Archive for August, 2011

Yearbooks late at night

I’ve been having trouble sleeping. This happens to me a lot: I’ll go through periods of a few weeks where I lie awake for hours before falling asleep.

This time, I think it has to do with the fact that I’m going to live in a different country next week, not to mention that I’ve just begun spending a lot of time with a person who happens to live here in the States and not in Japan.

When I can’t sleep, my first recourse is to lie in bed with my eyes closed, then open, then closed, willing my mind to let go. It doesn’t cooperate. If thoughts aren’t running through my head, it’s music: I remember one particularly resilient bout of insomnia that struck when I was taking a class on Bach my freshman year. Bach will stay in your head forever.

I’ll often get hungry, having eaten dinner some 4 or 5 hours before going to bed anyway. Can you think of anything more profane and boring than standing in a silent kitchen, munching on mozzarella in order to quiet your stomach without actually getting any enjoyment out of the act of eating?

So what have I been doing tonight? Since I’m going to live halfway across the world soon, I’ve been cleaning my room. It’s an archaeological exhibit. Since I left for college 3 years ago, I’ve been aware that I have been allowing things to pile up in here. But some of this goes waaay back. This week I unearthed six yearbooks from third to eighth grade. SIX. Beginning at age EIGHT.

So I find myself looking through yearbooks late at night. This is a terrible pastime. Rehashing the past is pretty much never a great idea. It’s not that it makes me terribly sad or resentful — but it does make me mushy and nostalgic. And I find myself doubting that I really took the best course of action in some small, insignificant area of my seventh-grade life. Like resenting the very pretty girl whose photo always appeared next to mine in the yearbooks and, year after year, overshadowed my long forehead and braces.

You can always tell, looking back, which kids were going to become the popular ones. The supreme confidence with which they worked the camera, the uncannily mature poses adopted at age 11 or 12. One of those future popular boys appears on the first page of my eighth-grade yearbook, blond hair spiked, cocking both hands like guns at the camera in an incredibly effortless example of 13-year-old cool. In two years, that boy would pass by me in Spanish class and say to me, “Your makeup looks good today.” I think those were the only words he ever spoke to me, and I was flattered to a degree that embarrasses me now.

This is the problem with looking back at those early years now: I cast a (more or less) adult outlook on adolescent circumstances. I judge my younger self — and, worse, the younger selves of my peers — too harshly. As kids, we were all rash, insensitive and at times a little cruel. Or, we were on the receiving end of actions and words motivated by those traits. It’s easy to forget that the irritation I feel, looking back on those years, was born well after the fact. At the time, I was perhaps a little confused and more than a little angsty, but for the most part I was content with my life, like I am now at age 21.

I think that my perusal of old yearbooks can be attributed to a peculiar and slightly obsessive personality, so I doubt if I have to warn any (imaginary) readers against doing the same thing because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else. But I guess I’d like to say, in general, avoid analyzing the past. It’s there to guide you as you make your way through the present, but nothing good will come of applying your current perspective to a younger self. Especially not sleep.

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Finding the good in suffering

I think it’s safe to say that the aspect of religion that bothers people the most is not the questionable truth of holy texts or the rituals performed in religious communities: it’s theodicy, or the problem of evil. How is it, we ask, that a God can exist and allow innocent people to experience suffering?

I’ve been reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, and I’d like to share some of the possible answers I’ve found there. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French geologist, Jesuit priest and theologian in the mid-20th century. His work The Divine Milieu deals with many of the problems of Christianity, like balancing work in the world with spiritual devotion. Another balance that he seeks to reach is between our activities — productive work in the world that creates or uplifts — and what he calls our diminishments, like doubt, illness, accidents, and finally death.

God, Teilhard writes, “cannot ordain that the elements of a world in the course of growth… should avoid shocks and diminishments. But God will make it good… by making evil itself serve a higher good of his faithful, the very evil which the present state of creation does not allow him to suppress immediately. Like an artist who is able to make use of a fault or an impurity in the stone he is sculpting or the bronze he is casting so as to produce more exquisite lines or a more beautiful tone, God… transfigures [diminishments] by integrating them into a better plan.” (1)

So evil is like a grain of sand that can be turned into a pearl. It’s like a threat to survival presented to human ancestors in the course of our evolution which compelled us to adapt in new and miraculous ways. Yes, this is not very satisfying or convincing if you’re already certain that no god exists. But for me, as a Christian, it’s a source of hope and courage.

In the same passage, Teilhard discusses more concrete examples of the transfiguration of suffering into something that works toward the eventual perfection of the universe. “[T]he lives of all those who have been outstanding for intelligence or goodness, are full of these instances in which one can see the man emerging ennobled, tempered and renewed from some ordeal, or even some downfall, which seemed bound to diminish or lay him low for ever. Failure in that case” acts on us like pruning shears on plants, making us “shoot up higher and straighter.” (1)

Because I’m a music nerd, this passage immediately reminded me of the lives of so many great composers who’ve died young, fallen in love with unattainable women, contracted terrible illnesses or lived in poverty. I’m thinking specifically of Beethoven (my Beethoven geekery is severe. I wrote a paper on him a few years ago and have been enamored ever since). He began to notice his hearing loss around 1799, when he was only 29 years old, and finally in 1802 he couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. He took some R&R in the small town of Heiligenstadt and wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament.

For me, the Heiligenstadt Testament is incredibly poignant and inspiring. Beethoven writes of the incredible suffering he had been experiencing, not directly because of his deafness, but because it erected a wall between him and the rest of the world. “[F]orgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood.”

The next year, he began work on the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, a seminal piece of music in his career and in the history of classical music.

Beethoven channeled and transformed his suffering by expressing himself through his music, and he truly became one of Teilhard’s great men. This is not to say that suffering is a prerequisite to greatness, and in most cases the potential goodness in suffering is much more difficult to discern. But I think Teilhard’s thesis is fertile ground for pondering how we deal with the evil in our lives, and what part such evil may play in the greater trajectory of the universe.

(1) Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1960. pp. 86-87.

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