Looking at the stars

We are all in the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.  — Oscar Wilde

As a child, crying was usually an indicator of something negative happening in my life.  From falling and skinning my knee, to forgetting my homework and being reprimanded by a teacher, to getting in a fight with one of my siblings, the situations that sparked tears were ones of struggle.  I cried when I was sad, angry, hurt or confused. 

Somewhere along the line — maybe when I was in high school, when I began to see that words are usually as effective for expressing emotions as tears — this changed.  I still occasionally cry from grief or frustration, but more often now, my tears accompany feelings of nostalgia, hope, appreciation, love and awe.  I tear up when I read a story that demonstrates the goodness of humanity; my eyes get misty when a particularly sweet memory of my father, mother, sister or brothers comes to mind; my throat gets tight when I hear a beautiful piece of music of poetry. 

To be sure, the instances of struggle that used to cause me tears still exist.  In the world in which we live, sadness, anger, hurt and confusion are in many ways the status quo.  Maybe, along with learning that words as well as tears can express emotion, part of becoming an adult is realizing the pervasiveness of trauma, pain and suffering and implicitly acknowledging that if we let these things cause us tears, we’d be crying all the time. 

Looking around myself — reading the news, seeing a homeless man sitting on a cold stoop, talking with a grieving acquaintance — make me see that we’re in a gutter, all of us.  We are surrounded by pain — emotional, mental, physical, spiritual — and not a single one of us will get through life without suffering.  But my tears, now, remind me of the bursts of grace, the glimpses of light; the breaths of hope and the moments of joy.  My tears highlight the things that keep me going and get me through and remind me that there is meaning in life — in the good and the hard of it.  They remind me that I can be in the gutter and look at the stars. 

 

Photo by Mattias Milos on Unsplash

A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.

A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. — Eudora Welty

A piece of advice that has stuck with me over the years came from one of my college professors, after I shared with him that I was having a hard time making the choice between studying abroad for a semester or staying at my home university, Wittenberg, for all of my sophomore year.  Like many decisions, this was a difficult one because I was choosing between two good options.  Studying abroad would give me the chance to experience a different  part of the world and make new friends, but I also had much to gain from remaining at a place that I knew to have excellent classes, devoted professors, and dear friends.

My professor’s suggestion: “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing, so it’s usually a good idea to say yes to new opportunities.” 

I took his advice, and he was right: until I was leaning over the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, celebrating my 20th birthday with new friends and red wine from the corner store; until I was requesting crepes with apricot jam for dinner from my indulgent host father Gerhard; until I was sharing an order of street stand wienerschnitzel in a cozy Viennese hostel room with friends who remain close to me today; until I walked the snowy streets of Salzburg late at night, and then eventually watched the snow melt away and the trees lining the Salzach River burst into bloom; until I had these new and precious experiences, I didn’t know what I was missing.

It’s somewhat unsettling to think about the things we would have missed if we had lived our lives differently, and perhaps it’s even more unsettling to consider the other side of the coin: the things we’ve missed because we’ve taken our particular path. 

What if I hadn’t gone to Wittenberg?  What if I hadn’t joined my sorority and met Sarah, who introduced me to her brother Caleb?  What if I hadn’t taken the risk of a long distance relationship and gone to graduate school in Boston?  What if I had taken a year off between college and graduate school instead?  What if I had majored in Psychology rather than religion?  What if I had turned down the part-time youth ministry job at Our Lady of Sorrows?

Awareness of this unsettling feeling — one that has almost taken my breath away at times — has pushed me to eagerly seek new experiences and say yes to opportunities for adventure, professional development, learning, new relationships, and really, expansion of myself in any form.  For a long time this meant that I was constantly on the move, filling free evenings with social gatherings or events, free weekends with day trips or getaways, and free weeks with longer-distance travel. 

But these days I’m noticing that expansion of myself is taking a different shape: it’s staying home and filling most of my free time with reading and writing.  It’s languishing in an uncommitted weekend and resisting invitations.  It’s prioritizing time alone, and committing to putting pen to paper at least a few hours a week. 

A few years ago, this change of pace might have scared or bored me, and truthfully, there are moments now when I somewhat panickedly think, “What if I’m missing something?”  But the truth is that we’re always missing something.  Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.  There’s a time to say yes to outward adventure — to new situations and spaces and people and places — and a time to yes to inner adventure — new books and ideas and insights and personal projects. 

The point is to stay open and to keep saying yes to something — whether that’s an outer something or an inner something.  As Eudora Welty says, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

 

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash