world, or that I could do more than piece together the puzzle of life around me.
It was then, while I was at university, that I discovered that I had much in common with the seekers and the artists. I majored in English literature, and enjoyed myself, but by graduation I'd realized that I would never be able to do that for a living. It's fun to analyze the works of other people (puzzle pieces again), but it wasn't satisfying. I was missing something profound.
I minored in theater, and found friends and colleagues more readily there than among the students in my major. Many of my theater friends struggled with various issues, from drugs and alcohol to sexual experimentation to family divisions. I watched some self-destruct, and others leap headlong in the same direction. This was profoundly different from my own approach to life. My stable family background and rooted faith gave me rules that I considered wise to live by, and did not find constricting because I had thought them through and chosen them myself.
But it was obvious to me even then why I felt so at home with my theater people, despite our surface differences. We were all looking for meaning in our lives. If we couldn't find it, we were desperate to create it through our art. We were the same type of person, expressed in different ways.
That was a large part of the reason I came to Los Angeles. I wanted to write, yes; I felt God was calling me here, yes. But I also wanted to be where “my people” were. I wanted to bring them hope, the hope that I had, that life could be beautiful and good with God's help. That they were not alone in seeking or in longing to create meaning. That, instead, there was already meaning and significance and love in the universe for them to find and work with and rejoice in.
I've felt like a fraud sometimes, though. Because I do believe that, and yet I also have been trapped by the belief that ugly and twisted things are somehow truer than those that are beautiful and right and good. That I must account for those poisons first, and if I do not, I am failing to live honestly.
Discovering Doctor Who when it returned to the airwaves gave me a new way to look at hope. As the excellent Craig Ferguson says, it's a show about “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” That's what I needed. Something that could affirm for me, without denying the danger and pain in the universe, that beauty and goodness and wonder do win. That longing for those things is admirable, and that seeking the truth with wonder can actually be done.
I think that's why I like Eleven's stories more than Nine's or Ten's. Eleven is the most caught up in wonder, even more than the Doctor's incarnations usually are. The Doctor, and his companions, give me courage to do the same. They remind me that courage is not just for facing evil, but is also necessary to look past the bad stuff to the rest of the world.
I still couldn't quite manage that, though. I felt as if I would have to ignore the sad and evil things in the world to believe that there could be that much untainted left. And that felt irresponsible.
Then I fell in love. Through that, and through my failures over the past few years, God taught me that I am loved and worthy of love. One of the results has been something I did not expect: I find I am capable of daring to embrace the wonder in the world. Capable of setting aside fear of loss, of corruption, fear of what might happen.
I find that I no longer need to believe that the “locked rooms and books written in a foreign language” contain scary or polluted things. And because of that, I do not need to understand everything before I begin to live.
I am someone who, by nature, needs to wrestle with life. To struggle with both the bad things and the good—to launch myself into life, come up for air, and dive right back in again. To live passionately, set aside fear, step up and stand tall. I am an artist; I have things to say and patterns to create. I am a woman; I am creative and compassionate and fierce and independent, and I long to be close to others. I am a tactile person; I love touching and being touched. I have been celibate; I am straight, and a woman, and attractive, in love and engaged to be married, but I still long for role models, for reassurance, for sisterhood.
I have a voice. I have a heart. I have a mind. And to end with another quote, I am beginning to accept that “what we write in the manual is as important as what we find there already.” I am not perfect. I still fear the unknown. I am still uncertain, still find it difficult not see myself as an outcast or a freak. But oh, you guys, the journey is more wonderful than I could even think when I was trapped and staring into the abyss.
May the rest of this year, and rest of my life, teach me how to stare into the light.
(Is that my future? Yikes. Where'd I put my shades?)