Saturday, October 26, 2013

legendary

Image from break.com
What type of story captures our attention?  Is it the tale of a hero, a person who does extraordinary things in the face of great obstacles? Is it an adventure, a grand story that takes us to exotic lands? Is it a love story which makes our hearts pound with passion? What type of people impress us? Those who are well-spoken and intelligent? Those who are charismatic and funny? Or perhaps we are attracted to the beautiful and graceful ones.

This week has been a hodge-podge of reading for me: everything from biblical texts to anthropology, philology, play-writing, fiction, and memoirs. Some of the stories and characters have gripped me; others have left me unimpressed. It makes me wonder: what's the difference?  What am I looking for? What do I want to immerse myself in?

Erich Auerbach (he's a philologist, a person who studies language in ancient literature) observes the difference between two types of epic story: the legend and the historical account. His examples are Homer's Odyssey and the biblical story of Abraham. While the Odyssey is full of generous explanations, includes lengthy excurses here and there to give background to an event, and makes the reader privy to the inner thoughts of characters, the biblical account is stark in comparison.  So much is hidden. The God we encounter is mysterious, only select scenes of a person's life are included, many details which would seem important to the story are left out. And yet, says Auerbach, the biblical characters are so much more complex and developed and real than those in Homer's legend. Why? Because they are not fully set forth once and for all; they always invite further contemplation, further investigation, further interpretation.

He goes on to observe that the collection of biblical stories seems to lack cohesion. The details often collide and large gaps are evident; and yet, it smacks of historical importance because of these very things.  A simple and straightforward tale with all the loose ends tucked carefully inside is a legend.  A messy, confused story which runs variously here and there: that's history.

The legend creates its own world, it is a separate phenomenon where everything is brought to fullness. The legend invites us to escape reality for a few hours and enjoy this enchanted, unified place. In contrast, the biblical stories have no other unity than a rather obscure God. God is the only factor that ties the disjointed accounts together.  Nothing is included that does not relate to him in some way. Unlike a legend, the Old Testament does not offer an escape to another world. Auerbach writes:  "Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality; we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 15). This makes reading the Bible an uncomfortable undertaking many times. It insists that it is relevant and that its story is our story. We all too often prefer a neater version of life, in other words, a legend.

People who write memoirs or stories of their lives have to resist the temptation to make things neat and tidy. They have to be vigilant against the tendency to spin tales that make them out to be more heroic than they actually are or the urge to heighten certain events to make them more fantastic than they actually were. We can all tell when a tale is too good to be true because intrinsically we know that life is not legendary stuff. Even writers of fiction who have to construct unified stories if they are going to draw us in, know how to make their stories messy enough that the reader will be able to identify with the gaps, the mystery, the unfinished nature that we all recognize as part of life.

The problem is that we can be drawn to stories and characters who appear to have the things we lack. We would love the ability to overcome tremendous obstacles without breaking a sweat, to rise from obscurity to fame, to find the perfect mate who is both rich and good-looking, to live an adventurous life without messy attachments or responsibilities, to solve a grand mystery, to have a superpower, etc. Legends are great entertainment, to be sure, but they are safe stories. They require nothing of us. In fact, they can render us somewhat delusional because they offer a reality that is anything but real. History (real life) is messy. We have to live with constant mystery. We will never know the reasons behind many things. We also inherit a messy history which means that if we want to move on, we have to repent for past misdeeds and forgive those who have wronged us. We have to deal with people who are unkind and dishonest, and if we want any sort of meaningful relationships, we have to learn to love those who are not beautiful nor always lovable. And even if we do the best we can, things won't always work out the way we want them to.

And that's a good thing because it makes us look beyond our story. Unlike a legend which is a closed world, the story of God is a living story which invites us in. It invites us to make our story part of something larger, and it offers us the chance to experience a more unified life by becoming united with the great unifier. We may still be surrounded by obscurity and mystery, but we can be at peace with it because we are not trying to be legendary; we are just keeping it real.

"The sublime influence of God ... reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but inseparable." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 22-23).

Friday, October 18, 2013

failure

K2. Image from  imgur.com
It's not as easy to fail as one might think.  Oh really?  Yes, because a lot of the time what we take to be failure is not. In fact, one could say that many of our ideas about failure (not achieving a desired outcome) are more myth than truth. And I don't mean myth in the sense of a traditional story concerning the early history of a people, a folk tale, but that it is a widely held but false idea. Often our concept of failure is too simple, and we jump to the "F" word quicker than a cat off a hot stove. The equation seems rather straightforward: I want A. I need to do B to accomplish. A. I was unable to complete B.  I did not accomplish A. I failed. Now, wait just a minute. Let's back this up a bit and look at some of the problems with this equation.

1. We assume that A is obvious and very specific. The fact is that the more specific we make our goal, the more likely we will need to adjust it as we go along. Keeping A rather broad allows us to interpret and apply it in different ways, allowing lots of flexibility and creativity. For example, loving others is a very flexible, broad goal which can be pursued in numerous ways. On the other hand, buying a new car for our neighbour is a much more specific and difficult goal. And it may not be the best way we can show love to our neighbour.

2. We assume that there is only one way (B) to accomplish A. This type of narrowness sets us up for failure. There are many ways to get something done, so it is best to explore a few different options, ready to switch methods if one doesn't work out. Because life always throws something at us that we weren't expecting, the path to our goal is often not a straight line.  We should always be more committed to the goal than to the method. I am not saying that the end justifies the means, but that there are lots of means. Don't get locked into just one.

3. When we do fail to accomplish a certain task, it does not mean that we have failed overall or that the goal is now unattainable. It just means that we have hit an obstacle along the way. We probably need to stop and re-evaluate, look at different options, get some wise counsel if we can.  As long as we have not reached A, A is still possible. Somehow. Someway.

4. When A really looks like a lost cause, perhaps it is time to dig a little deeper and see if it was indeed a worthy and reasonable goal.  Sometimes we set our sights on something which, though useful in getting us started on a journey, is not really what we ultimately want or need.  As we go along, we might realize that the goal we had in mind is not really adequate. Our desires might be misguided or unrealistic. We may have mistaken fear, nostalgia, compulsion, anger, or any other strong desire or emotion for the motivation and confirmation of our goal. It is totally okay (and often wise) to re-imagine and re-adjust our goals as we go along.  If we don't do this, we might want to question if we are learning anything as we journey through life. Have we gained more information that needs to be taken into consideration? Have we heard some wise counsel which changes our outlook? Have we experienced healing in a way that has removed former compulsions and might significantly impact our goals?

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating indecisiveness, breaking commitments, or endlessly changing course until one is confused and lost. What I am talking about is seeing temporary setbacks or adjustments as just that - temporary. Not the ultimate failure. I am talking about the need to hold fast to broad goals (love each other) and keep more specific ones (buying someone a car) in an open hand. By all accounts, I have failed many times in one of the goals I set for myself this year, yet I am still working away at it. The methods have changed, the timetable has been adjusted, and my expectations have fluctuated. But I am still on the path (though I floundered several times) and I am happy to say that the end is in sight.

This week I started reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. It is the story of a man who set out to honour his sister's memory by climbing K2 (2nd highest mountain in the world, considered by many the most difficult mountain for climbers to scale) and leaving her necklace at the top.  By all accounts, Greg Mortensen failed. After months of preparation, an incident involving another member of the team cost him his shot at the top. After a grueling 96 hour supply climb and descent, Mortensen and his teammate were called on to rescue a fellow climber in trouble. With only two hours of rest, they set out again and climbed for 24 hours to reach the sick man who was suffering from a pulmonary edema (and by this time his brain had begun to swell as well). There were two other climbers with the sick man, so all four men spent another 54 hours dragging and lowering the incapacitated man down craggy rock faces before they reached K2 base camp.

Mortensen and his fellow climber had so depleted their physical resources that they decided it would be too risky to attempt an ascent that year.  They both headed back toward civilization. Due to K2's remote location, it took another seven days of hiking to reach the nearest town. In his weakened state, Mortensen wandered off the path numerous times, once for several hours which left him alone on the glacier for a night with very limited supplies. On the last day, when his porter had gone on ahead, Mortensen again took a wrong turn and ended up in a small mountain village he had never heard of. Exhausted, he collapsed into the hospitality of the people of Korphe and slept in the house of the chief elder.

Mortensen felt something special in the town of Korphe and chose to recuperate there. As he regained strength, he got to know the resilient people of the mountain village and saw the struggles they faced. When Mortensen asked to see the village's school, the chief took him to an open area where 82 children (only 4 of them girls) knelt on the frosty ground and did their lessons without a teacher. At that point, Mortensen made a decision. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Standing next to Haji Ali,on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountain he'd come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 to place a necklace on its summit suddenly felt beside the point. There was a much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister's memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they'd shared their first cup of tea. "I'm going to build you a school," he said, not yet realizing that with these words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he'd taken since retreating from K2. (Three Cups of Tea, p. 33)

Mortensen did fail at reaching the summit of K2 and planting his sister's necklace there. But in failing to do so, he saved the life of a teammate, he made friends with the people of Korphe, and he founded an organization that has built over 170 schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education for many children, including 54,000 girls. His goal in honouring the memory of his sister was reached in a way more fantastic, meaningful, and far-reaching than he first imagined. And that's not really failure.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.

- from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

NOTE: There are some questions about the veracity of certain parts of the book and most recently, Mortenson has come under investigation for handling of funds for his charity, CAI. While I acknowledge these difficulties with the story, I do believe that the point of this blog still stands.


Friday, October 11, 2013

The MEDIUM

Mixed media on my table this morning
As part of the homework for a spiritual formation course I am facilitating, I took a two-day media break this week. Since I was working and still needed to attend to necessary correspondence and research, I didn't forgo the internet entirely, but what I did do was stay off Facebook, not take any pictures, not post anything anywhere, not watch television, not listen to music, not read emails that didn't need a response, and not research anything that wasn't directly related to my work. Two days is a relatively short period of time, and not all that stringent of a media break, but I found it quite instructive.

The first thing I noticed was that I had to deal with a compulsion to regularly check all my usual haunts (Facebook, email, Instagram, Words with friends, etc.).  I also had to resist the urge to instantly look up something I was curious about and fight against the habit of passing the time on the bus by fiddling with my iPhone. Things that we do on a regular basis become like second nature, so to change a habit requires a bit of effort.  I had to say no a lot and I am happy to report that my no feature works fine! This is probably one of the most beneficial aspects of any kind of fast or period of denial: giving the no muscle a workout.  It was most encouraging to experience not being at the whim of my desires and impulses and realising that I can direct my thoughts and actions in the way I want them to go. I have the ability to say no to temptation. I am not implying that this is easy, it is not. It is always simpler just to keep doing what we are accustomed to doing, but like the trainer on my DVD workout says: transformation is not a future event, it is an everyday activity. And saying no to compulsion is part of transformation.  Whenever I had the urge to check on something (and there were several times where I pulled out my iPhone and was poised to type in something that I thought I needed to know about right away, but I resisted), I reminded myself that the only thing I want to be compelled by is love (2 Cor. 5:14). One of the happy side effects of saying no to compulsion is that we avoid distractions and going down tangential bunny trails. It meant that I had two of the most productive days of work ever!

Part of the problem with being so attached to media input is that we lose the sense of immediacy. The word "medium" indicates that there is always something or someone in the middle, an intermediary, an interpreter, an intervening agency that distances us from the source. This is one of the reasons that the Old Testament forbid consulting mediums or spiritists (Deut. 18). God invites people to address him directly, to meet with him, to be in a close relationship. But we are prone to use a medium because it allows us to keep people (and God) at a safe distance (see Exodus 20). The media do most of our work for us, interpreting the news, only giving us what is deemed important or noteworthy, and serving up endless information for our consumption and amusement with relatively little effort or commitment on our part. On the other hand, real relationships take a lot of work: more attention must be given than posting a status on Facebook, writing a short tweet, or liking someone's photo. In real relationships we can't just show our best side and we can't edit what people see and hear. Real, one-on-one, face-to-face relationships require a lot more courage and dedication than media interactions.

Last night I got off the bus and turned around to see a most spectacular sunset happening. There were pinks and greys and blues; there were variegated clouds in intricate patterns extending across most of the sky. My first impulse was to whip out my iPhone, take a picture, and post it. But I said no. Instead I stopped, stood silently for a few minutes, and just took it in with my eyes. No camera between me and the sky. And it was one of the most satisfying moments of my day. Like letting a chocolate dissolve in your mouth instead of chewing it quickly.

Staying away from media for a few days was also a good reminder that the world keeps on turning whether I update my Facebook status or not, whether I post a photo of that great view or not, whether I blog or not. The false sense of urgency fades. For anyone who is trying to build a network or gain traction on social media (some writers and artists depend on these platforms to earn their living, so I understand the necessity of consistent good work) it can be tricky not to feel pressured to put something interesting and amazing out there every day in order to keep your audience coming back for more. But I never want to make writing and creative decisions based on how many people follow me or how many hits I get on my blog. Again, I only want to be compelled by love, so I often repeat the following mantra to myself: if I don't have a genuine gift to give to others, there is no need to post something. There is no need to fill up space.

This week I came across something that really resonated with my exercise in saying no.  It challenges our contemporary definition of freedom as "the right to choose." In truth, this idea has more to do with consumerism than with real freedom.  Thankfully, freedom has not always been this cheaply defined.  

"...for philosophers such as Aristotle, freedom was not an end in itself; we became free only as we acquired the moral capability to guide our lives. To lack such capability was to be subject to the undisciplined desires and choices of the immature. Thus freedom did not reside in making choices but in being the kind of person for whom certain options simply were not open. Freedom was not a status but a skill." (Stanley Hauerwas. The Peaceable Kingdom. University of Notre Dame, 1991, p. 8) 

Let us develop the skill of freedom not only by our yes but also by our no

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

doing theology in reverse

Due to a hectic reading schedule and a trip to the apple orchard on my day off, I didn't have time to post anything this week, but go ahead and check out the blog I wrote for a practical theology forum here. It talks about what I have been reading lately in Christian ethics and how a different reading of the story of Cain and Abel challenged me to think about how we naturally gravitate towards positions of favour instead of willingly taking on the role of humble servant.