Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Words, One Phrase, and the End of Hope

Saturday Night, 2:30am

I didn't see it the first time I walked outside that evening. I didn't see it when I came back in or later that night when I went outside to spend some time with my housemates on the stoop. By the time I finally said goodnight to Bethany and walked her to the car, I still hadn't noticed the plain manila envelope with my name and address on it. It wasn't until my night was over, when my Friday smile seemed complete, that I chanced to glance upon it, tucked beneath a book at the front door where one of my housemates had left the Friday morning mail. In a very short time, that envelope would turn my Friday happiness to abject discouragement. Its contents would hold up to me a simple question, a phrase that had haunted me for most of my life, and despite the implications, would compel me once more to reflect on them.

But that was still to come.

Friday Evening, 5:20 pm

I'm standing under the awning outside the subway entrance, away from the drizzling rain as the traffic snarls around the corner, horns honking, the cars stuck halfway through the intersection. I love Fridays. No work, some time to write, and the week's wait to see my girl is finally over. Daylight has already started to fade, and the crowds jostle past me along the sidewalk as everyone hurries home for the weekend. A group of teenagers, excited and slightly blind to the people around them, sweep past me. Two construction workers amble along behind them, arguing about the Leafs. Mostly though, I notice the professionals. The suits and sharply clicking heels. There seems an endless stream of them. They stride with good posture as they chat on their cell phones, impervious to the people around them. I glance down at my workout pants and running shoes. Soon enough I'll be heading home, to the tiny room I call home and the house I share with my nine roommates. I watch a man in a dark suit, who looks to be about five years younger than me, stroll by, laughing into his cell phone even as he glances at the shiny silver watch on his wrist. I nod to myself, determined to not give away my Friday happiness or think about what might have been as I head down the stairs to the subway.

When I was a kid, I tended to flit from dream to dream. One year I wanted to be a boxer. No coincidence, it was the year I saw Rocky III. The next year I chanced upon the movie Breakin', while on vacation with my parents, and for a whole summer I wanted to be a professional break-dancer. (Not ideal for the chubby, white suburban kid.) And so it went. From sportscaster to wildlife biologist, I finally 'settled' on professional ministry, believing it was what God wanted from me, and believing my abilities matched that which was required to work in the church.

At first, I was right. I loved the ministry. I loved the people. The purpose. The ideals. The surety of it all. Somewhere along the way however, it started getting messy. I asked too many questions, witnessed too many things being ignored, and could no longer find the willingness to work in a world that seemed so largely composed and ruled by the Western tendency towards commoditization and moral religiosity. Somehow, we'd taken the gospel, and all the hope it contained, and buried it in post-Enlightenment Rationalism, this idea that we have all the answers. That we must have all the answers. That God is a neat package to be delivered by us. That we are Jesus.

I never really adjusted after leaving the cozy world of ministry. No matter what job I took, the world forever seemed strange to me. I bounced from job to job, and as I grew older, watched quietly as my friends grew into homes and families and promotions, even as I would begin yet another 'career.'

I felt like a traveler walking the long roads between towns, stopping to rest for a while, but forever pushing forward. A part of me longed to settle down, but my feet had their own ideas. Perhaps it was the memory of my time in the church, and how it'd felt when I left. This crashing of life and hope when the world I believed in proved itself to be nothing more than a simple human creation that often had little to do with God.

Friday Evening, 5:43 pm

The train is packed, and I'm forced to stand near the doors. The woman beside me, a tall, thick blonde wearing an expensive looking skirt suit, is typing away on her blackberry. She notices me briefly, and with a look of disdain, turns her gaze back to the blackberry. A part of me wants to tell her not to be so egocentric. That she's not that special and that she merely happened to be in my line of sight. Who is she to look at me like that? I can feel my indignation rising, my jaws tightening.

I may wear workout clothes, but just wait until my books are published. Wait until it's my turn to look at you like that.

Leaving the ministry had the lasting effect of this feeling like I was a permanent stranger, but as my inability to feel as if I fit in somewhere deepened, I began to write more, and along the way discovered what would become my singular passion in life. Writing could be done anywhere if one had the discipline. It was writing that saw me through my divorce, writing that helped me move through my battles with depression, and writing that helped me work through the different questions in my life, not the least of which was this sense that I'd irrevocably messed up along the way, and that "normalcy" and "success" would forever be a stranger to me. In writing, I discovered that there was one dream to which I could always return. One place. One hope. One constant outside my faith that would help me navigate the seemingly transient nature of my personality. Year after year, I worked on my craft, occasionally publishing articles in magazines, but knowing that until a publisher said yes to one of my books, I would forever hold myself in doubt as "real" writer.

In some ways, I guess my hope was that the recognition would cement my credentials as someone who had done something, as someone who had accomplished something. It wasn't about the approval of others; so much as it was the approval of myself.

Friday Evening, 5:56 pm

I'm staring at the blonde now, waiting for her to look up so I can sniff and look away. Give her a taste of her own medicine. It's all contrived, I want to say. Sure, you have money and a career, and I might not look like much to you and your rich coterie, but you're just a shallow egg in a world of instant chicken. Just wait until I start publishing books.

My mind, as it often does these past two weeks, goes to my latest book proposal. Three months have passed since I sent it away. I am expecting to hear back from them some time in the next week.

I'd worked hard on my latest project. A year writing the book. Months editing. Another two months on the forty-page proposal. I had picked a publisher suited to my book. The only thing left was to wait.

My excitement builds the more I think about it, and by the time I get off the train I am no longer aware of the blonde or the two lawyers who bustle past me. Throughout the years, I have developed patience when it comes to the pursuit of my dreams. I know the publishing world is fickle. I know that there are tens of thousands with whom I am competing. Still, a part of me believes that perhaps finally, after so many years, my time has come.

Friday Night, 1:20am

I wave as Bethany drives away. As always, a piece of me sighs with sadness and then smiles at what I've been given. It is hard to pursue your dreams, hard to wait for success. For now, I am grateful for my new job, my family and friends. Soon, I tell myself, perhaps very soon, I'll finally realize my dream. I step inside and take off my shoes. As I slide them off to the side, I notice the manila envelope with my name on it.

My hands are shaking as I carry it up the stairs with me. I peel off my coat and gently set it aside. No longer able to wait, I slide my thumb underneath the flap and pry open the contents. The first page is a letter, and within seconds, I have my answer.

"Dear Stephen,
Thank you so much for the opportunity to review your proposal... unfortunately, we are unable to find a place in our publishing schedule for your manuscript, so we are returning your proposal..."

I let the letter slide from my fingers onto the table, and flip through my unmarked forty-page proposal before tossing it to the side. For the moment, I am numb. I've been rejected before, but somehow this one feels different. It feels... complete.

If only I'd stayed at one job. If only I'd accepted the truth about life. If only I'd made better decisions about my career. And about my writing. I'd still be unpublished, but at least I would have something to show for it. A house. A career. Some security. Because of my thoughtless and naive belief in pursuing my dreams, I'd made myself into a poor writer-wanna-be. A writer in name only. And a failure by any measure. I thought about the two lawyers in the subway. I knew that I was burying myself in self-pity, but I couldn't seem to escape it. If only I hadn't bothered to pursue my dream. If only I'd learned to appreciate more the simple things in life, and the rule by which most people lived. Why couldn't I be more normal? Why did I always have to be so...

I slipped my coat on and headed back outside, glancing only once at my carefully worked proposal now scattered across the kitchen table like yesterday's newspaper.

It was drizzling still as I ambled down the driveway. The streetlights reflected off the puddles like hazy film, the quiet of the early hour unusually oppressive. If only. Two words that had haunted me my entire life. I knew the words were dangerous, because they reflected on what could never be. They were hope thieves, words that created space for the not-possible. If only. Two words that could never be used in a positive way. Two words that spoke, not of the future, but of the irreversible past. Comparative in nature, to use the phrase "if only" was to reflect on what never would happen, and do so in the most disparaging nature. Unlike its distant cousin, "what if", that allowed and encouraged hope to endure, "if only" recognized one thing, and one thing alone:

"You failed. You failed and it was your fault. You failed, it was your fault, and you will regret it the rest of your life. Even worse, there is nothing you can do about it. You will never be able to change or alter what you have done."

In the distance, a car splashed down the road. I glanced up at the tree in my neighbour's yard, its leaves gone, glistening in the dim light of the street like a wet stick. I tried to remember how I'd felt moments before, to recall the gratitude, but it was a vague memory that suddenly seemed like another lifetime.

If only.

It was a long time before I finally headed in, and longer still before I fell into a rough sleep.

Sunday Afternoon, 1:30pm.

Another rainy day, only today is colder. I am outside, holding my coffee to warm my hands. I am still not sure how I feel. The weekend has given me time to process my rejection, but if I dwell on it for too long I can feel the emotions, tender and bruised, rising within me. I am hoping that to feel some encouragement. To be able to look forward again as I did just this past week. And most importantly, that I will be able to encourage people with my words and life. For now, however, I am lost in a cloud of sadness.

I know that I will bounce back, that I will once again press forward, hopeful and excited about the one passion around which I have carried for so long, and which has carried me on its shoulders for even longer. At least, I think I will bounce back. For the moment, I feel truly insignificant.

I feel like a failure.

Sunday Afternoon, 3:20pm.
I am in my room now, my papers and books scattered as always across my desk. My TV is off. The cursor blinks in front of me, and from my speakers comes the soothing sounds of Thomas Newman and Alan Silvestri. "If only" is more than a phrase. It is a statement of belief. It is a creed of the impossible and the destroyer of hope. It speaks the language of regret, and offers us coal in the place of diamonds. Perhaps the worst part is that it forces us to look at our past and give ourselves a failing grade. It doesn't allow for natural human weakness, for the rhythms of life, or for the possibility of chance. And most importantly, it does not allow a place for God. It speaks with surety about what was lost, and offers us nothing in return.

But life is surely more than that, isn't it? I am struck by the number of people, who like myself, wrestle with this idea of failure. This idea of a "progressive" life. What if life isn't supposed to be progressive? What if life is more than the next promotion, the bigger house, the better clothes? What if life is really not about the success we find, but the character we create along the way? The one that says "yes" to God, and "yes" to those around us.

Eliminating the phrase does not make things easy. Even now, I can feel the inner bruises, and the scars I know it will leave from this latest rejection. I wish I had a better answer about where God is in this process. I wish I knew why my friend, Ernie, who is the best artist I know, couldn't get his pieces into a gallery. I wish I knew why the relationship between talent and success made little sense, and why some people fulfilled their dreams and while others spent their lives in pursuit.

What I do know is that to find success and to fulfill your dreams are not necessarily the same thing. That to hope for the future is always better than to dwell on what never will be. And that the pain we feel when we experience failure is better than the emptiness of a life on the treadmill to nowhere. In that, this feeling, yes, of pain, is the feeling of a life hungry and hopeful. The rich and fabulous can have their cell phones and surety. Let them have their assured airs and marbled moments. Perhaps the life worth living is not the one we see on television or in the magazines, but the one carved out of the inevitable sorrow in the pursuit of our dreams.

"If only" may whisper that we are failures, and for a time, it may even convince us that it is true. My prayer then, this week, is that we would remember the most influential person who ever walked the planet never published a single book. Never traveled more than 35 miles from his hometown. And lived as a simple carpenter for most of his life.

To follow your dreams is to travel the road less traveled. And while there may be times you get lost, times when hope seems a distant memory, and times when the loneliness of the pursuit threatens to pull you under, remember that the only life worth living is the one you've been given, far beyond the shiny medals of self righteousness of those who would look down on you. Sadness will come, but only for a time. Pursue the life you were born to live, and hold fast to the passions of your heart. It will not be easy, but then, I don't think it is supposed to be. It is in our deepest sorrows that we discover who we truly are, and it is in those moments, more than any other, when we face up to the waves of doubt and discouragement, when we acknowledge what has happened and yet press forward, that we achieve something greater than our dreams.