Reading in the Classics

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

– C.S. Lewis

Education is about reaching and pushing past my boundaries. How do I deal with barriers? That’s the point of this life; not to be comfortable, and float through, or arrive at the “I made it” location, but to deal with conflict. Everything I learn and every moment I experience is to get me to deal with conflict better. I can be beaten, made fun of, abused, hated, loved, worshiped, honored, and always face it with love. Then in the end I can be like Christ. I can hang from my cross and say “Thy Will be done.” Christ had it figured out and it didn’t make life any easier (to us who can’t deal with conflict, it looked much harder). But if you can deal with conflict then I can give each moment value and continue my education; that life is worth living. Then I can be worthy of rest when I am no longer here (The Chosen).

Nathaniel Bowditch had an extraordinary gift with Math. Sometimes I make the excuse that, if I was exceptionally good at math then of course I could accomplish great things. He was made to do something great, but I’m not exceptionally good at anything so I don’t have to do anything great. However, I’m not an indentured servant, my parents didn’t die when I was young, I didn’t have an absent alcoholic father, I didn’t grow up during a war, I wasn’t raised with a developing country, sanitation and sickness is no longer a death threat, communication over short distances doesn’t take months…the list goes on. And I’m saying because I’m not good at math I don’t succeed!?
We all have skills and we all have barriers. It’s not so much about what great thing I need to accomplish in this life to change the world, it’s about how I deal with my barriers and how I develop my skills. There will always be something I can’t do, and there is always something I can do. Are my challenges barriers or a refiner’s fire? Am I a victim to my setting, or am I an ambassador to God? Am I willing to sail by ash breeze?

In order to experience my education and know that it is real I have to do just that, experience it. Being educated, having knowledge, being well read, etc., is something we take for granted today. It’s so available that I don’t realize how vital it is to my survival, to the survival of the world, to keeping my freedom, and to helping me deal with challenge and develop my skills. However, if the knowledge stays in my head, what purpose has it filled? I am a part of this grand world around me and must acknowledge that. My skills are to help bring the progression of the Kingdom of God. If my knowledge remains fiat it will soon become an oblivious fluffy cloud that no one can define or find although it may look very pretty. It is putting my knowledge into tangible action that gives it value. Working my body as hard as I do my head. When I combine learning and acting then I can see and share the fruit of my labor.

Francie’s life is dirty and hard. As she compares her own childhood with that of her sister, who will live a life of ease, she’s grateful for the experiences and fun only challenge can create. In analyzing the separation of Heaven and Hell, Lewis wrote, “Earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and Earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself” (The Great Divorce, ix). Francie’s painful story is healed by choosing Heaven. The trick is not forgetting or hiding from pain, but moving through it. If we stop holding grudges and placing judgement then life offers the beauty of growth. No one can really feel and express pain and then move on better than a little child. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Education is the ability to accept myself in the world I’m in and see my grand potential. Francie’s family is the power of Education. I don’t start on my own and I don’t want to leave those who follow after me with less. We can move one step forward with every generation. Everything I learn adds to others because they can now continue the building. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Isaac Newton). Education is generational. How much am I willing to sacrifice and achieve for the next generation?

In Francie’s first school each student and teacher was an immigrant, they were easily pushed around and they settled for anything. They were put into the class of poor hopeless immigrant and accepted it. Francie’s second school was American based. For her to stand up and be able to say she was a 1st generation American was an honored privilege. These teachers and students were working to be American. They had the right to a quality education and they knew it. They were expected to progress.

Education offering more choices is obvious; however, it’s more important to know that education offers me Agency. Agency is knowing I have more choices than I think I do; I am a part of something much bigger than myself. Shakespearean tragedies work within a specific timeline. Each event becomes an unchangeable piece of my past defining my future; I am a victim to my world. This is the story of Macbeth, tragically going crazy as the evils pile up. Shakespearean romances work in a circle. Each event carves out character and offers choices; I am an agent of my world. This is the story of Prospero, healing mistakes from the past through the unique wisdom of multiple generations. My life is not a tragedy; my life is a healing, progressing circle. When I ignore my agency I am stuck. When I ignore my education I am stuck. Life isn’t about just getting to the end of it, Life is about getting better.

Agency is voluntary. This paradox gives power, freedom, and responsibility. We often fall for lies about choices that end up taking away agency. I have lots of choices, if only somebody else would tell me which one to choose; it’s not my fault, I just didn’t have the opportunity; I didn’t know what all my options were. These are fallacies we all fall for when giving up agency in trying to avoid responsibility. Agency isn’t a gift that is given, it is a gift that is received. I have more choices than I think I do.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
(Invictus)

‘I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least’” (1). During the 200 years before the Revolutionary War the American colonies were governed very little; America was united but not controlled. The war didn’t begin until the government started governing badly.

Thoreau is writing 75 years after the Revolutionary War and is arguing the State was already taking away newly won freedoms. The reason the government’s hand could reach so far was because the people wanted goodies more than their liberty. Thoreau argues that you can say you are anti-slavery, but if you pay taxes to a slave owning government then you are pro-slavery. How do people respond to this sort of unavoidable contradiction? Ostrich. The choice of ignorance.

The paradox is that you can in fact choose to be ignorant of what you don’t want to know. This is not Pocahontas’s clear definition of ignorance: “You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew” (Disney’s Pocahontas). This is the more common self-inflicted ignorance: knowing what you don’t know and not wanting to know.

Thoreau is trying to get his head out of the sand. I think he’s saying, commit to a social contract. If your social contract requires you pay taxes and you want to take advantage of a clean beautiful park that you don’t take care of, but not of national bailouts, then stop complaining. You signed the social contract that says when someone collects money they get to divvy it out however they want. Instead of changing the social contract we smile, play at the park, and hope big brother stays far enough away I don’t have to think about it. However, is it really possible to live in this world at all without being a victim to Caesar? Am I only seeing myself as a victim to society because I don’t want to stand up for myself? Is my only choice to leave society and go live alone by a pond? Thoreau offers a very real and terrifying dilemma.

So, what is my calling? Am I to be like Nelson Mandela leaving prison to defend my moral social contract and defy society? Am I to be like Abraham sacrificing Isaac and go against everything I’ve been taught including social conduct, trust, love, commandments, God’s law, to show where my devotion truly lies? Or am I to be like my Grandma sharing knowledge and service to everyone she met and therefore made her world a better place?

Maybe it’s not so important that I figure out the world’s problems, but that I decide how I will live.

When I am asked to give an accounting of my actions what will I answer? How did I make my decisions? What did those decisions lead to? Did I ignore or accept my consequences? Maybe civil disobedience is frustrating because there is no answer, however it forces me to question. No, it doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but isn’t it the small things that really matter. Maybe by playing the smallest note of dissonance through the smallest person, the largest change can happen. I don’t know what it looks like or how it feels in the grand sense of big government and corrupt society, but I still get to decide who I am and what ripple I create.

What is the importance of a creation story? Every culture protects their specific beginning and passes it on. Lewis and Tolkien both focused much of their life work to a symbolic creation story. Somehow our every day decisions are influenced by what our creation story is, and we continue acting out the story.

This particular creation story, Lewis is very careful to make clear, is not an Allegory; it’s not the story of our beginning. Each one of us, while not understanding the story we’re about to unfold, will have to make a decision. This book is about my individual choice for God and my battle with Satan. We all to have fight, and it’s going to be a fight for life, to the death. My Creation Story is about the active choice of becoming At One with God.

As abstract as the story may seem, each character reveals myself in different phases of my becoming older.
– There’s Weston. After hearing his bent logic I understand why I choose Satan’s plan every day. Weston talks of leaving Maleldil in order to become strong, brave, and knowledgeable. The paradox God offers of becoming more of yourself through someone else is so far beyond my mortal grasp. Weston’s logic lowers itself to a place I can understand. He presents the demands of Maleldil in such a way that they fit into a sphere I already occupy. He talks about the greater self, growth, progression, independence, and glory. I want to follow his council, I want The Way to be my way. Weston speaks the truth but in the dark.
– And the Beautiful Green Lady. In her I see my own innocence and how I have to make decisions without understanding. She is trapped between needing to learn and not knowing what it means to change. I relate to her more than I’d like to admit. How do I “grow up” and gain knowledge without understanding? And if I’m trying to become older without understanding how do I know who I’m following? She wants so much to be good and do right, however there is a type of veil drawn over her that does not allow for a full picture. She has only what she needs, the rest is completed by faith and trust. Do I trust God enough to ask all my questions and not rely on my own prideful strength? Do I actually want to grow older or do I really just want to stay in myself? Do I really want to be honest with myself in so much confusing ignorance?
– And Ransom. This is our Christ figure, emphasis on figure. The concept of becoming like Christ is so far away from me that I often settle for much less than my best and hope He will forgive me my innocent, misunderstood conception, even though I know my conception is wrong and I don’t really try to fix it. Ransom bridges that gap. This is the story of how a person becomes like Christ. Ransom was a fallen man who, through submitting, refining, and rising, became like Christ. The way and the tools have been provided, my part is to fight the evil. This is what it looks like to completely crush the natural man. Christ isn’t going to fix it for me, I have to fix it with Christ. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here goes – I mean Amen.”

Every epic has certain steps that must be taken along the way. A challenge is presented, finding and receiving help, a road of challenges, the grand battle, a return home with new wisdom to share. This often leads to an exaggerated vision of self. It turns into me acting out my own Satan’s plan, trying to take the glory for myself. Weston is trying to convince us that the hero becomes the most important part of the story. That there is experience needed through independence, or the illusion of separation from God. We think we can hide and need to fulfill our mission alone. We skip to the end of the story and take glory when we haven’t fulfilled the challenge. It’s not about accomplishments, doing all the right things, fulfilling my purpose…

“One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications.”

… it’s about destroying Satan/The Fallen Man so completely that God is All that is left. “We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will.” God’s love doesn’t mean everyone is always smiling and comfortable. Godly love is the movement of becoming At One with Him. “The wave you plunge into may be very swift and great. You may need all your force to swim into it. He might send you a good like that.” Weston loses himself to Satan and is destroyed. Ransom loses himself in God and is welcomed in Glory.

Is Chaucer honoring nobility or ridiculing the ridiculousness of knighthood? The lessons seem to be clearer and easier to understand if he’s telling us what not to do, not that that’s the only lesson, but it’s a lesson this writing shows well. The people who make the biggest difference in the world tend to understand the humanity of things more than others. In every aspect of this story the writer goes beyond the expected stereotypes; he especially shows the importance of women and ignoring social expectations. Satire it is.

There is a pretty clear message of wasting time on the superfluous. The older characters understand what is really important (Egeus and Saturn). It is the elderly that understand life’s ups and downs. They have learned the lesson of finding beauty and not getting caught up in the frivolous expectations of others. “Truth to tell, age has great advantage; in age is both wisdom and experience. One can outrun the old, but not outwit them.”

Why does each one of us have to keep going through this cycle of disregarding our elders and wasting our life and then realizing how stupid it all is and then learning from mistakes and gaining experience? Life is not about living by someone else’s lessons; it is my own Creation Story. Life is the Individual’s Experience of moving from Innocence to Knowledge through Joy and Sorrow. While I do have to make my own choices, I don’t have to make the same mistakes as those who came before. Stories offer a fictional space to experience repeated actions and consequences. The classics are the blend of an individual experience with an overall consistent outcome.

In every event of the story Joy and Sorrow are always together. This shows the instability of human life, and yet this instability has a pattern. “Destiny, God’s general vicar, who executes over all the world the providence which He has foreordained, so strong it is that even if the world swore the contrary of a thing, yes or no, yet it shall happen on that day which will not happen again in a thousand years. For certainly our wills here, whether they are on war, or peace, of love or hate, are all ruled by the eye above us.” This presents the problematic element of deciding how to view opposition. It is up to me to see the joy while knowing that pain will follow, and to be in pain and know joy is coming. Often we let sorrow kill the joy, instead of allowing joy to heal the sorrow.

Often I have decided my mindset long before I receive my consequences, but that doesn’t mean I avoid what’s coming. Intention is the alignment of my mindset and my desired outcome. In the story, Arcite prays to the Mars, the god of war. He wins the battle, but is almost immediately destroyed by a godly earthquake. He is looking for conquest; for short term glory and a moment of marriage, and he gets it. Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, looking for goodness in a married life. He loses the battle, but after mourning and waiting, he is blessed with true love and prosperity.

We will all experience joy, sorrow, joy, sorrow, joy, sorrow, joy etc. No one is safe from disaster. When one person goes through triumph, another is inevitably facing failure. Each character is traveling through dramatic reversals of fortune. But intention and mindset determine the ending. And so, while there is a destiny that cannot be altered by us mortals, I’m the one that gets to choose how I see it. Within each moment of joy can be found the self-indulgence of pride or the glorifying beauty of the Creator. And in each moment of sorrow can be felt the hopelessness of the fall, or the purifying pain of the refiner’s fire. “Earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region of Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself” (C.S. Lewis).