05 August 2013

Bittersweet Reality

Or...What I Wish My AP English Teacher Taught Me

Boys are conniving; girls are gullible. And thus true love doesn't work out. Ever. People are, generally, selfish. Hell combines like a neverending dryer cycle, whipping people around and throwing them to their deaths. Heaven ... well, have you actually seen evidence of it in the material at hand? Kings and rulers can't be trusted (neither can lovers, parents, friends, policemen, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers ...). Science/technology deceive/injure the masses. Flowers wilt, but weeds refuse to die ... and they proliferate at a surprisingly flower-choking rate. Marriages don't last; kids know better than parents; women have to take a stand; the innocent get swept through the threshers of life. And, no matter how hard you try, life doesn't turn out happily. It just doesn't. That's reality.

So why try?

My first high school English class yanked me across the threshold between childhood and reality. One list of required readings. All of them books wherein the protagonists ricochet from one misfortune to another (as seen by the above), growing steadily more hard and brittle, until finally they shatter against that last great tragic event that brings the books to their gloomy ends.

My analytical skills were rudimentary at best; but I quickly noticed two things about these books: 1) not a single happy ending; 2) not really a truly happy line within them. Any of them.

I learned a lot more than just the fine points of ripping apart books to sound smart: I learned the deconstruction of the happy story. I learned that people think life is real and bitter.

I had to admit ... Winston Smith did appear a lot more like your average bloke on the street than would a Prince Charming. I'd never seen an actual Nancy Drew, someone who always escaped misfortune in the nick of time ... but I'd heard of plenty of real-life Tess D’Urbervilles. And Hamlet ... it just goes to show you that even if you don't waste your life away worrying about what you're going to do with your life, there's very little you can actually do once you quit wasting your life away worrying about what you're going to do with your life....

And since this was all being talked about in a school by people with advanced degrees, it must have merit. Right?
I managed the learning curve in time to write AP test essays so convincing in disparagement that I passed in the upper levels. I hated having to do it; such a perspective left a picture of the world, to me, thinned, faded and without breath.

But in college I began to, inevitably, grow up. And I realized that … life isn't a fairy tale. At least, that's what I learned from my peers. Suddenly it seemed that every song we sang, every church address that was given, every conversation, had to do with battling darkness, seeking for strength, pleading with heaven for help, and — that horrible word — enduring. Enduring from one rude jerk to the next, just like the protagonists in those AP English books.

What had happened to the childhood songs and lessons about sunbeams, singing streams, happy families, helpful children, the Savior's love, the virtue of faith, clapping our hands for joy, being happy like Jesus and making others happy like He would want us to? Was life really like Shakespeare having a bad day (or Faulkner or Orwell having even a relatively good one)? If life was to be solely endured, why were we even here?

What was it about the passage between childhood and adulthood that seemed to suck so much of the wonderful, magical, easy-come happiness from life? What was the point of suffering?

As adults, we’re happy, yes. We find things to smile about and laugh about and hope for. But our enjoyment, even subconsciously, becomes perhaps more precious because it seems to come with more effort, silhouetted by the stories we hear of others, even close to us, who never find it ... or who lose it. And sometimes we're afraid to open ourselves up to it ... because everything, even happiness, must have a catch. That’s reality. A bitter pill.

Over the years, though, and especially recently, I've learned something else about reality, bitterness and the pursuit of happiness — something I wish I’d learned that first semester in high school. Life's not a comfortably removed fairy tale. But it's definitely not a Faulknerian tramp fest either.

At least, it doesn't have to be. Not with the right perspective.

Take, for example, this:

"These difficult lessons teach us that man's extremity is God's opportunity, and if we will be humble and faithful, if we will be believing and not curse God for our problems, He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples — or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace." —Jeffrey R. Holland (see the full address here)

And this:

"The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude." —Joseph B. Wirthlin (see the full address here)

And, lastly, this:

"All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it." —Joseph Smith (see here)

I definitely lack in the perspective sector. But I’m learning. 

Sugar never did a thing for snakebite. Reality. That’s why the life of mankind is fraught with challenges. God both prescribes and allows bitterness to draw the bitterness out of us — to make fallen man eternally fit for utter happiness.

That's the answer. The core missing from all those AP English books. Heaven is there. And intimately aware of, and concerned with, us. People are imperfect, but by and large good. Suffering must be. But true happiness is no fairy tale. It takes work, yes. It takes strength and endurance, of course. We have to keep believing in it, even when it seems like simple wisps and lies. We have to face down challenges with a smile. Even a smirk, if that's what it takes to make us feel better. 

“God expects you to have enough faith and determination and enough trust in Him to keep moving, keep living, keep rejoicing. In fact, He expects you not simply to face the future (that sounds pretty grim and stoic); He expects you to embrace and shape the future — to love it and rejoice in it and delight in your opportunities.” —Jeffrey R. Holland

It's not just about enduring. 

Children can find fun like marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms. Adulthood is a journey of transcending from shallow fun to deep, rich happiness. It's chocolate coins v. gold. It's a sandpile v. Everest. A yellow crayon v. an actual sunbeam. Pleasure v. joy. Coal v. diamonds.

The value's in the earning.

Someday reality, as we know it, will end. Fixation with the bitter will trend out. The curtain will roll back, and we will see the sum of all our efforts to find happiness. And, if we have done it right, the return on our investment will be unimaginable in its scale.

Until then, "let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed" (D&C 123:17).

That's the reality I choose.

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