Today is my birthday and as is my tradition, I reflect on the previous year, trying to find threads which make sense of my personal story while hopefully discerning where I am going on my journey through life.
Self-discovery was the theme of my thirty-third year. I have a tendency to be focused on externals, by which I mean anything but myself. This arose not because I truly understand myself, but because I have long struggled with inadequacy and dismissed myself as unimportant. And while I wouldn’t say I have completely overcome this, I have learned in the last year that the way forward is to be open and honest with myself because if I don’t understand myself, how can I move forward? When self-denial becomes self-dismissal it can result in resentment and bitterness. If we refuse to acknowledge our desires and dreams, we cannot evaluate them. Especially in terms of religion, which I am tentatively defining in this post as our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, this can be especially disillusioning.
And so my first step on this journey was Summer Intercession. I took a class on the Bible and film since it would count toward my Religious Studies degree. And while I learned a lot about film analysis, the biggest lesson I took was learning that we don’t just like or dislike movies; we like movies that resonate with us based on our life journey and experiences. As a result, if we take our DVDs off the shelf and consider the themes of the movies we truly love, we will find recurring themes. The art we consume resonates with our existential questions of identity and transcendent value. Art enables us to determine what questions we value, what questions we feel are worth asking. Most people never get beyond saying “I like that movie/book/album; it was awesome” or “that movie/book/album sucked.” Instead, the question should be “why did I like/dislike that movie/book/album?” followed with “what does that say about me and what I value?”
So here are some of the pieces of art I have to work with. Feel free to do your own analysis, but after listing the pieces I will give my impressions and conclusions.
- Doctor Who, which on one level is a connection to my childhood when, at age three and possibly earlier, I watched the show with my mom. For the past three years I have been watching every episode of Doctor Who in broadcast order and doing so has made me realize that some periods of the show’s 50-year-existence are more satisfying than others. In determining which stories to get on DVD, I am collecting the First Doctor era, the Second Doctor era, season seven, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes gothic horror stories, the stories for which Christopher H. Bidmead was script editor, and the Seventh Doctor era. There are multiple analytical threads here since the show has changed so much during the 50 years it has existed.
- Weird fiction, with an emphasis on H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which I almost prefer to Lovecraft, the real world suddenly shown to have other-worldly properties. Likewise, I love horror stories grounded in verisimilitude. Nothing kills a horror story faster than a revelation that asks me to suspend too much belief.
- Psychological crime drama, with an emphasis on shows/movies such as Luther, True Detective, Millennium, and film noir. It is also worth noting that two of these walk a fine line of mundane/supernatural.
- Sherlock Holmes stories such as the original canon, Sherlock, the Clive Merrison audio adaptations, Big Finish’s Holmes stories, and the Jeremy Brett series. With the exception of Sherlock, I feel that these stories get the characters of Sherlock AND Watson right. Sherlock, while still a show I enjoy, has moved from focusing on puzzle boxes to character moments. But this doesn’t mean I dismiss it. I love both characters, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Freeman’s Watson. Thus, Sherlock may appeal to me for different reasons than the other Holmes material. And along these lines, mystery shows and movies that have puzzle boxes are fun, and I resent them if they don’t play fair with the audience or don’t build their puzzles well.
- Journeys of self-discovery and reality-discovery (or reality-questioning), illuminating human nature in the face of natural or supernatural opposition. Looking through my favorite movies is quite enlightening for this: The Dark Knight (an existential superhero movie that plays with themes of natural forces and transcendence in mythology), Be Kind Rewind (using movies to create community and identity [which I am doing here]), Citizen Kane (what is worth pursuing in life?), The Grey (existential survival in a world that may or may not have meaning), The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (character who representing aspects of humanity are searching for treasure), Gladiator (a man who stood to gain everything has instead lost it due to the selfish ambition of another), Hellboy 1 & 2 (a character with a specific purpose chooses to go his own way, but struggles with his imposed destiny), Midnight in Paris (a character struggles with his longing for an idealized reality in the face of his actual reality), Pan’s Labyrinth (a young girl learns of a magical realm in which she is a princess while in her mundane life she is the step-daughter of a cruel general), Son of Rambow (finding magic, meaning, and friendship in film), and so on. Sometimes my description of the movie may give more of an indication of myself than the theme of the movie. Like the I Ching, how we interpret the results says more about us than what we interpret.
Looking at my artistic interests, I have concluded that I am someone who struggles with idealized versions of life and realities of life. Sometimes I have difficulty differentiating between what is an unrealistic, idealized existence and what is hope. I am engaged in solving the grand puzzle box of existence, taking pieces of my own experience and weighing evidence from other sources, sifting through information to try to distill a core truth or meaning. I want to follow the evidence where it leads, but I suspect that objective analysis may be impossible since we are constantly ruled by our own emotions, desires, and limited ability to perceive. Thus, it may be necessary to live within a narrative in order to evaluate its validity (we can’t tell you but we can show you). Life may be a combination of experience and reason, and any truth claims that emphasize one over the other may be overselling their merits. In fact, the main lesson I took from 1984, which I read this past year, was not fear of government surveillance and propaganda, but the realization that it is impossible to live outside of a narrative that tells you how to perceive reality. All narratives make claims to ultimate reality; all narratives tell us how to interpret reality. The real task of humanity is to decide which reality we wish to inhabit.
At the same time, however, we can influence the doctrinal statements of each reality, which are far more malleable than we sometimes realize. In the last year I have learned more about my own faith tradition (Christianity) and have come to question what exactly is essential in Christian doctrine. My current Occam’s Razor for evaluating Christianity has been to use historical context to sort doctrine. For example, anything that would not have been possible for the first century church to believe cannot be essential (although it can still be worth considering for clarification or meaning). As a result, my previously Protestant faith as become a bit more fluid as I have seen far more influence of the hand of humanity in the development of the Western (American) church than the Spirit.
And going from that last statement, I feel that most of my life I have experienced American Christianity, not God. Again, looking at stories that question reality, stories where characters encounter the horrific yet attractive numinous (Lovecraft, Chambers, Doctor Who in some cases, even psychological crime drama) are best interpreted as my own quest for God, my attempts to connect with the divine in a way that is not so much doctrinal or intellectual, but emotional and experiential. I am head heavy. I am analytical. In moments of crisis, confusion, and pain, reason sometimes feels like a last-grasp at straws. I crave a mystical experience, one that I cannot reason away. I long to see reality unfiltered by human construct, should such a thing be possible, even if I risk madness (a la The King in Yellow and Lovecraft). The idea that life is nothing more than going to work, making money, buying stuff, and voting your conscience is, quite frankly, exceedingly boring to me. I have spent most of my life struggling to find peace in the boredom, but it isn’t working.
I want to live in a world where magic is possible. I long for it. I crave it.