To Be: In the Place We Are

“‘Things happen to people by accident,’ she used to say. ‘A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don’t know’–looking quite serious–‘how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.”

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My sister is in Peru right now. In her blog (here) she talks about the living situations of the people there–their resilience, their humanity, and the things they have to fight against to survive. To me these things are entirely foreign. But for a lot of people in the world, you do just sleep in a tent, avoid the rabid dogs, and boil the water before you drink it. For a lot of people, that’s really the best they can do.

I’m not sure how to react to my life situation, since I was born into a loving middle-class American family, with parents who have a strong Christian faith, plenty of material goods to get through life comfortably, and the passion to give me the best education I can have. Millions of people lack one or all of these things, and the fact that I do not–a fact that has shaped every aspect of my existence, my interests, my beliefs, my character, and my relationships–unsettles me. Who would I have been if God had put me in the untouchable caste in India? Or a Norwegian peasant family in the Medieval Ages? Or the family of some cruel dictator? Why am I here now, in the richest 20% of the world, getting a college education, drinking clean water and buying manufactured clothing at the drop of a hat?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. All I know is that God has entrusted me with A LOT and expects me to do a lot with it, and that’s why I write like there’s no tomorrow. (Who knows? Maybe there isn’t.) God gave me a gift and a passion–and I don’t know why He gave it to me, but here I am. I guess, if He put me here, He intends to use me here. But I don’t know why He chose me. He could have switched my place with an illiterate Bengali woman, and if she had been born into this home and country she could have been a better writer, a more considerate friend, and a stronger follower of Christ than I am–and I could have been a weaker and less independent (and really, a generally hopeless) sweatshop-laborer. That Bengali woman is probably taking care of five children, alone, and works ten hours seven days a week. And here I am, with a humane forty-hour work-week, nobody depending on me for anything, and barely the energy to handle it. I don’t know why it is that I’ve been given the opportunity to make a mark on the world–I have more of a shot than most, with the amount of resources I have–and she hasn’t. The only thing I can say is that I trust God knows what He’s doing when He puts people where they are.

Anyway, that’s the reason I write. It’s because I can–because I’m here, and not somewhere else, and I have an education, and I’m able to impact the lives of others through my words. I may not make much of an impact on very many people, and my words will probably fade from history at the moment of my death. But I am totally convinced it is worth doing because God gave me the gift. It’s the only reason I can think of that He would put me here, of all places.

This is not a very polished blog post; I have no argument, no main point. But I ask that you think about it. That you have compassion on the deaf community in Moyobamba (a stop in Lindsey’s journey around Peru) and put yourself in their shoes for a few minutes. That you question the way you’ve been spending your money–some people live for a year on the amount you just spent on that dress. That you do your homework because you have been blessed with an education and not because you want a 4.0. I don’t know what to do about any of this, and I don’t know why you’re where you are and I’m where I am. But here we are. I guess we just need to use the things we have to their utmost and trust that God placed us in exactly the right spot.

To Be: And To Make Art

I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question.  Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”

And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.

If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.

I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.

That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,

sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.

sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and sourness
and spiciness
and everything you needed,
with everythingness.

sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
for poetry
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.

–Slake