Who doesn’t love a good snapshot? They remind us of the best of times. One of my favorites is readily available on Facebook . It’s a picture of my friend Levi pounding my face into the sand at Newport Beach, California.
This was taken 14 years ago. We had just graduated high school. I remember the exact moment, and exactly what I called him after I finally got out of the headlock. So does he, and probably Shane (who took the picture). This photo, while endearing, happens to be quite uncharacteristic of my relationship with Levi. We don’t pick on each other or joke around much. In fact, a lot of our conversations are quite serious now, but I still like this photo because it reminds me of what our relationship was like when life was much less complicated.
Here’s another. This is a picture of my dad with my daughter, Harper, taken at Disneyland. Harper is wearing Dad’s “Indiana Jones” hat. This photo is much more characteristic of its subjects. Harper has her usual happy glow, and Dad is displaying his defining meek and gentle manner. Years from now, Harper will treasure this photo, as it represents her grandfather’s unqualified love for her.
I once heard one of my professors at BYU define literature as those works to which we often return. I think this approach is worth giving some consideration, although it can’t be taken too literally, or else all of our reading assignments in high school English class would be Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Literature in my view is a library of works that defines a culture’s values and/or captures society’s sentiments during significant cultural events. Think of how Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein represents the values of the Romantic Period with her harrowing descriptions of nature in all of her merciless, sublime power. Or how Steinbeck painted a perfect picture of the disenchanting realities of capitalism and industry in The Grapes of Wrath. Both of these examples provide snapshots, brief but accurate glimpses, into a single question or conflict that shaped a cultural identity. And for that reason, we return to them often, perhaps to make sense of how we got where we are today.
In real life, we tend to collect those photos that remind us of the happiest times–a day at the beach or a vacation with Grandma and Grandpa. But like a Harry Potter novel, these moments form only a small sliver of our personal identity and history. William Blake and Flannery O’Connor may not have written the most uplifting or entertaining literature, but their writings have become very important signposts as we attepmt to retrospectively map the development of Western culture.
I have come to believe that this mapping exercise (recalling those experiences that teach us about who we are) is vitally important to our personal development. In fact, we acknowledge the power of self-awareness all the time in popular culture. Think of your favorite non-tragic protagonist in a recent movie or novel. (I won’t use this example, but I could!) Either your hero is a John Wayne type, whose unwaivering confidence enables him/her to overcome any obstacle, and the plot is only about documenting his/her path to victory. Or, your hero is a Bruce Wayne, who keeps hitting road blocks until he/she finally identifies and embraces his/her true identity, at which time (climax!), he/she becomes unstopable. Either way, our heroes always know exactly who they are–strengths and weaknesses, what is important to them, what is not. Conversely, think of your favorite tragedy. Here your protagonist fails to identify or accept his/her tragic flaw until it is too late.
I believe that part of life’s unfairness comes because we fail to notice the subtle course corrections that we should be making from time to time. One small indiscretionary moment leads to another, until our life (or perhaps just an aspect of it) has become a classic tragedy. In my experience, I fail to make these corrections when I have a distorted self-view. I might see myself as Bruce Wayne the wasteful billionaire playboy, Peter Parker the vengeful nephew, or most commonly for me, Jesse Pinkman, the guilt-ridden drug addict. Whatever self-view I would like to (or tend to) adopt, the pattern is clear: distortion leads to sadness.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe anyone’s life plays out like a Spiderman movie. As real human beings we cycle through periods of self-awareness and self-distortion. But I suspect that by regularly returning to and reflecting on life’s defining moments, these cycles may become more evolutionary than seasonal. This all may sound very theoretical, so let me give an example of a defining moment that I often return to, and explain how it guides me.
I was once asked to give a priesthood blessing to a person who was going through some personal struggles. (Those non-Mormons reading are probably aware of the idea of priesthood, but as a quick summary, priesthood essentially is authority formally granted to worthy male members of the Church to act in God’s name in appropriate ways.) I had known this person very well, and cared for them very much. But when I placed my hands on this person’s head, I experienced feelings for that person that I had never felt before. It was a feeling of love that was much deeper than my own love for that person. I had a sense of this person’s defining characteristics that I had never before noticed. To me, it was as if God was allowing me to feel how He felt about that person.
I return to this experience often. I wrote it down. I treasure it. Each time I think back on it, I am filled with hope for my own future. I feel that if God knows and loves that person so well, He must feel the same way about me, individually, intimately. It reminds me that in spite of the lingering questions that trouble me about my faith, that God is very present in my religious practices. This experience educates my self-view. It encourages decision making that will help me to have more experiences like it. It gives me a desire to be kind to everyone around me.
Other moments of mine are not so uplifting; some are rather dark. But they all have a guiding influence.
Today we have libraries where we carefully catalogue the works of Shelly, Blake, O’Connor, and Steinbeck. Think of how meaningful life would be if we all had a personal library of our defining moments (not just the Harry Potters) carefully catalogued and readily accessible on a regular basis. Climax! We would be unstoppable.