Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I ran into this article about self-control a few days ago, and so self-control as a virtue has been jostling around my head since then. Discipline isn't a common topic of discussion around college campuses these days (at least, not mine). The cultural focus is on self-actualization / self-realization / fulfillment / happiness: the self as god. Self-control postulates the reverse: self as servant to ... what? Higher goals than one's immediate desires, anyway.

I am pretty disciplined about getting my homework done, waking up on time, eating healthily, holding my tongue, showing up to meetings. People consider me responsible. And yet I do things like spend the majority of a three-day weekend reading a novel (and now it's Tuesday night and I'm still in Cryptonomicon's thrall), or eat half a bar of dark chocolate in a sitting, or wander around day-dreaming of fairy-tale love. I indulge in mid-afternoon planning sessions, trying to map out how many requirements I've fulfilled and how many are still lurking on my path, checking off completed classes like I'm collecting scalps.

This is a darker temptation: the need to justify my existence to myself. The need to pass my own standards, to surpass onlookers' expectations. The compulsion to make a good impression, most of all on myself. The drive to be good enough.

In I Samuel 18, everyone loves David, and no one cares about Saul any more. [Now if you'll just bear with me for a moment... (I promise I'm not doing this!)] My Bible study is doing a character study of David, and this is the chapter we're reading tomorrow. But this chapter seems more Saul-centric. David may be the main character, but the emotions we hear about are all Saul's. Saul is very angry, he's galled (v. 8), he's jealous (9), he's afraid (12), he's still more afraid (29). Why is Saul so upset? All his angst comes out when he realizes that "the Lord is with David," and it gets worse and worse as more and more people switch to David's side (that's how Saul perceives it, at least). So is he upset because he's unpopular? I think his loss of popularity is just an exacerbating factor. The actual reason for Saul being so disturbed is that God isn't with him.
Problem: Saul is far from God.
Remedy: (A) Saul should try to kill David because God is with David.
(B) Saul should approach God.
Hm, which one is a better solution? If you ask Saul, the answer is (A). Clearly there's a disconnect here: Saul is disturbed because he's far from God, but the way he deals with the problem is to take actions that increase his distance from God (i.e., attempt murder). What's going on in his head?

I think Saul is in a state of mind where he can't conceive of humbling himself. He's the king of Israel, he's powerful, he's a head taller than everyone else, he's on top of the world--at least, he thinks he should be. He's relying on himself. And that's why he's so afraid. Losing his reputation, losing his kingdom, these losses would destroy him, because those are the only things he has.

A kingdom, and a family, and a reputation are not trivial. However, they are not a reliable foundation for an identity.

Here's the issue: I keep thinking like Saul. Self-reliance is a deadly temptation, and it comes with a complementary poison, self-absorption. The kid's computer game Jumpstart 3rd features a bratty girl who redraws the solar system as the Polly system, with all the planets orbiting around her face. That's my mental image of self-absorption. It's so easy to start thinking as though the whole system as orbiting around my own little notions.

But that's not how it is. In reality, my self-condemnation doesn't count, because God is the real judge, and my self-vindication doesn't count either, because God is the one who gives worth. Worth is all relative (an item is worth something to someone or for some purpose, not just in a void), and God is the agent relative to whom real worth is calculated. I need to have that larger perspective, to see myself in the light of His evaluation and as part of a larger system than my immediate surroundings.

Mental Virus

From Cryptonomicon:
The virus of irony is as widespread in California as herpes, and once you're infected with it, it lives in your brain forever. A man like Prag can come home, throw away his Nikes, and pray to Mecca five times a day, but he can never eradicate it from his system. (387)
Oh Neal Stephenson, you slay me. You write these brilliant books, with hilarious lines, and how long do you make them? Yes, 900 pages. Who writes books that long? I start reading and then I just don't stop. Suddenly it's 2am and my chances of resisting swine flu have plummeted. If I get sick and die, I would like just a little bit of the blame to go to you.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My friend fed me tonight. I dropped by her room, several hours after I normally would have eaten dinner, 30 minutes before she had to leave for a meeting. Within a minute, she handed me a plate piled high with spaghetti and an amazing tomato-garlic-sausage explosion. Needless to say, it was delicious.

She sat next to me on the couch and watched me eat, as though she was doubting whether I liked the food. (I wished she wouldn't watch, though, because I was splattering tomato sauce all around my mouth as the noodles whipped around and tried to slip off the fork.) "Isn't the sausage good?" my friend asked. I told her it was delicious, that everything was delicious. "I thought it was really good sausage. I gave you a lot of it, I don't know if you want it all. But I figured since you don't buy meat,* I should feed you some."

It was a lot of meat, more than I would have served myself. But I ate it very happily, because she had given it to me, thinking of me. It felt lovely to be taken care of. I do enjoy living away from home, cooking for myself, setting my own schedule--but sometimes independence becomes empty. When you share a meal with someone, you commune on a level deeper than words. When someone voluntarily cooks for me, I know in my bones and gut: that person cares about me.

When I finished the pasta, my friend served a scoop of ice cream, swimming in homemade caramel sauce. The sugar sang in my mouth.

Sitting with my friend, letting the conversation slip by, sweetened my soul. A friendship is built on a million moments like that--just living together. Talking is good, too. But conversations are captions; the pictures are the important part.

*I love meat, but I don't buy it because the meat that my conscience finds acceptable (free-range type stuff (though the terms are so fuzzy that it's hard to know)) is not at all acceptable to my pocketbook.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Adulthood eludes me.

"Your shoelace is untied." "Oh, whatever. I'll race you!" So we dashed up the black marble stairs, leaving the cavernous building with its roaring fountains. M. crashed against something but I ran past him. I shoved the glass doors open and burst into the night.

M. called my name as he ran after me. "I almost broke that sign! but it wouldn't be the first time I broke Wang Center property. But that other time I wasn't alone in the breakage! I couldn't have folded the boat myself." "The fountain was your fault! You're the one who put the boat there!" And we ran through the campus. Our feet pounded between the buildings that loomed, silent and empty. I'm sure they wondered why we were laughing so hard. Maybe I'm supposed to be too old for this.

But who cares?

The stars don't mind, and neither do the crickets.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Summer is over.

The rain has arrived. I woke to silver light, too silvery to read by, and when I ran outside, I found the grass and trees and pavement silver, too. With the insistent grey clouds looming everywhere, yesterday's blue sky seemed like a fantastic dream. The sky--the vault that feels so empty, the vastness of space--doesn't exist, when the clouds come. Instead, a veil of water and shadow swathes the island. The distant sky is replaced by an intrusive and inquisitive cloud, whose wet fingers poke and prod and prickle and caress, and whose vague face watches from above.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interior Decorating

I am addicted to comfort, and afraid of hope. I quash my imaginings, fold them up neatly and layer them in the bottom of an empty drawer. Occasionally one wakes up and batters itself against the inside of the dresser so the drawer clunks back and forth. The shaking rouses all the other visions and dreams, too. They flap and flutter, and at least one escapes into the open air. It follows me around, getting in my eyes, casting flitting shadows that distract me from whatever I'm looking at. Every time I put something down, I'm afraid I'm about to squish it into a stain on my book or bag or butt. I don't want to smash those dreams, really. I want to have them around. I just don't want them as a real part of my life. They're too dangerous. Following a butterfly will get me lost in the woods.

Instead of gazing at my dreams, I pore over memories. I sort through filing cabinets and pull out my favorites. Those hang on the wall to constantly remind me: those good times are real. They happened once, so they can happen again. But my imagination is too stunted from being kept in the drawer, too afraid of being shoved back into that small orthogonal space, to take any risks in envisioning the repetition of a good moment. My imagination doesn't dare translate a situation to a new cast of people or a novel location. It keeps the plots tethered to their characters and setting. My imagination plays slide-shows of memory's photographs, instead of painting pictures of its own.

I live in a house wall-papered with memories, with the curtains shut to keep out the brilliant light of the future.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


This morning, the drops of water hung on the ornamental grass by the sidewalk, like tiny beads of silver or glass. Pearly light drifted down through the clouds and landed on the water droplets. The light's caress polished them. They gleamed. Dangling, luminous, they transformed the grass, cast a spell over the whole scene.

That ephemeral beauty stopped me in my tracks. But the path shook me along, past the enchanted grasses, and I went about my day. The sun and wind dried the grass back into ordinariness. But the water still glimmered in my mind. If I could, I would wear a necklace of those water drops (shining in the fog, soft as the morning air), and I would ignore all the world's diamonds.