Monday was something of an adventure. It started out with my dad and I standing on the platform waiting for our daily train; and the train was late. Ten or fifteen minutes after the whistle should have blown, we heard it blowing … from the wrong direction. The whistle coming from the wrong direction was soon succeeded by a train coming from the wrong direction; said train backed into our station, where it proceeded to unload all 694,217 of its passengers. It seems that the train had hit a deer, and sustained injuries which, if not actually incompatible with locomotion, were at least threatening to the riders to be locomoted in the locomotive.
The consequence was that when
our proper train showed up twenty minutes past scheduled time, it had to take in
approximately twice the number of passengers it is generally required to absorb
at our particular stop, many of them peeved at having to board their second
train in one morning, and all of them disgruntled in the knowledge that, in
order to set everyone down where they needed to be, this already late and
overcrowded commuter distraction would be making ALL THE STOPS between Xville
and Washington, D.C.
Did I mention that it was
raining, and that my umbrella had just croaked?
However, as Chesterton so rightly
says, an inconvenience is but an adventure ill-considered. So Monday morning proved. My dad and I were separated in the desperate
hunt for seats, and I wound up between a young man with a largish backpack (he
was the right age for the title “teenager”, but too obviously well-brought up
to deserve it) and a gentleman of about fifty or fifty-five who was dressed
like your typical D.C. professional. As
I sat down I noted with some amusement that the young man was reading a fantasy
novel—amusement, because I intended to spend that particular train trip working
on a fantasy novel of my own. The
Professional was working on some political spreadsheet thingy, sufficiently
like the sort of thing I have to manipulate at my own office to obviate any
interest I might have otherwise had in his activities.
But strangely enough, the Professional
seemed to be interested in mine. As I
sat down he stole a furtive glance at my face—then quickly returned to his
spreadsheet. I powered up my computer,
and he furtively craned his neck to see my login name. Now that’s getting a little fresh, I
thought. Still, he didn’t say anything;
so I simply turned down the font size on my document, tilted the screen toward
me, and got to work.
The Professional kept glancing
at me though. I’ve had reason to bless
peripheral vision before now, but I could have wished the gift away that morning. It was becoming darned distracting; I kept
having to close my eyes to think of the next line to write. Then, during one of my open-eyed moments, I
saw the Professional switch from me to his computer. The spreadsheet went down, and up came
Google. The next thing I could see
(peripheral vision!) he was on a page that contained trivia for … Game of
Thrones? OK, whatever. I have fantasy geeks on both sides of me;
guess I landed in the right seat. Then I
see him glance at me again. Then back at
the picture … of the actress … who happens to have my same first name …
Oh. Now I get it.
The spreadsheet came back; but
only a few minutes later he was on Wikipedia, checking out a different actress
(who, unlike the first, looked faintly like yours truly—faintly, I say). He gave me about one more look after that,
and then went back to the spreadsheets for the rest of the journey. Obviously he had either satisfied himself
that I was not [here insert name of most beautiful woman in the world] or he
had given up trying to figure it out.
We the family had a good laugh
at it over dinner that night, but the incident made me think.
There’s something odd about
being mistaken for a public personality—an actress, a politician, a
celebrity. When the chips come down and
the mistake is discovered, the person mistook generally takes the
misidentification as a compliment. But
for the person mistaken, it is an embarrassment and a disappointment. (I can say that because I’ve been on the
mistaking end myself: indeed, what I say from here on out relates to my own
experience as much as to anything I’ve observed in other people.) We should not be disappointed in such
mistakes. The real person who looks like
Sarah Palin or Sandra Bullock is—I will not say “in all likelihood” more interesting
than the celebrity they are mistaken for; but at least potentially so. And yet the one mistaking, when he finds out
his mistake, is bound to be disappointed.
The real person who is really there, whom he has really met and spoken
to, is not so present to him as the unreal person about whom he thinks he
knows, but who is in some true sense the product of his imagination. And yet the person who makes the mistake
tends, not to turn to the real subject present before them, but to return in
his mind to the object there; to embrace the thing that disappointed him by
failing to be real.
We cling to what we think we
want. If we ask ourselves any question
about what we desire, it tends to be about whether our desire is right or
wrong; perhaps also, about whether it is good or bad for us. We usually forget to ask ourselves if our
desire is real. I do not mean by that
simply whether our desire is realistic—the beggar who wishes to be king is
engaging in unrealistic wishing, but the object of his desire—kingship—is a
real thing. Rather, I refer to those
desires that are essentially meaningless.
The desire to be “free” in the modern, secular sense is a classic
example of a meaningless desire, a wish with an empty fulfillment, a
The other classic example prevalent
in modern times is of course the desire for union with a person of the same
The desire to be one with
someone who is not your compliment but your copy is an empty desire. What does it mean for two of a kind to become
one? It doesn’t matter how much the
person desiring wants to be one with his object—they will never be able to be
one in the way that a man and woman can be, either on the immediate physical
level, or on the more remote physical level in their offspring. The experience they are driven to seek is an
experience that does not exist. That
perhaps is why, even when they act upon it, they are so often unsatisfied;
hence the continued search for another partner—one who will really fulfill the
desire. It’s a search that can’t end,
because the desire has no meaning.
That may sound like a brutal
statement, but it is the truth. It has
its parallels in other contexts and on other levels, of course. How many of us have found ourselves looking
at a person whom we do not really know, wishing to know him better—only to
find, when we do know him better, than he is not what we thought at all? Then we have all desired an unreal thing.
It is the same with every sin:
we see the sin, the evil action as desirable, as beneficial—which no evil
action really is. We have all sinned;
and haven’t we all seen evil as desirable, desired evil as a good? Then we have all desired an unreal thing.
The only solution that I know
of, as a writer and as a Christian, is to adhere strictly to what one does know
and what can be determined. To be less
of an Emma and more of an Elinor. To stick to
facts and avoid assumptions. The sky is
blue; the day is long; the rain is wet. God
loves us, and wants us to be happy; and my train hit a deer Monday morning.
The things we do know are,
after all, so many and so complex and perplexing that we could contemplate them
without end. No need to delve into
fantasies for adventure; in the words of Norman Juster: “There’s so much to do
[Note: None of this should be
construed to mean that I’m canceling that novel of mine. It will be finished! Juro.]