Friday, January 7, 2011

Chesterton's Dragons

"I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."

G.K. Chesterton

I was in a deep despair when I first encountered Chesterton. Having been raised in A Particular Environment, I was familiar with old G.K. I recognized his picture and knew of his books. You might have said that I was acquianted with the man, but knew him not.

I was surprised and relieved to find him to be the best elixer for my wounded heart. I wasn't lovesick or homesick or physically sick. I hadn't lost my faith in God. I had, however, lost faith in myself.

You might assert that losing faith in yourself is no cause for alarm. I, however, couldn't manage to get through the day without feeling that my existence was futile.

I spent my days caring for a toddler who was good and curious and energetic, and a mother who was recovering from near-death and who mirrored my toddler in many ways. My husband worked all night, went to school all day, and I...despaired.

I decided for some odd reason that it would be the perfect time to train for a half-marathon. Though I was in good shape, I hadn't ever run a mile, let alone 13.1, but it was the only thing I could think of to get me out of the house.

I didn't have an iPod or radio or any other source of amusement. I ran around the World's Smallest Indoor Track for hours at a time, with only my imagination and sweat to keep my company.

As I ran and ran and wiped my nose against my t-shirt and counted the laps, I imagined myself on a stage. I sang, I acted, I told jokes. I was in a beautiful gown. I talked into a microphone. I was a researcher. I found the cure for cancer. I had beautiful white teeth.

There was only time for me to take a few classes at this time, and I picked one that piqued my interest: The History of Fairy Stories. I would have never been able to predict how much this class would change my life. Fairy? Isn't that a tiny little pixie?

My professor assigned a Chesterton work called 'Ethics in Elfland' taken from his book Orthodoxy. Of all the times I saw this book sitting on my dad's shelf, I never imagined the veritable treasure trove that was within.

Chesterton talked about wonder and life and golden apples and the belief that life was an adventure, a tale of wonderous delight that doesn't have to literally hold dragons as much as believe that dragons exist.

He spoke of the heart and how to ensure that the heart doesn't become brittle and locked, and he spoke of God and the sun and dandelions and wine. He made me believe that my life wasn't over.

I personally believe that G.K. Chesterton was somewhat of a genius. Perhaps not in original thought, but at least in his expression of thought and conviction of the same was the golden thread of truth.

Have you ever needed a life line?

The thing that I was most unprepared for in life was that life feels over NOT when you are sad or when bad things happen, but when you become apathetic.

Extreme circumstances in my life brought me to a closer realization of what I believed and who I loved and what I wanted to become. When the extreme danger and extreme tears and extreme fear had subsided, I was left with a hollow emptiness that felt like a black hole.

I've struggled with depression most of my life, and I know when that nagging feeling starts to gnaw on my heart. I hit it with Prozac and some exercise, talking to my friends and perhaps another serving of chocolate cake. In the season I've been describing, however, I was so beyond depression that to this day I don't know how I survived but for the grace of God and hard-headedness that borders on stupidity.

Enough of sadness! Chesterton lit my world with a torch that blazes ever true, to this day and beyond.

When I read his words, I wanted to read more. I wanted to wallow in them like a hippo in water, and toss and turn and bathe in the verbal potpourri that I didn't always understand but loved the way it smelled.

His words stayed with me while I was running, concocting all manner of unattainable lives for myself. His words literally gave me the energy to run another mile, change another diaper, cook another meal, dream another dream.

In a very movie-esque moment that I will remember ere the day grows old, I felt his words in a golden flash of a moment.

As I rounded mile 10, I found myself cresting a large hill. If you've ever run more than a few feet, you know that you often have to coach yourself. "You CAN do it!" I told my weary legs, "You WILL make it up this hill and you WILL make it to the finish line!"

My feet padded ever faithfully onward, slapping the pavement at awkward angles that gave away just how discouraged and tired I was becoming. And then....beautiful sunrise before me, runner's high in full swing, my own words of encouragement to myself still on shuffle in my brain...I understood what Chesterton meant.

We don't believe in ourselves. We don't believe that we will make it, we don't believe that we can keep going, and we don't believe that anyone will want to read what we have to say. But we believe that what we say is important, that what we are doing matters, that crossing the finish line is something that must happen regardless of our ability.

Those who are able to believe unswervingly in their dreams or person are too cocky to venture out into the world of chance. Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes to mind, if you remember Pride and Prejudice (which you should). She knew without trying that she would excel in everything she did. So, she did nothing.

Those that believe in their mission, however, know that they must go forth despite the chance that they'll never make it to their destination. How could we ever forget Frodo's words to Gandalf before he left The Shire? "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." The wise wizard replies, "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

If you haven't read those lovely books, that quote might not seem to fit. In my very emotional Lord of the Rings heart, it is all so entertwined that his words contain the whole weight of his journey. He couldn't do it, but the unhappy job had to be done. So he would go, and try, and take the ring as far as his hobbit hands could carry it. Lady Catherine would have never left Rosings, but Frodo went all the way to Mount Doom.

Belief in self had far less to do with the whole ordeal than belief in the mission.

What does all of this mean?

To my apathetic, cracked soul, it meant that I didn't have to believe in myself. It didn't matter that I had the self-confidence of a rug. I didn't have to forward my own interests or abilities. I DID, however, have to believe that SOMETHING was worth the mission.

And, despite my apathy towards my own existence, I knew through the words of G.K. Chesterton that the world was still full of sun and wine and God and dragons.

Chesterton told me:

"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

And, despite my apathy, I knew that the dragons must be beaten. The darkness must always be pushed back.

Sometimes you have to push it out of your own life before riding forth and pushing it back for the world.

Thanks to my friend Chesterton, I was able to do a little of both.


Beth McDermott said...

Here here! I'll think of you this weekend. Somewhere around mile 10, when Im wishing a dragon would jump out of the crowd and eat me alive and end the torture, and Im so dehydrated and delusional it totally seems realistic. xo

Kristi said...

This is extremely painfully beautiful. I am sure that nothing I can say would do justice to the way it touched my soul. Except that I am still crying...

Debbie McFarlin said...

Oh, how I relate! Thank you so much for all your words. The feelings you described are mine. I own them every other week or so. Some have described me as "too deep" and I had no idea what they meant, but as loneliness assails me when I'm in that level all by my lonesome self then I understand!

Keep running uphill! I'm right behind you.

eL. said...

Somehow I missed this one... but I think I was supposed to read it today. I love reading whatever you write, but this was exactly what my soul needed.