Friday, December 17, 2010

All Aboard!

"You seek a greeaat fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the fortune you seek.

"But fust ... fust you must travel, a long and difficult road. A road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs ... wonderful to tell. You shall see a ... a cow ... on the roof of a cotton house. Ha! And, oh, so many startlements.

"I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto ... your salvation."

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

There's a scene in the 1989 Steve Martin movie, Parenthood, which has always bothered me. In it, the spunky, slightly addled, naturally adorable grandmother wanders into an argument between Steve Martin's character, Gil, and his wife Karen, played by Mary Steenburgen. Gil and Karen are arguing about the unpredictability of life, and Gil complains that he hates it. Grandma interrupts delphically that she loves the wild, terrifying, unpredictability of roller coasters, which she considers far more interesting than merry-go-rounds, which just "go around." For a ham-handed Hollywood metaphor, the scene is neatly done, and the moviegoer is duly prepared for the subsequent scene when Gil's youngest son demolishes the school play and everyone lives happily ever after.

Now, I like Parenthood, but I have always found the life-as-roller-coaster metaphor facile, ridiculous, and untrue. (Perhaps my hostility is informed by the fact that I dislike real-life roller coasters, too.) Life is nothing like a roller coaster. Life, no matter how terrifying or benign, does not run on fixed, immutable tracks in self-contained loops; loops which have been engineered and maintained to prevent the very premise upon which their entertainment is based—elemental fear of falling, death, and oblivion—from ever occurring.

Real life is not engineered1. Real life does not return you to the place whence you embarked. Real life is not predictably scary and thrilling. Real life is not predictable at all. I can look back upon my decades of life and recognize something which looks a little like a roller coaster in the rear view mirror: ups and downs, highs and lows, rapid shifts of speed and direction, sickening drops and exhilirating plunges. But I cannot see the track ahead, and I know no-one else can either. There is no fundamental reassurance that I will return, safe and sound, to the place where I started. There is no guarantee my ride will even continue beyond my next breath.

It is our minds which provide the narrative to our lives, the structure and shape to which we cling and try in our blindness to assign meaning. For what is the point of our journey? Why are we on this track, with these people, at this time? What will it matter that we have even passed this way before?

Who knows? Perhaps Grandma is right: we should just close our eyes, hold on tight, and enjoy the ride.

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, "Little Gidding"

1 Or, if it is, all evidence of its engineering, and the Engineer behind it, is hidden from us, only discoverable explicitly through the non-factual means of faith. I do not wish to get into a theological dispute here, but I think you follow my meaning.

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