Life Lessons with Harold

I often find that the language I use to describe my world restricts the way I understand it. For example, “creative” and “academic” people are often dichotomized. I could never tell which one I was and I found this frustrating for quite some time before I realized that I was just both and there isn’t a word for that and that’s okay.

In this example and many others (especially in the realm of social-political controversy) we need to step back and think about the accuracy of the terms and models we use to interpret our world. I’m not trying to suggest that language is inadequate to convey meaning. That’s a slippery slope to start down. Rather, humans are fallible and we misuse perfectly apt things and sometimes need to rethink our actions.

So for many years now, I’ve used a certain analogy to describe how I live my life, particularly within the context of my Christian faith. I imagine life as like crossing a river on a foggy day. The river is wide and you can’t see more than a metre in front of you. Luckily, the river is shallow and there are rocks everywhere. So you jump forward and a new rock comes into your field of view.

You could try jumping further, into the fog, to speed up the process but you don’t know where those rocks are in the fog. There’s a very high chance you’d just get soaked. So you take small steps, one rock at a time, and gradually make your way across. The faith element being that this is how God leads people through life. He gives us just enough information to make our next move wisely and we don’t try to rush his plan.

The problem I encountered after graduating from university a year ago is that I couldn’t see the next rock. My thinking for the past year had been that God just wanted me to wait for a bit until the fog let up enough to reveal the next stone. Maybe there’s an alligator lurking around and he wants me to wait until it’s gone. Who knows.

And then as I began my second year after graduating I turned around and I couldn’t see the rock I had hopped from anymore! The fog hadn’t let up any. But clearly I was moving! I’d learned things, I’d done things – my life is clearly progressing but I’m not seeing any clear jumps forward just a gradual crawl-

Tortoise!

What do I mean by “tortoise”?

I mean my metaphor was all wrong. Or at least too narrow. The first part of my life may have been hopping from stone to stone but maybe there’s more to it than that. And, indeed, I look down to my feet and I see that the last stone I hopped to was no stone at all, but a surprisingly cooperative tortoise. My metaphor made me feel like my life wasn’t progressing this whole time but I’ve clearly accomplished things. Perhaps nothing dramatic but I know I’m not where I was a year ago. This turtle’s movin’. I’m going somewhere.

And if I transitioned from stones to tortoise, I very well my transition from tortoise to something else later on.

So now I’m at much greater peace than I was over the past year. Many of my peers transition from stones to fully-gassed pontoon boat right out of university but their mode of transportation may change later. For now, I will take the lesson on the limitations of how I interpret my life, and I will greatly appreciate the services of my proverbial tortoise friend. I think I’ll name him Harold. That sounds like a good name for a tortoise.

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Patria

Canada Day has always filled me with conflicted feelings. I’ve never been much of a conformist and the popular trends and styles tend to elude me. While there are many things for which I’m grateful as a Canadian citizen, there are also many things I would desperately wish to change. Early on in my faith life, I was deeply affected by passages of scripture that say that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) and that the kingdom of heaven is not of this world (John 18:36.)

Given my nonconformity, critique of Canada, and Christian citizenship I haven’t quite yet figured out how I should engage with Canada Day. Because of this I often feel a disconnection from the world and a yearning to find a sense of belonging I haven’t found yet.

It was with this yearning that I was introduced to Anglo-Saxon poetry in university, often characterized by a literary motif called “Ubi Sunt”, Latin for “Where are they?” or “Where are those who were before us?” In this motif, the speaker in a poem will lament the loss of their home, kinsmen, or king. Two characteristic passages:

“Where has the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away,
slipped into nightfall as if it had never been.”
– The Wanderer (if this sounds familiar, you’ve read Lord of the Rings for which Tolkien adapted this passage)

“The days are lost,
And all the pomp of this earthly kingdom;
There are now neither kings nor emperors
Nor gold-givers as there once were,
when they did the greatest glorious deeds
And lived in most lordly fame.”
– The Seafarer

So you see the clear themes of loss and memory and yearning. I couldn’t not immediately fall in love with this the first time I saw it. I can’t not think of the Christian belief in heaven and the fall when I read the Anglo-Saxon poetry on fatherland and lost days. And in hearing this sentiment expressed, I felt a connection to the writer. I thought, “Here’s someone I could sit down and drink mead with.”

What I found in the poetry was something I never found in Canada. Having a better sense of the feeling, I began to notice that I also felt it in other circumstances. On the rare occasions that I find someone with a similar taste in music, I find a sense of brotherhood. When someone has played the same games as me or watched the same shows as me, moreover has engaged with them and interpreted them in the same ways that I do, I find a sense of brotherhood. Today I played Terraria for the first time in a few months and hearing the music made me feel rather at home. I actually find that sense of fatherland and brotherhood in a fair bit, but not enough that it becomes the backdrop of my life and thus the individual instances stand out. Half of my vocabulary are words that I’m sure most people don’t know. It’s not bragging if it’s lonely.

My fundamental problem is that I chose to be my own person instead of assimilating into the crowd. People sometimes don’t understand why I don’t dream of travelling. I’m always travelling. This entire country, its customs, and its people are so incredibly odd to me that I don’t seek novelty, I seek familiarity (which would itself be something of a novelty.) The music is weird, the prevailing ideology is weird, and the social mores are weird, and I’m always on the lookout for people who are as lost as I am.

So while tonight everyone is out launching fireworks (those vile noisy things) I will be inside reading about theology and poetry. Early Christians were criticized by the Roman state for being antisocial. I am perfectly content to follow their example. But there are a few things that that should never mean.

– It does not mean that I’m ungrateful in enjoying the freedoms this nation grants me.
– It does not mean that I’m ungrateful for our peace and stability.
– It does not mean I disengage from my community and ignore my neighbours’ needs.
– It does not mean I cave into the red underline on my screen and spell “neighbours” in the (wrong) American way just to spite my country.
– It does not mean that I don’t find ways to serve my community and make it a better place.

What it means is that I don’t belong to my nation. I just happen to be in it. My real nation is comprised of members of every nation.

And it is the custom of our people to try to make our communities better places to live.