Fighting The (Good?) Fight

My blood is still boiling.  My breath seethes. I may look like I am smiling, but really my teeth are on edge. For over a week, the conversation– that began innocently enough– has run an endless loop in my brain.  With each new loop comes a swift kick to my butt.  I had had a rebuttal, but I didn’t give it.  Now it jabs, bobs, and weaves in my mind, waiting to be let loose on my opponent.  It screams for justice, for victory, for the declaration of “I AM RIGHT!”.

What was this conversation that got my panties in a bunch?  That has had me on edge all week?  Alright, I’ll tell you.  It will be a relief to declare my evidence– so unwillfully withheld and stewing in my cranium: “Of course Charles Dickens had class consciousness!  His dad was sent to a debtor’s prison, and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory to pay off his dad’s debt!  Dickens would have to be a complete knucklehead to NOT have class consciousness!  AND it was this experience that drove him to be rich and successful!  Jane Austen lived a life of relative comfort and wanted for nothing!  It’s not like there was an Occupy Steventon or Occupy Bath when she was growing up!”

Whew!  That was like cutting open an infected wound and letting all of the puss slide out.  Oh, the relief!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is what my friends and I argue about.

Why didn’t I give my rebuttal when I had the chance?  A variety of factors: I haven’t thought of Dicken’s childhood in a very long time and didn’t have that information right at the tip of my tongue; I was exhausted and recovering from a headache; the conversation moved quickly; I think associatively, and my rebuttal at the time was, “Comparing Austen to Dickens is like comparing Dickinson to Whitman: both lived during the Civil War, but one wrote about it and the other didn’t.  Should we fault Dickinson for not writing about soldiers and battles?  She wrote about private stuff and her home life, as did Austen.”  I think, also, I felt a bit personally on the defensive.  In defending Austen for not being class-conscious, I was defending myself for liking her novels and gleefully watching Downton Abbey.  So the class structure was awful in England.  People were butlers and second lady’s maids.  There were rich people and middling rich people.  It’s how it was. Should I not watch Gone With The Wind because it has slaves?  Should I not watch Dead Poets’ Society because the prep school didn’t admit girls?

How did Dickens get in the mix?  I was agreeing to the fact that Austen is not very class-conscious in regards to the lower class, but was for people who were just below her station, at her station, or above her station.  However, her way of life didn’t really call on her to be aware of those far beneath her.  My friend retorted, “Dickens did, and he lived at that same time.  This is just as bad as saying the Founding Fathers didn’t know that slavery was bad.  They knew.”  You can imagine how that got steam coming out of my ears.  This is why I wish I had said what I wanted to about Dickens.  It would have nipped that line  of thought in the bud.

But I am serious when I say that I’ve been stewing over this for a week.  It has become my internal soundtrack.  All it does is make me mad.  And frustrated. Why is it so important that I get the last word on this one? Why have I been unable to let it go? Why do I have to rehash all of this all of the time?  I have tried to end the discussion in my head, letting myself know that I can take quiet joy in the fact that I am right and that she doesn’t know that much about Dickens’s life if she’s going to make that hasty comparison.  I have killed many negative conversations in my head before, because, really, there’s nothing that can be done about them.  The conversation is done and over with.  To go back and say, “Um, Dickens grew up in poverty…” makes me petty, holding onto something that has fallen off everyone else’s radar.  This conversation, however, will not die.

Part of the reason I think it remains on life-support is that my friend is very intelligent and confident.  I constantly feel like I need to prove myself. She is also very quick with a retort, while I need time to process my information, to weigh the validity and veracity of my response. She has passed start and collected her $200 a few times while I’m still on St. James Place.  I kind of feel like a dunce.  The thing is, I don’t think she realizes she does this.  I also think that she probably doesn’t see me as a dunce, but it’s how I feel.  My little nugget about Dickens is my redemption, my “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card, but unlike that card, Dickens’s childhood will not get played.

Oddly Enough, Your Life Is Based On A True Story

Yesterday I read Duana Easley’s post The Comfort? Zone in which she discusses a conference that posited how the world better place if we lived our lives like a story.  She writes, “If we give the way we live our lives the same thought and importance that we would use on a story we are writing, the world would become a better place. Donald Miller, the conference speaker, said, ‘The best way to change the world is to tell a good story with your life.'” She continues her post by recounting a lesson she presented to her students about what it means to be “comfortable” and how ultimately, comfort holds us back.

The idea of living our lives as if they were stories resonated with me, for it boils down the messiness of life into literary terms: characters, setting, theme, conflict, plot, and tone (if you prefer your life to be a poem, then mood).  We are all characters, and we must ask, like Dicken’s David Copperfield, if we will “turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else…?” We alone can only decide what kind of people we wish to be and determine if we are in control of our lives or give that power to others.  Much of the setting we find ourselves in, we cannot control.  We cannot control what year it is nor can we control the beliefs, customs, and rules in the area that we live in.  We can control our responses to them.  If we live in an ugly setting, we can beautify it.  Even To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Mayella Ewell attempted to add beauty to her junkyard house by planting geraniums.  But will the setting be the hero of your story?  Will you let it define you?   Mayella’s, unfortunately, defined her.  With theme, we can think about what message our lives should represent.  What lessons can be taken from our everyday actions or our eulogies?  For some us it’s about kindness; for others, perseverance.  But deciding on our life’s message can help in shaping our conflicts, plot, and tone.  Granted, we cannot always control the issues and events that life throws at us, but by having a theme, it can lead us to decide which battles we really want to fight and the things we want to participate in.  All of this boils down to the tone of your life.  What is the attitude your life will take?  Is life a journey or to be endured?

This philosophy of life as story makes a lot of sense, especially today when there is so much talk about being “present in the moment” and emphasis on living “the good life” and “having it all”.  But what does all of this mean?  What is “the” good life?  What does “all” encompass?  I have a home, a job, and a loving husband.  Is this good enough?  Is it “all” or am I missing something?  Isn’t more important to live “a” good life?  To compound this issue, there are a variety books, articles, and programs out there designed to make you happy with your life.  How many people have you heard about participating in “happiness projects”?  Does organizing family photos or bills really make one happy?  It may actually feel a bit stressful.  I once read an article that said that people who focused on their own happiness were less happy than those who didn’t. Happiness, or having it all, cannot be commodified and made into a product.  One cannot fill a happiness piggy-bank and expect it to gain interest, nor is there a guaranteed return on one’s investment.  Doing projects to make oneself happy or going after the ideal of “having it all” do not necessarily breed contentment; instead they make other things the hero of one’s life.

But thinking of your life as a story places you as the hero.  You can determine how your story will be written.  If you do not like the way your story is being written, you can change it. There’s a reason why plot twists exist.  Granted, this is easier said than done, which is why some people’s themes might be perseverance, but imagine how much happier we would be.  This doesn’t mean that your life would have a story book ending or that each day would be full of adventure and glory– to recount a discussion between two of my lit professors, one who claimed Dickens was episodic and the other who retorted, “Life is episodic!”.  But being in control of your own episodic life is much more satisfying than being a slave to other’s.

Easley’s second point was about comfort and how it holds us back.  We are often loathe to try new things because they are uncomfortable, or we stay in toxic situations because it’s what we know.  Comfort, though, weaves its spell and prevents us from being the hero of our own stories.  It gives us the illusion that we’re in control, but really it holds the reins.  Just like writing in real life is hard and challenging, if we wish to be authentic, we must challenge ourselves to move beyond what is comfortable if we wish to be our own heroes.