Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Greatest Adventure (or, Why Lord of the Rings is Actually a Documentary)

It is a good thing for a man to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man to be snowed up in a street. It forces him to realize that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside. Above all, life, if it is to be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves.

The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial.

It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists, like a little kingdom, and like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.

It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.

The men and women who, for good reasons or bad, revolt against the family are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world…

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born. This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – Chesterton goes on at some length in this vein, and it is all very amusing and delightful. Clearly he is passionate about the subject, not just of the family, but of the essentially romantic and picaresque nature of life itself. The most romantic and startling thing that has ever happened to any of us was being born (even if we were too young to make note of it at the time). Even falling in love, he says, does not compare to this, since there is always some element of choice in that event. Being born is the shocking plot twist that none of us could have foreseen, and over which none of us has the slightest measure of control.

Just to give a bit more of the flavor of his prose, he says that ‘our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue.’ Now the tragic philosopher, Sartre for example, would maunder on at this point about nausea and ‘l’enfer, c’est les autres’ and such blather (I would have loved to see what GKC would have made of Sartre).

But really, it is not so much hell that is made up of other people, as, well Middle Earth. Narnia. Never-never land. The great adventure, the great sweeping epic story, is found nowhere but in the call to sally forth from the safe confines of the womb into the grand adventure of life and the very strange people indeed we find there.

A young couple I know just had their first baby. They are a very funny, goofy couple (who read this blog from time to time, so, um - hi, guys!), and I was joking with them that this poor kid had no idea what she was getting herself into by showing up in this particular home. But ain’t that the truth for all of us. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to.

We are all Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on the island of the world, foraging and salvaging a life from the bits and pieces of wreckage, flora, and fauna we find. We are all the child stolen by fairies in one of the old folk tales, but the fairies were our parents and our siblings. We are all embarked on a story we did not write, populated by characters we would never have chosen, with an ending we cannot possibly guess at (and no peeking ahead allowed!).

We can sit down and mourn and weep at how lousy it all is and how nauseous it makes us and what a rotten no good story it is. Or we can accept the adventure as it has been given to us, and get on with it. 
True, some people’s adventures are salted with a great deal more suffering and darkness than others. Given my ministry as a priest, I would be the last person to be unaware of that, or insensible to it. But nonetheless—adventure it is, one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books, since our choices in it do affect the ending. 

I believe even the darkest and grimmest of the grim fairy tales has a happy ending on offer, and that fact is what keeps us in the battle, on the quest, fighting the dragon, wooing the princess, fleeing the wicked king, scaling the cliff—whatever and wherever your story and mine takes us. And with that, I’ve got some dragons to slay and cliffs to scale today, so I’d better sign off for now! Have a good adventure.

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