Friday, November 19, 2010

Duties, Dreams, and Desires

It seems the question comes to this: how does one follow one's dream and do one's duty? Can you do both, or must one always be sacrificed?

For years, I have defended the doing of one's duty. The education I received in college, steeped in the great books of Western literature, convinced me that duty has far more importance than the modern world gives it, and I resolved to try my best to always do my duty. Have I done that? No, but I am slowly getting better. More bills get paid on time, I deny myself more things that I truly do not need, and I am learning how to simply buckle down and do what must be done.

But what is one's duty is not always clear.

One of my favorite filmmakers is the great American icon, Frank Capra (if you're looking for a good read, get his autobiography, The Name Above the Title. Capra's a smart guy with a fantastic story, and he tells it well). His most known film is the holiday classic, "It's A Wonderful Life." This paean to duty tells the story of a man with big dreams who lives his entire life in one small town, eventually discovering the impact his "small" life has had. It's a great film, and I've always heartily defended George Bailey; I still believe that George's choices are excellent, and he does what he must, finding in the end a difficult but very great joy.

However, what if one isn't George Bailey? And how do you know if you are?

In fact, it's quite likely that George's vocation, to family and town, is not mine. I already live thousands of miles from the state I was born in (the only member of my immediate family to live out-of-state), and instead of living in a small town I live in a suburb of Los Angeles. I am a single woman, and have no-one apart from myself who depends on my income.

Here's where desire comes into play, I think. George Bailey, in the end, stays in Bedford Falls because he loves Mary. Once he truly loves her, his duty is clear. But what if one desires something else?

A few years ago, I was quite distraught about being single. I'd never gone out on a date, or had anyone show any real interest in me. In the middle of my distress, I was engulfed in a moment of calm, beyond emotion. I felt as though God was speaking to me in that moment, showing me two paths. One path was the one I had been on, the one that pursued marriage and family; the other was a mystery, and I didn't know where it would leave. But I did know that wherever I went, God would be with me, and that took away my fear of the unknown path.

The words take longer to type and read than the moment itself. As soon as I was aware of the decision to be made, my choice was over. I chose the unknown path, the path of singleness. And now, looking back on it, I wonder if by doing so I became unable to be like George Bailey.

I wonder if by giving up the pursuit of a lifelong love, I have instead gained a duty towards something else.

So, this is where it stands: being who I am, where I am, with the choices I have made, what is my duty? I have my duties to God: the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. I have my duties toward my family: being financially independent, honoring the way they raised me. These I am certain of.

But maybe the rest is negotiable.

God placed this love of space, this joy in human achievement, this delight in words in my soul. Is part of my duty to use them? Is that, perhaps, why He asked me to choose the road of singleness, so that I could take on a different duty?

I don't know. I wish I did know; the path ahead would be much clearer. But that's life. We can never see more than a step or two ahead at any given moment, no matter how hard we try. The world is a muddled place, and I don't know where my duty lies, or what role my dreams and desires play in it.

But I will keep searching.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

~T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Abiding In Love

In her excellent post, "Love, Limits, and Loss," Elizabeth Scalia (better known as The Anchoress) briefly explains her own struggle with a neurological condition brought on by untreated Lyme's Disease, and meditates on the hard calling to remain faithful to a spouse who no longer knows your name.

My generation has grown up with the knowledge that had our parents made different decisions, had our conception been too "inconvenient," we would never have seen the light of day. We have seen our own parents and the parents of our friends divorce and remarry, sometimes repeatedly. Many of us grew up hearing whispers of Doctor Kevorkian and euthanasia, and wondering why some people were willing to let a doctor kill. We are all too familiar with love that knows limits. My parents have often remarked on an interesting phenomenon: whereas members of earlier generations responded to "thank you" with the phrase, "you're welcome," members of my generation instead offer the assurance that it was "no problem." This seems rude to my parents, but I can't help wondering if it stems from our subconscious awareness of what our society does with inconveniences. We are very eager not to be a problem.

If we do not know how to love without limit, we also do not know how to receive limitless love. I have a condition of my own: I was diagnosed several years ago with bipolar disorder. I can spiral down into the depths of despair at the drop of a hat; I've found that it makes it almost impossible for me to believe in love, to trust that I am loved, no matter how strong the evidence may be. On my good days, I can accept that God might tolerate with my existence. On the bad days, all I can think of is the inconvenience that I pose to those around me--how could anyone love a stone in the road?

Love demands both a giving and a receiving. We must be willing to "give and give and give again," in the words of the hymn. But we must also be willing to receive, to owe, to be in debt to another. This is a hard thing. I fear that kind of receiving; I do not want another to have any claim over me. But even that fear is a revelation: to fear control is to be concerned with power, not with love. The universe is not a banker's ledger, toting up debits and credits; our purpose is not to end our lives owing nothing and being owed nothing.

To love without limits is to stop keeping score, to stop worrying about who's done more for whom, and to no longer fret about whether or not one is receiving his own fair share of love. It is not a zero sum game, but we have become accustomed to thinking that it is. We will not risk such a radical love, for fear of being used.

I believe; help Thou my unbelief. I want to love; help Thou my unloveliness and warm Thou my cold heart.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

First thoughts

I do not know if anyone will read this. I hope it will be of help to someone, but mostly this is an exercise in honesty with myself. I have discovered that I spend too much time making up stories about my life in which I am heroic, only to discover that, at best, I have only been doing my basic duty and no more. It is time for me to start telling better stories, to become honest with and about myself, and to learn to be valiant.


One of my favorite hymns is "Who Would True Valour See," sometimes called "He Who Would Valiant Be." The best version, in my opinion, is sung by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (they get the martial pace of the song right). You can hear that version here:


The lyrics (for the original Bunyan version) are:


Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He'll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He'll fear not what men say,
He'll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

Merriam-Webster defines "valor" thus: "Middle English valour worth, worthiness, bravery, from Anglo-French, from Medieval Latin valor, from Latin val─ôre to be of worth, be strong: strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness : personal bravery"


I am lacking in valor. This is not an easy thing to admit: after all, who doesn't in some sense think that they are brave in dealing with their day-to-day lives? But it is true, and if true, must be admitted.


A bit of explanation may be warranted here. Like any little girl growing up in a conservative Evangelical church, I used to dream of marriage and family. When I didn't date in high school, it was a distressing, but I was assured that college boys were better anyway. College came…and went, without a single date. Not one. I was crushed—how was my life supposed to go now? How could I be a good Christian woman now? Over a holiday break, I had something of an emotional meltdown; a few days into it, God suddenly stopped me short. (I don't claim to hear from God on any regular basis: it's happened maybe three times, total. I've never been one of those people who seem to hear God telling them things about their lives every other day.) I felt as if a choice were presented: to continue down the path I was on, idolizing this idea of having a family, and searching for someone who would be interested in me. Or, I could go another way, the way of singleness and devotion to God alone. I didn't know what this other way was, what it would be like, or how I could possibly survive it alone. But at the moment of choice, I knew that I was completely free to choose either path…and that I had already chosen. (C.S. Lewis described a similar event in Surprised By Joy)


That small moment in my university library was a turning point: nothing has been the same since then.


But here's the rub: when I struggle with my life, with loneliness, with feeling like no-one understands, with trying to find how to live a single life when everyone around me is focused on married couples and families—it can feel heroic. It can feel like I'm being brave, conquering my feelings, bringing myself back into alignment with God's will and not giving in to bitterness over my path. But it's not. It's no more than is required of everyone else: chastity, love, patience, generosity, simple courtesy.


I am no hero, as much as I want to be. On my very best of days, I manage to do my duty. And that is a hard thing to face.


God have mercy on me, a sinner.