Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

Prairie Encounters

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A Spring in my Step

While it has been quiet on my blog, it`s been hectic in my life thanks to three young adorable granddaughters who took up my time, energy and attention for nearly three solid weeks. I discovered that I can no longer mix writing and tending to the needs and whims of little disarming and enervating creatures.

But while my days were filled with laughter, summer fun and young charm, the world kept on `burning`: more police shootings in the US, another friend in palliative care with cancer, random killings by mentally unstable persons, 1/4 million civilians trapped in Aleppo, suicide bombings and a coup attempt in Turkey, break-in at a friend’s house, an ISIS terrorist attack in a parish in rural France killing an 86-year old priest, a friend struggling mightily with his son’s transgender orientation, a Husky oil spill in our own beloved North Saskatchewan river affecting 100,000 + people’s water supply, Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination and then angering his own constituency with discriminatory comments regarding a slain Muslim US soldier … and on and on and on …

It`s a sheer miracle that beauty and love, joy and compassion, mercy and justice still break through in this messed up world. Despite all the evil, the bad choices, the wrong-headed decisions, the undeserved pain and suffering, the natural disasters on all levels — personal, communal, global — God continues to remain intimately involved with us in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, even if evidence is hard to see.

Blessing and curse, good and evil, have always woven themselves into every corner of our existence. Charles Dickens said it well when he wrote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way.
~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

Still, if you’re anything like me, all the bad stuff around us makes me want to scream and storm heaven, demanding healing and justice and peace. But all we get is a call to foster a heart of peace, love and mercy after the example of Jesus. Much of the bad stuff is the result of evil finding a nesting place in hurting and vengeful hearts, and then growing to take up all that heart’s space, snuffing out any chance for love, mercy and peace. Evil always looks for a heart/spirit in which to make its home. The antidote to this, according to Brian Zahnd in his book Radical Forgiveness, is to absorb the blow without retaliation and without allowing it to damage, define or destroy one’s own spirit. This, according to Zahnd, is exactly what happened at Calvary when Jesus uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As I am currently reading Zahnd’s book, a concrete example of forgiveness came to mind, one that has inspired me in many a hard time in my own life. Etty Hillesum left a few dairies after WW II, during which time she died in Auschwitz, and a huge witness to a spirituality of beauty and mercy that can rival any famous saint. If anyone had reason to hate and seek revenge, it was her. Yet, she didn’t let the horrors around her define her. No, her heart was committed to seeking beauty, love and mercy no matter how bad the world was. Just absorb her wisdom in the following words:

WalkingBarbedWire1“All I wanted to say was this: the misery here is quite terrible and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and then time and again it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.  Against every new outrage and very fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness. … Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”  ~ An Interrupted Life, Etty Hillesum

One moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world. Thank you, Etty, for reminding us of the one important task.

While the world burnt, my heart/spirit drank in the love and hugs, the water splashes and fun with my dear granddaughters. I give wholehearted thanks for those energetic days of laughter and sunshine, for little feet dirtying my floor and leaving their footprints of love on my heart, and for the joyful exhaustion after all safely returned to their parents 🙂 It is little ones such as these that help shore up large amounts of the peace, grace and mercy needed to remain a whole human being in this beautiful yet broken world.

Prairie Encounters

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