The links to the other roundtable participants are below, at the end of this post.
“Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.”
My high school was a beautiful cesspool, and graduation day was one of the happiest of my life. Life up to that point had been a challenge and left many points of bitterness in me, like broken shards that could poke me if I moved the wrong way. Each sharp poke was a reminder of what had been done to me and what hadn’t been done for me. With an almost sociopathic fervor, I dedicated the summer post-graduation to preparing to set sail into real life, leaving my past stranded on the shore behind me.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
I bought into the idea that once you reached the World, you found a better place. Mom promised me this.
It was with some surprise---although no shock---that I discovered my mother had told me wrong, however well-meaningly. The truth is, I think I had expected to find a very different world, life, once I had graduated high school. But people are people, and wherever you go, there you are. You are where you have been and what you have done, what has been done to you.
“That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.... Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, where visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."
College and the years after brought more challenges, tragedies.
I carried anger like an excuse, a defense, a shield, a badge that entitled me to seek justice. I raged about the things around me. It is the place. It is the people. If you keep moving, you will find the right spot. I echoed other people’s words in my head like a mantra for how to live and be happy.
The bittersweetness of life was no comfort, not even cold comfort. It was enraging, embittering.
Unlike some, I didn't easily slough off the bad once I found the good. It burned in me always, a low fire that flared up with specific provocation to occasionally engulf me, and rarely, but unfortunately, anyone too close to me at the wrong moment.
I'm not good at letting go, and I'm dreadful at giving it over. I'm a Type A Control Freak. I am not going to ever be able to walk through this life complacent, content, blase or laissez-faire. And frankly? Outside of some misguided moments, I would never want to be as a general rule. There is purpose to me.
My passion and my anger prompt me to care, to get out there, to do something.
I feel my own cons keenly, and so am able to accept the humanity in others. I have never chosen an easy life, one wasn't handed to me, and I demand much. My life has been and always will be complicated.
"They think me mad--Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!"
In college, I applied for and was granted entrance into the prestigious honors program. Once I was in, I was actually challenged and loved it. Thrived in it. I had access to the Absolute Best Professors, tiny classes, and the elite of the university's students. I still use the things I learned in this program.
Only one thing ever eluded me: the White Whale.
Dr. Bandu was a new import from Harvard. He'd been around only a short while, but had gained a serious reputation as a major ass kicker. He hoarded As and Bs like a scroogy miser, it was said, and loved nothing better than Weeding Out.
His true love, though, was the honors classes he taught, and 18th-19th century American Literature. I got stuck in his Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau class.
Our program required that we write at least a five page paper per week, and one big paper each semester. Per class.
Now you know how I got so wordy.
Dr. Bandu liked to pick topics and assign them deliberately.
For the Big Paper 75% of Your Grade No Fooling, he assigned me, "Deconstruct the white whale in Melville's Moby Dick." Even after I cried. Even after I threatened to tear out my hair and rub ash on my face. Maybe especially after that.
I read, researched, discussed, contemplated, offered people money for ideas (or to write it for me)...and got nowhere. My thesis sentence---the only thing I had written---remained, stubbornly, "The white whale sucks dick." My professor was not amused, or tried hard not to be. I maintain he had a grudging respect of the punny humor.
He gave me his access card to the Rare Books and Manuscripts library and museum. Told me to read and touch actual Melville letters, other documents discussing the white whale and Moby Dick. I had to wear special cotton gloves in a climate controlled room. I was only allowed one pencil and one sheet of paper on the other side of the glass, so any time I wanted to jot a note, I had to press the intercom and asked to be buzzed out. I didn't take many notes. I found no inspiration.
A month into the project, I went to see my professor again, "Call me Ahab," I told him, "This project is my white whale."
He told me to write that, and I did. I got an A. Never say I can't bullshit with the best.
It's always felt unfinished to me, though, this assignment to deconstruct the white whale. That troubles me. I'm good at deconstruction.
I can't sing. I can't act. I'm not crafty. Dance is so-so at best. I'm not very good at sports. Not even gymnastics. Not even basketball. I have no demonstrable, appreciable talent one can put out for display.
But I can deconstruct literature.
Except that damn white whale.
Why couldn't I deconstruct that damn white whale?
“Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.”
I’ve watched, many times over, people who seemingly effortlessly glided through life situations that I struggled with. How did they get the tools that I wish I had? So often I looked at others and wondered, “Why him? Why her? Why not him? Why not her?” The real question I was asking was, “Why me? Why not me?”
I wanted to understand the apparent vagaries of divine granting and justice. Did God have a sick sense of humor? Or was there always a method to the madness?
I began an enormous effort to find a form of forgiveness---for myself and others---that supplanted an inherent need for justice, fairness, equality. I understood that justice wasn’t always available. I began to understand a need for forgiveness in the case of a true wrong---simply to free myself more than to exonerate any thing or any one---alongside compassion, tolerance, and understanding.
The choice is clear: be eaten up by rage and turn into brittle bitterness, or allow the experiences to soften my edges and become a truly compassionate person.
Compassionate doesn’t mean---for the record---complacent, peaceful or content all the time.
“. . . because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
Then, my point of view was challenged.
I maintain that sometimes, things happen that simply stink. Period. They stink. They suck. They are, by their nature, bad. No amount of spin can make them good.
What can be good is what we make of ourselves, and our lives, from them.
This point of view deeply offended a friend.
She maintained that all things that happen are good because they are part of the Divine Plan, and nothing that is divine can be imperfect, thus sucky or stinky.
I countered that suckiness or stinkiness of events or situations is irrelevant to the perfection of divinity. From a divine perspective, it can still be perfect, even if from our vantage point it appears sucky or stinky. We are human, thus, imperfect. Allowing for these imperfections in ourselves doesn’t detract from the perfection within divinity, or from our faith in divinity.
I don’t believe we have an obligation to complacently accept the bad as good as a show of faith for the perfection of divinity.
She disagreed. Persisting in labeling an event "bad" indicates that you haven't truly forgiven, haven't "gotten over it," and you have an open wound, a dirty one in fact, festering inside you.
Her point of view deeply offended me.
She told me that by believing as I did, I have evidenced my lack of faith, and my internal damage, my brokenness, my inability to be whole and lead a full and rich---a whole---life. An unwounded life.
This cut me to my core.
I am broken. I am damaged. I have led a life that included things that break and damage. Some by my own choice. Some not.
I am also whole.
I have created a full, rich, whole person out of these things. I have developed compassion and tolerance. I have developed a love that lives alongside my impatience for humanity.
Some things I have managed to forgive. Some things I might work on the rest of my life. Perhaps these things give me an edge that other people---people like her---don’t have.
But I don’t see how or why that is bad, or precludes me from being whole anyway---or because of---the damage, the brokenness.
I know people like her are perceived as more evolved. And people like me more immature in the journey. I know “cool, calm and collected” is judged as “in control, has self in hand” which equals “better person.” I understand that passionate people like me, people who get excited, use their hands animatedly to talk, raise their voice, ask tough questions, go out on limbs and try are perceived as crazy, silly, out of hand, aggressive. I know we are all supposed to be aiming for that Zen-like peaceful person, the one who has a slippery back, and an easy way about her/him.
The real difference I see is the openness and tolerance. I am willing to learn, do, try. I am willing to take a risk. I am willing to accept pain, live with grief, fail. I take the free will card and play it liberally. She sets her life, everything in life, completely in God’s hands. It all exists outside her, beyond her. In my life, it is all within me. She is faith, I am gnosis.
But gnosis and faith aren’t mutually exclusive.
Moreover, in my opinion, events and choices labeled as bad (or stinky, or sucky) doesn’t mean bad people, or bad God.
It means that thing that happened? It stunk. I’m sorry.
Now, the courage and grace is making a good life out of it anyway, or better yet, because.
Or at least trying to do so.
Hope, Faith and Love; the greatest of these is love.
Maybe. Maybe also…it is hope.
“On each soft side -- coincident with the parted swell, that but once laving him, then flowed so wide away -- on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may'st have bejuggled and destroyed before.”
It took me almost twenty years, but I think I may be finally deconstructing the white whale.
I kept reaching into the traditional symbolism of the whale and Ahab’s obsessive hunt of it when I discussed my proposed theses with my professor.
“It’s about God, divinity, divine order, fate…things that are beyond our control,” I told my professor.
“Is it?” he’d ask, beguilingly.
“What!” I demanded, “What do you want from me, from this? What else is there? Hundreds of essays, thousands of critics…they all agree: it is man’s epic struggle of that which happens to him, out of his control, and his inherent need to conquer it and be in control of his own life, his own fate!”
“Is it?” he’d ask again.
What more is there?
Everything I have done, every choice I make is all done from my own obsessive hunt of the white whale. I have an inherent need to be in control, to conquer that which has happened to me, prevent it from happening again. Somehow, though, it ends up being a cycle.
Maybe I try too hard, too often, in the wrong way at the wrong time. Maybe I lack wisdom in knowing the when, why and how. Maybe I acknowledge the cold too much, thinking it will better help me appreciate the warmth. Maybe I think if I let go, I will be adrift, never to find my way back.
Maybe my friend accepts too easily. Maybe she expects acceptance too quickly. Maybe she ignores the cold too much, and doesn't fully appreciate the warmth. Maybe she thinks if she never grabs on, she'll never have to worry, never have to feel cold.
But what if there is a happy medium between me and my friend? Perhaps we both accept that there is a white whale, but perhaps we are both also fatally lured by a quietude. Perhaps between passion and complacency lies tolerance, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness.
Sometimes we most need to forgive ourselves, but sometimes we also need to forgive that white whale.
This isn’t a fairy tale. It is American Romanticism.
That means there is no sewn up happily ever after. It’s an ongoing journey. It also means strong emotions are allowed. Charles Baudelaire said, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling."
My way of feeling? I am ruled by compassion. I literally frequently experience a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
The compassion is a great strength and a tremendous weakness. It is easy for me to get mired in the emotion of compassion, for myself and others. It is easy to miss the right path for how to alleviate the suffering, to aim for quick and miss fix. It is easy to get stuck in the sympathy and sorrow. It is easy to decide that the best course is to hunt that white whale, find justice, right the wrong.
It is hard to tolerate that which caused the suffering, and to forgive it. And that is where I see my journey pick up and carry on: finding the same depth of forgiveness and tolerance. I tolerate and forgive most anything except a perceived lack of compassion.
Sometimes…it stinks. Sometimes…it sucks. Sometimes…it is just plain bad.
Sometimes we hesitate, thinking there is a beauty in serenity, a beauty that allures and transports us, makes us believe we are experiencing divinity and true faith. We sit complacently to enjoy, and are swept by a vesture of tornadoes.
Sometimes we fight:
“…the White Whale churning himself into furious speed, almost in an instant as it were, rushing among the boats with open jaws, and a lashing tail, offered appalling battle on every side; and heedless of the irons darted at him from every boat, seemed only intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made. But skillfully manoeuvred, incessantly wheeling like trained chargers in the field; the boats for a while eluded him; though, at times, but by a plank's breadth; while all the time, Ahab's unearthly slogan tore every other cry but his to shreds.”
Are you the whale? The boat? The sailors? Ahab?
Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose.
Sometimes there is a method to the madness that initially we don’t see. Sometimes, the fractal never appears in the chaos, and we find a good anyway, or because.
I don’t know where I am on the journey because I can’t see from my position the entire line of it.
My instincts tell me it is a many-pathed journey, though, with no one way. And that the path lasts a lifetime.
What do other roundtable participants think? Go read and see.
Kaliroz wrote Cold, Broken Hallelujah
Slouching Mom wrote Port Authority: The 1970's
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert