Guest Post from Landon Saunders
“Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly,” wrote the essayist Montaigne who himself had faced a great plague.
To think of our life as a great and glorious masterpiece—that’s not a bad place to begin. To think of what would make our life a great and glorious masterpiece—that would be even better.
In many ways this present crisis has shined a light on our sense of self and our mortality in rare and unusual ways. I know it has for me.
We’re pushed away from crowds, away from concerts and churches, away from the social enjoyment of bars and restaurants, away from colleagues at work, and away from schools—away from all the places that surround us with people. Nor is it as easy to jump in the car and head to the beach or the lake to get away from it all.
Now, we are facing our sense of self and our sense of mortality like never before. We are facing what it means to “live properly” with fewer people around to support us.
And millions are doing it pretty well. They’re tapping into the inner wellsprings of courage, patience, creativity, and endurance. We’re all faced with the question: will we draw on the resources of our heart to add shape and beauty to our great and glorious masterpiece…or will we be diminished?
This crisis will surely end. And most of our lives will go on. Let’s do our best to strengthen our resolve, add myriad colors to who we are, smooth some rough edges, and emerge greater and stronger. In this way you will have benefited, and everyone around you—your children and family and friends—will marvel at your masterpiece.
Yes, even in this difficult time, let’s strive to “live properly.” Let’s not just “get through it,” let’s emerge from it all a better person.
One of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a while is Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork. So I’m going to do something a little different with this post. I want to share a lengthy excerpt from this novel with little comment.
First, let me set up the excerpt. Marcelo, age 17, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and attends a special school for young people on the autistic scale. His father owns a law firm and wants Marcelo to work there for the summer to “experience the real world.” This causes Marcelo much anxiety but he has no choice. While going through some files at the firm, Marcelo finds a picture of a teenage girl named Ixtel; half of her face is pretty, the other half is disfigured. Ixtel was in a car accident that took the lives of both of her parents. Her face was disfigured by a malfunctioning windshield. Marcelo discovers that his father’s firm used legal maneuvers to avoid paying for the surgery that could have restored Ixtel’s face. At great cost to himself, Marcelo gets his father to finally agree to cover the surgery.
In the scene I’ll share, Marcelo is meeting Ixtel for the first time at the Catholic home for girls where she lives. They talk for some time and Marcelo is struck with how at ease with herself Ixtel is. He asks her about this and Ixtel says that after the accident, she went wild for a while, taking drugs and selling her body. That’s when Marcelo asks:
“But how did you change? What happened? What made you different?”
We both turn to look at each other. I can feel her wondering why I want to know. Maybe she can see that I am not asking just out of curiosity or to make small talk. I’m asking because I want to find what she found.
“Little by little, I don’t know, what was eating me up went away.”
“But how did it go away? What did you do?”
“Like, at the beginning, I felt sorry for myself, I guess. Not like, you know, pity or anything. But then one day I stopped being so angry. ‘You’re just a little girl,’ I said to myself. ‘It’s not your fault your parents died. It’s okay you messed up. It’s okay to be angry about your face and hate everyone. You’re just a little girl. I forgive you, little girl, for all the bad things you did.’ Like that. It’s crazy, isn’t it? To have one part of yourself be nice to another part. Like, the nice part of my face saying nice things to the ugly part. After a while, the nice part and the ugly part stopped hating each other. There was peace inside of me, like the different parts disappeared and there was only one me. After that, I saw how the other girls were like me, and I started doing the same thing with them. I saw their ugly parts—and around here that’s not too hard, believe me—and I tried to be nice to their ugly parts.”
“We all have ugly parts,” I say to myself, forgetting for a moment that Ixtel is sitting next to me.
She gives a short laugh that sounds like a cough because of the shape of her mouth. “You say that as if you never knew it.”
“I never knew it like I do now.”
There’s a lot of wisdom here, but I will just make one comment.
We’ve all heard that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe Ixtel shows us that when we do the work of learning to love ourselves—including our ugly parts—we might find it easier to love our neighbor.
(Note: Issues we face today—issues of race and the value of an ordinary human life in the face of a pandemic—are, at their root, about how we see beauty in another person. So these reflections from Landon Saunders are especially relevant now. GM)
My friend, Dr. Richard Beck, poses the question, “Do you want to have a beautiful life?” An inability to see beauty in a human life costs us something precious to a good life, a flourishing life.
In 1962 I met a deeply troubled boy, thirteen, who had already been in a number of juvenile lockups. When something went wrong in the community, James Garner was the first suspected and accused. I will not describe here what he looked like the day I met him. I will only say I had never met anyone like what I saw…and visited with. His was a “throw-away” life in the eyes of most. This lad soon came to live in my home during his teen years.
And, slowly, something buried from sight began to appear—traces of something beautiful. He would never have known how to say it and would never have thought to use the word “beautiful,” yet, in spite of all his failures, he wanted a beautiful life.
Traces of something beautiful began to appear in an infectious laugh; in some drawings and small sculptures he created; in his instant forgiveness for any slight, any wrong, however unjust that was inflicted on him; the absence of grudges, resentments, blame, or feeling sorry for himself; no expectations for anything given to him but everything received with a bit of twinkle in his eye.
Without my knowing it at the time (the years were often trying, difficult), I was witness to something I have come to recognize as beauty in a life to which no one would have assigned the word.
Slowly, through the years and to this day, a sense of life that is wrapped up in the question Richard Beck raises and that I witnessed in the life of James Garner, has informed what I look for and treasure in the lives of those I meet—something called beauty.
Last fall, I received a call telling me James had died. At his wake and memorial, I listened to the stories told by his wife, his son and his daughter, the people he had known through the years— stories told with quaking voices and tear-filled eyes of how James had affected their lives. It was a time of beauty.
At the beginning I was to have been his teacher. What I didn’t know then was that he would be my teacher, one of the most powerful of my entire life. And so, I said “Farewell” with heart running over with emotions for which I have no words.
“Do you want a beautiful life?” Do we recognize beauty in a life?
One of my favorite passages in children’s literature is the opening scene from Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in The Willows. It’s spring and Mole is cleaning up his underground lair:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for [his] steep little tunnel…So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. “This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!”
I laugh every time I read that—especially when he mutters, “Up we go! Up we go!”
And I think: Not a bad metaphor for the journey of a human being through this world—especially in times like these.
We might think of our journey through a day, a year, or a life, in three overlapping phases that recur again and again.
Phase One: “Something up above was calling.”
No matter how buried we can sometimes feel underneath burdens, demands, problems or just routine, if we’re quiet, we can always hear the upward call of Spring, of sunlight, of the joy of living—a call to rise and transcend. A kind of divine discontent.
Phase Two: “Up we go! Up we go!”
This is about the climb—doing the work of following that upward call to light and joy and meaning and awareness in the midst of everyday things. Instead of letting things overwhelm us, we “scrape and scratch and scrabble”—we overcome.
Phase Three: “This is fine!”
This is about experiencing a breakthrough—overcoming the law of the gravity of life that can weigh us down with the law of levity, lightness, and joy.
We could do worse than have this as a goal: to be able to say at the end of a day or a life (no matter what happens), “This is fine!”
And along the way, we could do worse than this for a mantra: “Up we go! Up we go!”
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