Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In Search of Humility

Dreams, Darkness and Glory

There's a scene in Sasha Baron Cohen's new movie, Bruno, in which he poses as a movie producer in search of a child actor. In his discussion with the hopeful parents of a three year old, he asks them if they'd be comfortable with a weight loss program for the baby that might include liposuction. He also informs them that the role would include their baby being "crucified" on a cross. Would that be a problem? No problem at all, the parents tell him, we really want this part.

Say what you will about Cohen's comedy, (not my style) or the possibility that he "Michael Moore's" the interviews, we've seen and heard enough in the past fifty years about former child stars to presume the interview was not staged. From Lindsay Lohan to Corey Haim to Michael Jackson, the list of intrusively abusive parents in their quest for vicarious stardom over the past century continues to grow. And while the stories are occasionally related to money, it seems there is something much deeper at stake, something beyond money in this cultural obsession with celebrity.

As a youth worker, I have lamented this for many years, puzzling at the core of what would drive someone to use other people, especially their own children, for something so… vacuous. And quick. Imagine my surprise then, this past week, when I realized not only what made this type of abuse possible, but that I had become guilty of it as well.

***

Westmount Crescent is a quiet street on the northern edge of Welland, a small blue-collar city in Southern Ontario. The street is lined with large maples, and every fall it becomes draped in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows, as if taken from a scene in an old movie. Aside from the odd puttering of lawn mower, about all you'll hear is the wind whistling through the leaves. Most of the residents are older now, and have lived there for twenty or thirty years. My parents moved there in 1972, and I was born just a few days later. Like most of the city, I was raised in the unpretentious style of the moderate home. There is little to find in Welland that would suggest "star seeker", and indeed, the idea of the child actor's abusive parents is met by scoff there.

As a kid, and even later as a teenager, Welland seemed big to me. Until my first move to Ottawa as a twenty-five year-old, I never realized just how small my hometown was, yet even then, I remember thinking and dreaming about being a star. About moving to Hollywood or writing a best-selling novel. The lure however, had very little to do with money. Being "known" was far more important, and I'd watched enough inspirational movies to know that anything was possible.


My first attempt at a novel quickly disabused the notion of sudden celebrity, but it didn't matter. I was willing to work, and for the next decade I averaged a thousand words a day. I wrote three novels, a memoir, none of which drew much attention from the literary world, and yet through it all I managed to stay positive. With the occasional published article and enough compliments from various sources, I set myself to wait for the big moment. The one where I hit publishing glory. The one where my name would suddenly be known to editors and agents. The one where I would no longer walk into Chapters or Barnes & Noble as just another reader, but as a distinguished author.

I wrote and wrote, waiting, ever hoping, ever believing, ever holding onto the dream.

But it never happened. And this year, it finally began to take its toll.

In the past, I would simply get up, have my coffee, and write. But suddenly that had changed. Every day it became progressively harder to write. For the first time in my writing life, the words did not come. It wasn't writer's block so much as it was writer overflow. There were too many things to say and to write about, without the surety of whether or not it made a difference. A small voice kept nagging at me.

Who cares? Who cares if you write? What difference does it make? What makes you think you're going to get a book published now? You'll always be a nobody.

For the first time, my pace faltered. I started missing days. I would walk into the computer room and spend an hour on the internet and walk away. No matter what I told myself, the truth was self-evident. I hadn't made it. I was turning 37, and I was the same literary nobody I was when I was 23. Meanwhile, I felt a part of me dying. It was more than the writing, it was the dream, and it was breathing its final gasps without any way for me to stop it. I could feel myself standing on the side of the road watching it die as if it'd been hit by a car. That I was getting married and excited about my relationship with my bride to be and all that meant made the feeling strangely more acute.

I was lost.

*****

For idealists and dreamers, there is always a lag between reality and realization. So much as we barely acknowledge any one reality in the first place, it is difficult to convince a dreamer that their dreams are, in fact, dead. When it happens however, unlike most personalities, the shift is such that you can feel the tearing within you, as if the fabric of your life has been suddenly ripped open. And when that happens, when a dreamer's world turns grey, it can feel as if life is no longer worth living.

Someone asked me once why I have always stressed the importance of following your dreams. They pointed at the dark shadows of Hollywood, of hangers on and tranquilized addicts and the desperate lives of people in pursuit of their dreams. Dreams may sell movies, they said, but in the end, they inevitably produce the embittered soul of "what might've been." At the time, I was so enraptured by the force of my own passions that I hardly knew how to respond, and when I did, I was indignant. "Better to live a life worth pursuing than not live at all," I said, or something along those lines. Back then, it mystified me why people would allow their lives to flow into a simple routine that had nothing to do with their passions as a child or young adult. Who would want to live that way? As I met people like this through the years, I often accounted them as cowards and moved on. I wanted to inspire people with the guts to take life by the throat and shake it. I wanted people who were ready to shape their own lives. And I wanted to help people who had "lost" themselves through no fault of their own -- bad relationships or smothering family – to find their way in the sunlight of their passions. Who had time for people too lazy or too afraid to go for it?

Somewhere I had bought into this notion that the only reason people didn't change their life was because they couldn't be bothered or were too afraid or simply weren't "tough" enough. Just because they couldn't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", didn't mean we should excuse them or ourselves. If you wanted the dream, you had to be willing to go for it. And if you weren't, that was your problem.

Even writing this I can feel the harshness of my beliefs, and it saddens me. Perhaps that is why I moved away from conservatism these past few years. Much of what I saw in the movement, both politically and spiritually, was an echo of my former understandings of why people didn't live the way I felt they should. It angered me that people talked about their dreams but refused to act on it. They seemed as anchors to me, weighing down both themselves and the people around them. It never occurred to me to question why they were a weight, or where they were holding others down from, exactly. From the surface? To wealth? To the "good life", as advertised on the thousands of commercials we hear and see every day? Where were we going anyway, that required us to move up? What I saw was a sea of empty promises, and a complete misunderstanding of what it meant to love people. To love meant loving the actual people, and not my own ideals for how they should be. That lesson took a long time to learn, and in many ways, I have barely grasped it all.

****

If you had asked me a couple of months ago why I couldn't write, I would never have associated celebrity parents and their seemingly disgusting actions with my own. But there was a link between us. Neither I nor them had answered the one question that needed to be answered. As a youth worker and counselor, I always asked my students and young people what they loved, the necessary first step in following your dreams. What I neglected however, was the next question, the important one. Why? Why did you want to be a singer or a writer or an actor? Why did you want to fly airplanes or work in a big firm or be a mom?

When you first start in pursuit of your passions there is great optimism and hope. Spurred on by inspirational tales and others involved in their own similar pursuits, the questions of why we're doing it seems redundant. (Because I'm supposed to, because I love it, because I was born to do this, because I'm gifted, etc…) Yet it isn't enough. The dark side of dreams is the shadowed reflection of the unanswered question. Too often that goes to the next generation, to the parents who didn't follow their dreams or gave up or didn't make it, and they attempt to vicariously pursue it through their children, to the destruction of both parties. It is here that the evidence of humility is absent, and the pursuit of dreams is revealed to be nothing more than a narcissistic search for self glorification.

To what end do we pursue our dreams. Is it to further our own celebrity? To have others recognize us? No one person is completely altruistic – we don't pursue life solely for the purpose of others, and anyone who claims to do so is either a liar or unaware of their own humanity – but somewhere in the mix we need to be looking at the world around us. Somewhere we have to know that part of the "why" is to make a difference, to help those around us in some way. No matter how successful we become by the world's standards, if our goal is only self-serving, then inevitably we will find disappointment and emptiness.

How different would the world be, would our world be, if the notion of selflessness were to walk hand in hand with the passions and gifts God has given us?

I think about Jesus sometimes, about what he must have been thinking when the people tried to make him king. I wonder what it must have been like for him to carry this burden of knowledge and understanding, and do so while wandering as an itinerant Rabbi. I wonder if he ever thought that yes, people were listening, but couldn't he do so much more if he was the king? Wouldn't his impact be greater if he had more power and recognition? Somehow, he never lost sight of what he was about, of why he was there and what he was called to do. In the Bible, it says that Jesus never considered equality with God something to be grasped, but instead, considered others better than himself.

Why do I want to write? Why is it so important that I do so?

This past month I have been wrestling with these questions, and I have found a peace for the first time in a long time. Not because I have answered them all, but because I have asked them. In the asking, I have learned more about myself, some of which I don't like, but what I must know if I am to keep on in pursuit of the passionate life.

My hope this week is that you will take time to consider your life. Your dreams and goals. Not just the question of what, but why. Are they simply about you, or is there another reason for them? Are you finding delight in the joy of your pursuit, whether it be acting in a volunteer theatre or writing in obscurity or teaching a small class. God has given us all dreams, and often the purpose of the dream is not material success or notoriety, but a bridge to walk along beside another, a chance to forge the type of relationships that change not only our life, but the lives around us as well.

Every day on my way to work I pass by people who have given up, and more often than not they are wearing an expensive suit. You can hear it in their voice and see it in their demeanor. The world calls them successful, but if they were being honest, they would tell you that the light bulb they knew as a child, the one that fired their imaginations when they read comic books and stories growing up, has long since been extinguished. They have no need for dreams, because they're adults now. All grown up. And soon enough, they'll have kids.

-Steve