Of Pens and Pages

I always carry my notebook with me and I always bring my pen. There is something terrifying about the thought of leaving home without a pen. To venture into the unknown without this essential piece of self seems unwise and unsafe.

My pen is silver and cool; it has a nice weight to it as my hand glides across the page. We have been together for so long, my pen and I. I wrote my last two novels with it and other things since. I have many different pens, and yet I always write with this one when I want to access something real and true. I keep buying ink refills and when they run out, I feel slightly despairing until there is a new pack in my hand.

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Real Change

How does real change come about?

When I pose this question, I’m not referring to broader social change, but change at the level of the individual. To what degree are we, each as individuals in our own right, able to influence or effect change in other individuals around us?

I think this is a very pertinent issue, because the idea that an individual can really influence another is one that comes up in teaching, parenthood and evangelism, to name a few. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the two roles in such a relationship the teacher and the student (though they could just as easily be friend and friend, sister and brother, or any number of other combinations of roles). The teacher presumably has his own motives, extraneous to the mere subject being “taught.” Though passionate about the subject at hand, perhaps he also experiences great enthusiasm at the prospect of being the catalyst or cause of a “change for the better.”

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Dignity and Dependence

What gives a person value? Although if faced with the question, most of us are unlikely to deny a person at least some measure of innate value, we often deny them this value by our actions, words and thoughts. We make determinations about whether a person is deserving of “respect.” We constantly form internal (or external) judgements, labelling the people we know or even (more frequently) the people we do not, as “bad,” “pathetic,” in some way “less.”

Where do these judgements come from, these evaluations of human worth? Because that is indeed what we are doing: evaluating someone or something. Yet there is an essential distinction to be made here. Evaluating an act, a choice or a set of values is different from evaluating a person. Of course if we neglect or refuse to make this distinction between “right” and “wrong,” we stray down the dangerous path of relativity, defining truth as whatever feels good, rather than Truth with a capital “T.” But while judging an act and deciding that it is not “right” or does not reflect the Truth for which humans were intended holds the person accountable for their actions, it does not strip them of their fundamental dignity.

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The Container of Fear

For me, fear has always been such an omnipresent and unavoidable participant in life. Between fear and love, there is a constant struggle, a struggle that seems as though it will be ever ongoing, never complete, until the ultimate end. And yet, it has been said that “perfect love casts out fear.” I think we all have an idea of what this means, and simply reading the words provides a certain level of comfort. But how far does this “perfect” love extend, and how permanent is this banishment of fear? Is it truly possible to “cast out” fear while in the transient and shifting world, or is it only a promise for another world to come?

I think it can be both, and that there are often unexplored depths to the profound relationship between love and fear. On a first and fundamental level, “perfect love” refers to God. Since God is love, any genuine display of love reveals part of His nature. Because of this, we can turn to Him and in His presence, experience the divine love, the “perfect love” that is stronger than and has no need of fear. This is the only way in which we can truly vanquish fear, or any kind of evil. By placing ourselves in God’s hands, the fear no longer belongs. It is no longer necessary. We can see clearly the distance between lies produced by fear, and Truth. Within these moments of clarity, fear is exposed for its powerlessness.

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 We often become so consumed with the things we do not have, that we do not recognize or appreciate the things that are ours. We become so consumed with the person we think we should or would like to be, that we fail to see or accept the person that we are. We become so consumed with the places we are not (and that we might have been), that we neglect to notice the places in which we are. These gifts we spurn because we do not see them as gifts, are gifts nonetheless, gifts regardless of where they fall on our scale of a “good life.”

A good life is not one in which the requisite boxes are all checked, but one that is good for you and you only. The absolute determination of this good is beyond our capacity. Thus there is no definition or model of a good life. To live a good life you must be open to the fluidity of the moment, an openness that encompasses and embraces deviations from your own plans, the plans of others and the plans you feel you should have followed but did not. It is the far-spreading sickness of regret and the fruitlessness of fear that prevent such openness. We are not open and so we are unable to receive the gifts that come to us moment by moment. We cannot receive them, because our lack of mindfulness blocks us from recognizing their beauty. We see them but do not see them as they really are, and this is all the difference.

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The Gaze

It is easier to make judgements and generalizations when you are distanced from the situation, when you see a mass of people, in which there are numbers and not names. However, when this distance is erased, everything changes. There is great power in the act of naming. In the giving of a name, one says, “You matter. Not just as an interwoven thread in an ocean-sized quilt, indiscernible from afar, but as a person, an individual, a distinct and unrepeated breath of beauty.” This calls to mind the divine voice of Matthew 3:17, which says of Christ, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we are given a name, we are loved alone, not loved from afar, not loved in theory, out of principle or from duty, but set apart and loved in startling singularity. This is the deepest desire of the human heart: to be loved alone. When we hear the name of another, be it that of a stranger (perhaps in the news) of whom we have no personal experience or claim to knowledge, the name calls forth and reminds us of that person’s individuality, of their singularity, of their personhood and all of the “inalienable rights” that go along with this.

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Creative Beings

We are all naturally creative beings.

I believe strongly that each person possesses this innate creativity; it is a part of the deepest realization of self. Whether or not we recognize this creativity has no bearing on its presence within us. As created beings, we necessarily have a share in this creative power that inspired us into existence.

I think the problem is that many of us don’t know how to access our creativity. I frequently hear people rejecting a “creative” label, saying things like, “I’m just not very creative” or “I’m not very good at creative things.” However, at this preliminary step of self-labelling, we block our natural capacity for creativity. Why do we reduce the value of a creative act to external judgements of “good” or “bad”? Is the purpose in expressing creativity merely to display said creativity, and to gain objective approval?

No. In fact, when we define creativity by these terms, we transform it into a kind of utilitarianism. Creative acts become valued for the end or for a purely practical purpose, and the joy and beauty of the creative process is lost as a result. Creating with such a goal in mind does not channel our true creativity but instead stifles what is good about the creative act. It does so through our attempts to control and manipulate the thing we are creating, rather than giving it the freedom it needs and deserves (similar to the freedom with which we were imbued at creation).

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Between Love and Fear

Can you sacrifice yourself, your own insecurities, comfort, worries, feelings of worthlessness… in order to add to the happiness of someone you love? Which has more power: love or fear? You want to believe that love is stronger, that choosing love can always shut out fear, and that this pursuit of love and sacrifice allows God to enter and work through you in ways beyond your small self and those ever-floating fears. Well, then, you must act “as if” the love is stronger; you must reach out in love as though there are the everlasting arms beneath to catch you should you fall in stepping out of the comfortable for the sake of love, in that perfect love which casts out fear.

This cannot be done by love focused only on the person in question, but by loving the divine presence in the person and the way in which it is uniquely manifested in this image of beauty. No person is perfect, or fully worthy of love and sacrifice, just as your love and sacrifice are imperfect and still motivated by self-desire, even in striving for selflessness. But if this love is channeled through the flow of divine love and sacrifice, the movement of the spirit and its reflection of perfection have transformative power. As such, love is able to move, change and grow, while fear is capable of nothing save stagnation. Fear limits your movements, places false boundaries on your freedom and potential for love, joy and peace, and the deepest fulfillment of your selfhood.

The Light in the Window

The light is beginning to slip from the sky. I wait at a pause in this winding road for the bus to approach. The bus is late and I am very aware of its absence. Five, ten, fifteen minutes. Impatience courses through me: there are people standing on either side of myself, chattering merrily. I hear only snatches of what they say.At last it comes barrelling along, headlights now streaming through darkness. I sit in the middle near the door so I hear it slide open and closed with a loud burst of air. There is something about riding the bus at night, in equal part comforting and disconcerting.The girl in front of me is talking with great eagerness to her companion. He reaches his arm around her shoulder. Her blonde ponytail wags as she speaks, words rising and falling to my consciousness in their high, earnest tone. Now their heads are close together. And I am behind them and alone.

There is laughter and lively conversation. Is it always this loud on the bus? The sound expands inside me and yet I am so far away. I hear everything from a distance. The voices have melded together to reach a pitch, a frequency that runs through my veins, meaning nothing but lingering there.

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How are you?

How are you?

It’s a question we are likely to hear multiple times each day. But its meaning can vary wildly. When a person asks me how I am, more often than not, I respond with a single word: good. After that, I usually reciprocate the question by asking how they are, and I receive a similar answer. In this case, the question is like a ritual: a scripted piece of dialogue with which we are all familiar. It doesn’t carry much weight with it. Neither I nor my companion have really gained any new information, but we have said the things we were supposed to say. Now we can talk further or continue on our way, with the knowledge that we checked off a box in the expectations of common courtesy. We asked about them and we cared.

The question can also mean another thing, requiring a little more detail. In some cases, How are you? is translated as How are you doing? or perhaps What are you doing? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. We haven’t seen a friend in a long time and want to know what they have been up to. They tell us the evident things: the activities and achievements that are easy to explain and offer us a little window into the external of their life. These things are important, and knowing these things are important to any friendship or relationship.

But I wonder if it is enough.

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