The Antidote

“So how do you measure the worth of a man / In wealth or strength or size / In how much he gained or how much he gave / The answer will come, the answer will come to him who tries /To look at his life through heaven’s eyes” -“Through Heaven’s Eyes” Prince of Egypt

All semester, I’ve just felt lonely. Why, when I look at such great things, surrounded by such interesting, beautiful people, do I feel so lonely, I asked a friend in an email. It just goes with the territory, she explained. Seeing new things just makes you feel lonely. Don’t worry about it too much.

But the loneliness plagued me everywhere I went, and I couldn’t shake it. It latched on for dear life and wouldn’t let go. I traveled to the far ends of Europe, to Barcelona, to Berlin, to Delphi…and it tailed me all the way. Go listen to Mike Posner’s “Save Your Goodbye” and maybe you’ll get an idea of how this loneliness both hounded me and haunted my thoughts.

Giving up plugging into my mp3 player for Lent gave me a lot of pure, unadulterated time for thought while sitting on the class trip buses shuttling us around Greece for ten days, and instead of not worrying about being lonely, I grappled with it. The typical, “Oh, I feel so small and insignificant when I look at Grecian vistas and the Parthenon and the Mediterranean Sea because they are so big and so great and I am not,” lent me little satisfaction. I don’t feel humbled or insignificant or small. I feel lonely and too complex for my own articulation and entirely alone in the vastness of the universe. I’ve read about this rapidly expanding universe and how much it contains and how complex it is. I felt like that. I felt like the universe, expanding to absorb these experiences and their greatness. I felt like the universe, utterly incomprehensible. I felt like the universe, containing so much stuff but so much emptiness as well.

Sorry to get all angsty, I’m just trying to convey how difficult a loneliness it was.

I kept grappling with it through spring break, through 12 silent train rides through Austria and Germany and mountains. The loneliness and I trudged through Holy Week, too. And then I found it, the answer. I found the antidote to my loneliness.

If you only get to do one thing in Rome (granted, I still haven’t been to Villa Borghese), go straight to the Vatican Museums (grabbing some melone gelato on the way, because that’s important, too). In the Pinacoteca, in the Leonardo da Vinci room, drink in the sorrow Bellini portrays in his painting, Lament over the dead Christ. There is the suffering and the haunting and the loneliness and the helplessness. Mingle that image with the other breathtaking works of art: Laocoon and Sons, the Belvedere Torso, the Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice Amphora, the Raphael frescoes in the Stella della Segnatura. Let the portrayals of the struggle of human activity remind you of your own struggles. Then let the Sistine Chapel convince you your struggling is worthwhile.

Bellini’s Lament over the Dead Christ

Nothing can prepare you for the Sistine Chapel. My mind was quite literally blown apart; I had been meditating on loneliness so long, it had become a pattern of thought, and the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s genius ripped it to shreds:

As I ignored the calls of “No foto” and “Silenzio” and drank in the colors and the emotion and the story, I saw the universe. Michelangelo & Co. depicts salvation history: from God forcing apart light and dark, to the creation of Adam, to the fall, to the flood, to the narrative of Jesus Christ’s life, all the way into the future and the end, depicted in The Last Judgement fresco that spreads across the wall behind the altar. There I was, somewhere painted into the soaring, beautiful figures. Before I had felt unable to articulate my struggle with loneliness. Good thing Michelangelo used his paintbrush to articulate THE human struggle 500 years ago, and I could now clearly see that I am part of something bigger. I matter. My actions, like those of all the characters on the ceiling, like those of everyone surrounding me in this sacred space, echo in eternity.

Part of The Last Judgement

And that’s The Antidote. I’m not alone, because I’m a part of this epic and all epics that insist upon the importance and weight of human actions. Mattering trumps the loneliness. But it’s more complex than that; the fact that I matter means the loneliness that is a part of me also matters, via uniting the suffering of loneliness with the sacred suffering of our Lord. No longer are reminders to “Offer it up!” marked as condescending or annoying; they are reminders of The Antidote.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” Catholicism is like a mountain; it gives you a chance and a direction. Even better than a mere mountain, it gives you the means as well: a wealth of knowledge, sacraments, heroes in the form of saints. To top it all, the Church insists that climbing the mountain is what I was made to do, and it is vitally important. I get to help others learn how to struggle upwards. I get to struggle with purpose instead of aimlessly.

“No life can escape being blown about / By the winds of change and chance / And though you never know all the steps / You must learn to join the dance” -“Through Heaven’s Eye’s” Prince of Egypt


On Being (Temporarily) Immobile

This morning I woke up to find myself confined to my room for the second time in so many weeks. The entire room spun, as though I was on some freak merry-go-round. I proceeded to get sick in the bathroom. Feeling miserable, I laid down again. The room spun some more, and the vicious circle began.

Apparently there’s a virus in my ear.

A couple weeks ago, I was playing soccer at night and someone kicked my ankle so hard it charlie horsed for 24 hours. I had to crawl around and pull myself up onto the toilet the next morning.

Being immobile is scary. Luckily, my maladies were short lived, and have only resulted in two days sacrificed to the unproductive gods. I can relate to the desire of people throughout history who have wished to move, those possessors of itchy feet who include Pa Ingalls, the Pilgrims, the Holy Family, astronauts, and Christopher Columbus.

Everyone has their own reasons for moving: some, for the sake of moving, some, to escape sure death. But there must be something about moving that is inherent to human nature. Physically, movement stimulates muscle growth. Movement must stimulate growth in the other parts of man. The more I see of the United States, for I have never ventured outside of this country, the more my heart grows for the number of people I meet.

I think that physical mobility reflects in the mentality of a person. If you are physically immobile, your world shrinks, but your mentality suffocates as well. If we consider the mind as a muscle, if it is not used, it atrophies.

When I was reduced to crawling around my room on my hands and knees, I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t focus on a book, or write about being immobile (both actions would have eased the immobility, since they are being mobile mentally). I could only think about how I couldn’t go. As a body and a soul, the lack of go in one led to a lack of go in the other.

So here’s to not being plants, and moving about in all the ways that we can.

Never Forget

In psychology, there is a phenomenon called “flashbulb memories”, which is basically an event which a society collectively remembers. Everyone can remember where they were when they heard JFK was shot. Everyone wants to share their September 11 story.

I was in the third grade, just a kid. We were going through our spelling books. We had those stupid desks where you sit on top of your cubby, and the desktop is attached to the chair/cubby, so you can only exit one way. On my right are a few rows of these desks, with a chalkboard beyond that. On my left is the teacher’s desk and large windows looking out on the parking lot, the soccer field, and the Catholic church attached to the school building.

The announcement came over the loudspeaker, a brown box attached to the wall next to the classroom door. Something about airplanes and twin towers. Like I knew what that was. The teacher wouldn’t let us watch the news, saying we were too young. We went on with school like normal. I was blissfully unaware of anything, except for the tension in the air.

You see, I lived a few miles from the international airport in my Midwest city, and a few miles from that is a first-strike zone company where my father works. But horror didn’t strike me until a few days later when I saw on the news they had rescued someone from the rubble so many days after the fact.

As far as 9/11 stories go, mine’s really not all that interesting. But I’m still a part of the community of survivors. Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking today isn’t important, doesn’t have significance, doesn’t have meaning. The world constantly tries to take away our meaning, but we can’t let that happen. Never forget. We showed our greatness and magnificence as a nation that day. Human beings may be capable of terrible evil, but we are also capable of much good.

Armstrong & Aristotle

In high school, I took an art class in which I had to illustrate the essence of a famous person, and being slightly obsessed with science, and the idea of space exploration (my senior thesis discussed the future of space travel), I elected to draw Neil Armstrong. His visage occupied one corner of the paper, and from there, various quotes of his were written in the trails of smoke from the launching of a shuttle.

Our President’s statement about Armstrong’s death was, “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.  Thank you, Neil, for showing us the power of one small step.” The last sentence reminded me of another quote that has been circulating the Pinterests and the Tumblrs: “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” It’s from the movie We Bought A Zoo. For some reason, this quote always bothered me, and why, surprisingly enough, is expressed by the late Neil Armstrong, “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work.”

Sorry to throw yet another quote at you, but, like Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics, “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” The truly great people are those who are great day in and day out: not just for 20 seconds. There is, of course, some merit to Obama and Matt Damon’s words, but I think Neil Armstrong and Aristotle are more correct: that single performance of greatness is made possible by forming habits of greatness.

Considering this, I am afraid, because I am not consistent. Exercise? Sporadic. Sax practice? Erratic. Good study habits? Patchy.

Thanks for reminding us, Neil Armstrong, that large steps are only made possible by practicing many small steps first. I’m off to go form better habits. If you need some accountability, Joe’s Goals is a great little webapp.

The People

The best sort of days are those that end with a reflection on its events, and a decision about the best part cannot be made: it was that good. This is probably because I actually worked out first thing in the morning, which is extremely rare. Since people can see me during daylit runs, I’m not their biggest fan. I’d rather keep the way I look as I run a mystery even to myself. So I am a nightrunner.

My day ended as it began: with physical exertion. I’m seeing a trend…anyway, a few friends and I changed out of our dressy casino night attire (orientation leaders dealt blackjack!), and the first midnight walk of the year was had! What we talked about, I can’t remember, and that doesn’t even matter. All that mattered was the people I was with.

This is a lesson I really want to carry with me to Rome, when I study abroad: that the experience (relatively) doesn’t depend on where you are, it (relatively) doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s the people, and your attitude towards them. So when I set my heart on going to all these places, I’m doing myself no favors. All those different places are expensive, and offer very little compared to the experience of traveling to one place and spending time with a few people very deeply. So if it comes to that, I will not be disappointed, because that attitude could end up blinding me to the wonderful, complex, mysterious people I’m “stuck” with and the wonderful, complex, mysterious place I’m “stuck” with.

During an orientation small group today, the students went around and shared fun facts about themselves. Sure, it was an ice breaker, but it also served as a way to show the freshman how crazy cool each other are, and to encourage them not to ignore the excitement and wonder contained within each person in the freshman class. Don’t forget how interesting every person is, how every one has a story. Don’t limit yourself to a few people. It’s great to have a few very close friends who you know on a very personal and deep level, but don’t be bummed when a close friend can’t hang out, or if you find yourself in a new city, or if you are going to study abroad without one of your closest friends. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert. You just need to be humble enough to be interested in other people.

Happiness No. 1

Every once and a while, some acquaintance catches me off guard and makes a comment along the lines of, “You’re the happiest person I know!”

And it catches me off guard, every time. All I can do is smile and make some sort of laughing noise.

What I really want to say is, “No. No, I’m really not,” in a rather dramatic way, with a piercing look upon my face that conveys other messages, such as, “I’m secretly an awful person” or “I’m secretly tortured” or “You don’t know me”.

Why can’t I just let myself be happy like everyone believes me to be? I track my mood, for health reasons, and I’m never more than an 8 out of 10. Why is that?