Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.
I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.
This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.
On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.
The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.
At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”
For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”
In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.
Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.
But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.
“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.
Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.
Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”
We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.
As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”
Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.