The Unfamiliar

July 3, 2012

“We find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before our eyes.”

The Screwtape Letters

This week my dad and I have been watching segments of the History Channel series The Universe. The narration is pretty awful (I really wish they had modeled it after BBC’s Planet Earth instead of Bill Nye the Science Guy), but the content is just mind-blowing.

A lot of the visuals have reminded me of the film Tree of Life. One of my favorite aspects of that movie is the juxtaposition of the subliminal scenes of nature and the universe with scenes of one family’s grief. In the movie, both are significant realities, but in life, I usually find it really hard to hold the two in tension.

This balance of two seemingly incongruent things–the value of an individual life vs. the physical reality of humanity’s place within the universe–reminds me of one of my very favorite passages about belief, from the epilogue of C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles. Here, rather than the universe, Lewis is talking about the existence of, you guessed it, miracles:

And yet . . . and yet . . . It is that and yet which I fear more than any positive argument against miracles: that soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook as you close the book and the familiar four walls about you and the familiar noises from the street reassert themselves. Perhaps (if I dare suppose so much) you have been led on at times while you were reading, have felt ancient hopes and fears astir in your heart, have perhaps come almost to the threshold of belief—but now? No. It just won’t do. Here is the ordinary, here is the “real” world, round you again. The dream is ending; as all other similar dreams have always ended. For of course this is not the first time such a thing has happened. More than once in your life before this you have heard a strange story, read some odd book, seen something queer or imagined you have seen it, entertained some wild hope or terror: but always it ended in the same way. And always you wondered how you could, even for a moment, have expected it not to.

Sometimes, the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection seems too far away from my ordinary, every day life to be true. Lewis argues that this feeling, while perfectly human, has little to do with the validity of that miracle, because (as he goes on to say later in the epilogue), reality is not determined by our ability to grasp or believe in it.

The strange thing is, I feel the exact same way about the universe as I sometimes do about the resurrection. Even while we were watching the DVD segments of real photos and hearing real scientists talk about black holes and quasars, I found it nearly impossible to believe that this place outside of Earth actually exists, that there things–massive, violent, beautiful things–happening billions of light-years away. It is even harder to believe that now, after I have, as Lewis puts it, “closed the book.”

And so I have experienced first hand the lesson I learned from reading Lewis years ago. My gut “it just can’t be true; it’s too weird” feelings aren’t always (or maybe, aren’t usually) right… and I’m thankful they aren’t. If my gut could tell me everything, there would be no wonder or awe, maybe even no growth.

As my dad said the other night, studying the universe is less like science and more like writing poetry. Maybe that’s why it’s so powerful to me…it seems like a place where the facts themselves are beautiful. They don’t need a narrative arch to speak, but they still tell a story–a story that, I am learning, is way too big to try and squeeze inside my small brain.

P.S. I think some people feel this way about math? I’ve lost hope of ever reaching that mysterious number nirvana, but I have no doubt it exists.

P.S.S. Also, as this week’s storms have shown, apparently I don’t have to watch DVDs about the universe to be terrified of/awed by nature! (our electricity is still out, but we just got internet back!)

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I’ve been thoroughly enjoying some lazy days until work starts up next week. Writing, reading, crafting, cooking, and lots of putzing around…it’s great to be back in the Midwest.

One of my last days in New York I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for a really good price, and I’ve been slowly making my way through it for the past 2 weeks.

The writing alone is enough to make me keep reading, but I am most interested in the deeper, subtler conflicts within Franzen’s characters. I am having a hard time deciphering a lot of it, but that’s usually how it is with the best kinds of books, I think.

One quote from Freedom I have been thinking a lot about lately:

“The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

Rage, one New York Times reviewer writers, because “we helplessly collide with others in equal pursuit of their sacred freedoms, which, more often than not, seem to threaten our own.”

And that’s one of the reasons Freedom is such a hard, sad book to read. It is a story of a family in which each member is individually chasing after what he or she wants (or at least what they think they want). Repulsively selfish, and yet so human.

I’m balancing the sometimes-dense prose of Freedom with C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which, though much lighter on a sentence-by-sentence level, is still taking me awhile to get through because I am dog-earring and marking and copying down half the book! Every time I read it I re-remember things that I never want to forget, but always manage to. Like this, written from the perspective of one demon to another about God and humanity:

“When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means their abandoning the clamor of self-will…He boasts (I am afraid, sincerely,) that when they are wholly His, they are more themselves than ever.”

And what would you know, Freedom and Screwtape Letters, written decades and oceans (okay, an ocean) apart, are beginning to speak to each other. Each is informing my experience of the other…one of my favorite things about reading.

The Chrysler Building from our rooftop binoculars (I'm sure there is another, more proper word for those things...).

“The future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.” 

-C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters 

I have been thinking a lot about the future lately. Where I want to live, what I want to do…

When we were sitting in Dumbo Park the other day, Christian and I were talking about how weird it would be to live in a place like New York City but never have the time to walk to a park, or putz around at a museum, or go to a play. To me, the dirty subway rides and crowded streets wouldn’t be worth it unless I got to see the good parts too.

Last week, a publishing assistant came to speak to our class about her day-to-day life. While a lot of her work sounds really exciting, I am slowly learning just how much the publishing world is not 9-5. In order to eventually build her own list of clients, our speaker explained that she not only takes home whatever manuscripts the editors at her house are currently reading, she also goes to these elaborate get-to-know-you events put on by networking associations…almost like group dating events, but to help editor-hopefuls establish professional connections. I had no idea this kind of thing existed! So not only is this assistant reading hundreds of pages of client work on nights and weekends, she is also going rock climbing with a bunch of strangers a few times a month! My introverted, homebody self was squirming in my seat at this news. (Does that phrase usually imply giddiness? I think it might. But mine were uncomfortable, queasy squirms).

And so, our speaker got me thinking…not just about what kind of career I want, but mainly about how much I want to work, and what other kinds of things I would like to make room for as well (keep reading and writing!  keep crafting! plant a garden!). I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I’d fit well in a plain old 9-5 job, something to pay the bills. Maybe in a bookstore or a boutique or a café (though I’m still open to living on a farm…). Being in New York has given me big dreams, I know 🙂

Of course, I have another year of college (and the rest of my life after that…duh) to think and pray and dream about it all, so I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. Even though sometimes it feels like I am falling behind, I know that’s only fear talking. So far, I have found that living present-mindedly is a really good way to avoid missing unexpected opportunities God might give, and to remind myself that my future is not just about what I want or what I think I need (I forget that a lot, unfortunately).

C. S. Lewis reminds me that it’s enough to be grateful for my semester here in the book world, and for all the time I have been given to explore — that the future is not promised, the present is a gift, and that I would do well to keep my eyes open.

The Museum of Natural History.

The Guggenheim.

The MET.