Last weekend, wavering somewhere between grief and nostalgia, I dug out some old CDs from under my bed, CDs containing years of homework, photos, journal entries, and story ideas. I certainly didn’t go through it all, but I went back to the ones that stuck out in my memory. In particular, I wanted to reread an essay I wrote as a final project for my Creative Nonfiction class in college. And once I read it, I thought, “Wow. That was eye-opening. And surprisingly insightful.”
And so, nearly a week later, I’ve decided to share it with you. Although it is longer than my usual posts, I hope this essay written by 21-year-old Ashleyne is as interesting and thought-provoking to you as it was to me.
I have been at college for three and a half years now, and for the last year I have been hopeless.
During a fellowship meeting last week for the girls on my floor, we were each anonymously submitting large life questions to discuss. I asked what to do when you can’t see or feel hope. Kara responded immediately, with typical pastor’s kid-certainty.
“Keep praying, keep searching for God. If you can’t see Him, choose to believe that He is there anyway, and that life is not actually hopeless.”
Other responses were slightly less certain, but equally unambiguous.
“Keep staying in the Word.”
“Keep looking for good things in each day.”
“Let your friends cheer you up and remind you of truth.”
During the conversation, I tried to express my dissatisfaction with their answers in a way that wouldn’t crush them or reveal my identity as the questioner. I am a senior; they are freshmen. I hold a lot of power. But, as I expected, when I tried to probe deeper they fell silent. My roommate, my age, spoke up, asking them whether their answers would hold strong if it had been two years and nothing — hope was still missing. More silence. Finally, we prayed and disbanded, and once again I accepted the absence of a simple answer.
My freshman year I was absolutely thrilled to be at school. The day my parents dropped me off I had a ridiculous grin on my face and I think my orientation leader was afraid of me. I was almost unnaturally happy, but to me it was the most natural thing in the world. I was ready to face life – sitting on a green hill next to the chapel, watching the other freshmen huddle around their parents, waiting for last hugs and words of encouragement. I was ready to take on college and leave my parents behind – what could stand up to me and my faith and my enthusiasm?
I am a rather enthusiastic person. When I play sports, my limbs often get in the way of actually following the rules, but my competitive energy makes up for lack of skill. I usually end up apologizing profusely to everyone that I knock over, but at least I enjoy it.
I love living.
And yet, I have noticed that my enthusiasm has slowly faded over the last year, like a smoldering forest fire. Apparently Smoky has done a good job. I have yet to find a cause, and maybe there isn’t one — I find myself without motivation even to start conversations or to spend more than the minimum amount of time moving. It’s like going from a brand new trampoline to a peat bog.
I have been taking an art history class to fulfill my fine arts requirement. We started with the early Renaissance, and have been wading through painting after painting. Each artist shifts the style of those that came before, so that new ideas and ways of painting are created over time. Tenebrism, a variation on the Italian technique chiaroscuro, was developed in the 16th century. It is a way of painting bright light against darkness. Frequently in these paintings Christ is pictured, brilliantly lit (almost unnaturally) against blackness that creates a contrasting background. The painters, like Rembrandt and el Greco, enforced the content of their work by making perfection and divinity stand out against normal life.
Both that kind of astonishing light and swallowing dark are easy to find in this world. The light of a picnic by the ocean, friends, laughter, a good book, a kind stranger. The darkness of abuse, homelessness, loneliness, a broken marriage, a lost job.
Is there no middle ground? Is everything black and white?
I am sitting in an hour and a half long class with a professor who likes to ramble. After meandering about research and cultural segregation and other irrelevant topics for six minutes past what we all know to be the end of our time, he pauses. Then, with gusto, “So, go out and do it!” He stands, and walks out.
Go out and live. Live on.
This professor is well beyond my years, he has seen many more moments of vibrant light, and moments of consuming darkness. He tells stories of losing his first wife to cancer and marrying again. He talks about the difficulty of supporting a family and the wonder of watching a child grow up. He shows us published papers and stacks of rejection letters. Then he tells me to go out there and live: laugh: cry.
Ever passionate, in one direction or another, my roommate once told me that she yelled at Satan in a parking lot a half a mile from school. She was determined that he should not win. There was anger between her eyebrows even as she recounted the story to me. “I was ready to give up, ‘Shleyne. I was done for; he had gotten me. But then I started to realize that I wanted to fight. I wanted to pick up my sword and fight. No matter how many times I dropped it, I wanted to stand next to Jesus and fight the darkness, ‘cause the devil cannot win.”
And he doesn’t win.
In the end of all things, the beast is slain, the king takes his throne, and love conquers the darkness. It’s a great victory scene, the kind that makes you cry in movie theaters when the injured and disheartened hero finally beats the odds and the enemy, all for love.
I just wish that the story of eternal hope didn’t feel so out of reach.
Love made me cry in the middle of the night last semester when I left my roommate by herself in the hospital. I hugged her, but it was almost 2 am, and goodbyes are bad enough in the daytime. So I left her there, standing miserably with the night nurse, and I walked into the elevator. When I turned around and pushed the button for the first floor, they were gone. The doors closed. I was overwhelmed.
The silence of loneliness is painful, but leaving someone else in that silence is deadly.
I managed to forget that feeling (or repress it, depending on the location of your psychological camp) until the end of Christmas break two months later. I went to visit my great aunt in her nursing home half an hour from my parents’ house. Her face was bright and she was eager to hear all about my college life. I told her about my classes and playing flag football and what I was thinking about after graduation. Not feeling like talking about myself any more, I asked her to tell me some stories.
My Aunt Ruth was a sick child. She had two brothers, who were both athletic and active, but she had weak ankles and a weak immune system. Her mother, who was Pennsylvania Dutch, allowed her to skip gym whenever she felt sick, so Aunt Ruth never got stronger. She rode the bus to school across town so she wouldn’t have to walk a few blocks, and had to stay out of school altogether for several months during a bout of Pneumonia.
As an adult, Aunt Ruth became a Latin and French teacher in New Jersey. She told me twice, “I know that the Lord opened the door for that teaching position.” It seemed a source of wonder to her, even so long afterward. She taught for over thirty years and never married, finally retiring to New York to live with my parents. Now, health declining but mind still strong, she lives in a nursing home, surrounded by others her age, and spends her days reading and playing Scrabble. She still talks about going back home, but we all know that she will stay there. She is always happy to have visitors, and tells the same stories over and over.
When we ran out of things to talk about (we got to the point of talking about the state of the geraniums on her windowsill) I hugged Aunt Ruth and promised to come back again. She said she’d pray for me. I am always grateful for the prayers of those to whom God has been faithful.
One more hug, and I pulled on my coat and walked down the hall, past the open rooms with hospital beds and flashing colors of TV’s and paper mobiles and busy nurses. I was thoughtful but content as I walked into the elevator and turned around to push the button.
The doors closed. I was overwhelmed by silence. I started to panic.
It had been a nice visit – I knew she was glad to have me there, and I like listening to her talk, even about Scrabble games. And I could see hope in her life, which didn’t happen very much. But when the doors closed, the nursing home disappeared and I was back at the hospital in the middle of the night, struggling to take a breath.
I get together for an hour every week with another of my professors, just to see where the conversation goes. In an abstract, theoretical, and unrealistic way, we talk about absolutely everything. I do think that we could have picked a better location for our meetings, though – her office has no windows and displays holes on the walls instead of pictures and shelves of research textbooks instead of potted plants.
We’ve talked about feeling helpless, hopeless, like there is nothing you can do. The darkness is like a wall that we are climbing with no harness – you don’t know how far you have to go, even if you make it past where you are now without falling. We’ve talked about the obligation of those who follow Christ to trust in God’s protection. No matter how dark, no matter what we don’t know.
Both interested in psychology, we have spent our hours threading together new theories about human existence. The tapestry we create is rather bleak, since it is based on social comparison, self-serving bias, and other such psychological ways of dealing with the difficult parts of life.
At the end of a particularly frustrating discussion, she seemed to want to cheer me up. “You know,” she said, “abstract thinking isn’t actually helpful. Talking about these things is just going to make doing it harder. Go do something concrete, something artsy-craftsy. Go make a bird-house or something.”
Later, out from under her florescent lights, I thought about it. A bird-house? Really? There is something deplorable about the concrete when the abstract is what hurts. You cannot conquer the silence by telling jokes; the silence just comes back.
The next week, I told her so. She confessed to hating arts and crafts. “Why do you think I do what I do? I can’t be concrete.”
There is something, though, to living on. It seems somehow more human. It’s like walking slowly forward with shackles rattling instead of sitting and braiding daisies into the chain links.
But it is surprisingly easy to be inhuman.
During a friendly soccer game a while ago, my team was steadily outstripped by the opposing team’s skill and physical fitness. Our enthusiasm ebbed as the chasm between the scores widened and the ball continued to pummel our net. By the time the whistle blew, hope had deserted us all until we could barely lift our hands to congratulate the other team.
A friend of mine was on the opposing team. (This is an unfortunate facet of intramural sports – the other team is not always the enemy sent from the underworld.) She apologized for her teammates, who had made no effort to go easy on us, even after their victory was beyond certain. My friend seemed almost as upset as I was.
“Don’t they have any compassion? Can’t they see what they are doing? It seems like it’s not even human.”
On the tiny Micronesian island of Yap, athletic competitions are fierce. However, the winner must always be careful not to win by too large of a lead. Duane Elmer, whose opinion I respect, given his many years spent studying anthropology, describes his experience watching a regional foot race on Yap. The leader in the race continually looked over his shoulder while he was running, just to be sure that he wasn’t getting too far ahead of the others and stealing their self-respect. Elmer calls this “vulnerability.” To be vulnerable is to be less, to have your very self questioned, examined. Our culture promotes competition and individuality – protect your own vulnerability at all costs, but do not concern yourself with the humanity of others.
Taking someone’s hope is taking their light. But still, when you are the one doing the taking, it seems perfectly straightforward.
A story about a good king who returns to his land and sets the captives free is simple and inspiring across the board. But if it happened in reality the king was probably abused by his father and became a compulsive liar and several of the captives developed Stockholm syndrome and didn’t want to leave. There is darkness in every real story. I’m starting to think that stories are the only good things that are straightforward. Everything else has shades of gray, with black and white blended together.
John Connolly paints this in the Book of Lost Things, where a boy named David winds up in the world of the fairy tales and folk stories that he reads to escape from his life. The dwarves are “a group of homicidal, class-obsessed small people,” but they are “really quite fun.” The knight in shining armor who saves David’s life is gay. No one is straightforward: darkness and light intermingle: twisting: fencing. Tenebrism disappears in stories like this – there is too much blending.
My rambling professor likes to tie Bible stories to research studies. He interprets them with the looseness of familiarity – the gospels lost their literal meaning for him a few decades ago.
“Jesus told us that people are both bad and not, simultaneously. Think about the weeds and the plants growing up together. You cannot separate good from evil, their roots grow together – you have to wait for the harvest to pull them apart.”
The harvest. The top of the wall. The end of the battle. The last stab of the fencing match. When light and darkness will separate again, outside of a painting, and shadow will disappear forever.
It’s difficult to keep going when you don’t know why you are going in the first place, although I suppose that makes sense. You begin to search for excuses – other ways to feel motivated. Consequently, I often find myself doing things because someone else wants to. If left to my own devices, I would be in my dorm room between my cotton sheets with my stuffed orangutan.
Some of my friends have started to notice this. “But what do you want to do?” is a refrain I hear a lot lately.
Nothing. I don’t want to do anything. So I watch movies I don’t like, spend weekends with people that drive me crazy, and eat a lot of tasteless, vegan food. Some people think I am sacrificial. It’s not that I am a nice person, it’s just that if I’m not going to be happy, someone else might as well be. There are no feelings attached for me.
When the sun shines on campus, I walk around and look at the colors. They seem artistic, vibrant, not light against dark, but blue against green, brick against wooden fence, tulips against dirt. I wonder that the world can look so happy.
“Shut up,” I said to an awakening tree last week. “Shut up and leave me alone. I’m tired of fighting.”
The tree said nothing, it just continued to shake off the cold weather. Even if it heard me, and I suspect that it did, it just kept opening its leaves and getting ready for summer.
Love does win in the end; it’s getting to the end that I am having a hard time with. It’s not supposed to be this way, this hard. Light and darkness aren’t supposed to be endlessly twisted together, there aren’t supposed to be shadows. And eventually, love will win and the complexity of real life will be flattened. One day, the king will return for the captives, but what if the captives don’t want to go?
It seems a silly thing to ask yourself, when you are searching for hope – if I found it would I want it? Silly, perhaps. But human. I ask myself these questions often.
If the king came for me, would I hear Him calling out my freedom? I don’t think I have ever heard the unmistakable voice of God. I’ve said a lot of prayers, but had no visions. Sometimes I think that God doesn’t speak to me directly. I have only heard God in the voices of others: pick up your sword, build a bird-house, go out and live.
Where is the hope in dropping my sword? For the past year, I have not had the energy to pick mine up. Am I standing in darkness? Have I somehow turned away from hope and stumbled into the territory of the “other,” anything but light?
Or, perhaps hope is neither light nor dark. Perhaps tenebrism is unrealistic, and belongs only in a painting. I have been in a gray shadow, stuck in the middle, unfeeling, unenthusiastic, un-light, for a year now.
Perhaps shadow does not have to be hopeless. “Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist,” said one of Madeleine L’Engle’s characters in A Wrinkle in Time, a story about fighting darkness. And then, shortly thereafter, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.” I cannot explain shadow, or why darkness is necessary in order to see light, or why hope cannot be found by those who earnestly seek it for a year.
Even so, I think that I would rather graduate in uncertain shadow than be consumed by the dark or only acknowledge the light. Real life is complex and difficult to deal with, but I want to go out and live and see what happens.