A Brand New Day

These past few months have been a difficult time for me. After a busy spring and summer that involved graduating college, volunteering overseas, and preparing to study at a grad school that I would never go to, I didn’t have a lot of time to look closely at what I was doing while I was doing it. Then, after some unexpected expenses and a simmering existential crisis about to burst, I was back where my journey started, in Southwest Virginia, with student loan payments around the corner, a Bachelor’s Degree, and a life plan that quickly fell apart.

So, for several months, I tried to piece myself back together. Working overseas, while a powerful experience, crushed previous perspectives and challenged me to build new ones. Coming back home to a solitude that I was all too familiar with, I spent the first few months wafting between potential futures that offered glimmers of hope for the adrift soul I now understood myself to be. The next few would be spent trying to establish myself again, and reinvent the wheels that kept me going (which is no easy task to undertake, and one that I will continue to repeat throughout the rest of my life).

Everything came under attack by my own doubts. My education, my faith, and all of my personal philosophies came under a vicious internal assault. I alternately resisted any number of ideas, philosophies, and mantras, becoming a different version of myself hourly, with little time in-between. I would often wake up as a staunch pragmatist and go to bed a wistful dreamer. Split between many worldviews, I started trying everything I could to rediscover myself and my life and achieved nothing.

So, I rested. I rested from thinking, from striving, and from stressing about where I wanted to take my life. I let myself just simply be. In college, the constant vocabulary of “tomorrow” that I adopted as a personal rallying cry had made me an idolater of my own future. I lost some of my ability to exist in difficult circumstances and a present that was unwillingly prolonged.

By resting I do not mean that I sat on my butt and played video games in my parents’ basement (my parents don’t really have a basement so that’s technically impossible). Instead, I rested from thinking of all the possibilities of life and focused on the next few steps I could take. Instead of spending my time feeling lonely and lost (a hobby I have seen all too many young people take up in their early adulthood), I focused on keeping my hands and mind busy while remaining a certain distance from too many voices. I got a crummy job making coffee, applied to be a substitute teacher in my local school system, and spent most of my time at home talking to my parents, seeking out the wisdom from their fifty-plus years of living and thirty years of marriage (a luxury that I never take enough advantage of during college). And reading a LOT more poetry (a cathartic medicine for an angsty soul).

I dived deep into a cave of my own making. Constructing around me a crude mental structure of survival as I began to pick apart the values and the ideals that got me this far in life, I began to reassess my motivations and my beliefs in the silence of my old room and the quiet countryside of Southwest Virginia, which, if not anything else, is a great place to rest and reevaluate.

What has come out of that process is a renewed livelihood and a better understanding of the value of seeking out solitude. In today’s constantly connected world, the concept of escaping from other voices as a form of retreat from the world and a descent to irrelevance. In my opinion, on the other side of intentional isolation, you can find clarity.

My favorite saint in pretty much all of medieval Christendom is St. Francis. A multi-faceted, perplexing, and inspiring figure, his life offers profound wisdom and potentially troubling conclusions to modern Christians. A man, who, after a youth of extravagant hedonism embraced a life of abject poverty and a poet whose hands blistered with literally building churches of stone. His opinions spread controversy in his own time, and continue to inspire movements for greater simplicity and a deeper appreciation for the natural order (although many are not remotely Catholic or even Christian organizations).

In his excellent sketch of St. Francis’ life, 20th-century British journalist G.K. Chesterton uses a fantastic metaphor to describe the unique worldview that emerged in the young Italian after he spent a year in prison (before he was preaching peace, St. Francis was a young soldier with dreams of martial glory). Appropriating the cave of Plato (and the man who emerges from it), Chesterton describes St. Francis, emerging from the solitude that he never asked for, “As if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.” His entire world was flipped on its head, but he saw it clearer than he ever had. Although it didn’t effect Francis’ outward life until nearly a year later, the experience planted the seeds that eventually led to his renunciation of his old ways.

In our constant quest for a community, a calling, or a cohabitator, many young Christians are never taught to value solitude or to seek it out. We ignore the preparation for life that solitude presents us. It becomes difficult to pave a life path if we’re juggling a dozen different blueprints, each with slightly different routes and destinations. For many months, I let my life be determined by the encouragement of others. The community became an idol, and a confusing idol it is. Wrapping myself in the indulgence of others, I made decisions simply to be ratified by others. I lived life like I worked on school. I became so externally motivated, striving for others’ reinforcement, I regularly lost track of my personal will and beliefs as the driving forces in my life, relying instead on social reassurance, a far more temperamental compass to guide my life by. Your world can never truly shift until you take the time to stop trying to change it. Solitude is about letting the silence in so that the still small voice of God can be heard.

I learned a lot through my experiences during college, and the friendships I forged in that time have come to mean the world to me. My pursuit of community ended with many valuable experiences and connected me with some downright amazing people. Yet, I still struggled, and, as a human being, had my priorities in the wrong place, seeking the assurance of other people instead of seeking the wisdom of God and cultivating my own convictions.

So, I needed some alone time. Solitude, while often conflated with the terms “lonely” and “isolated” helps to better define life with and without other people.

I spent this New Years’ Eve alone. That is until my parents arrived to debrief after some festivities of their own. It capped off almost five months of constant (although not always quiet) contemplation that I wouldn’t give up for the world.  After a year, split down the middle by a life-changing, reality crashing journey abroad, with overwhelming community on one side, and challenging solitude on the other, I’ve experienced the brilliance and difficulty in life from both sides. Seeing some friends grow close and others drift away, watching relationships blossom while others fizzle, I became more aware of the distinctly temporal nature of any situation in life, and the value of changing yourself to grow with new circumstances. Or rather, to be more accurate, the ability to retain your personhood despite lost or broken connections.

That’s where the summer comes in. Some of you may be more familiar with it than others (I sent a very sloppy email attachment to some, driven by an irresistible drive to share, without regard to quality or preparation). It’s spent months to process what I saw there. I spent nearly an entire month in a small city in the Middle East serving Syrian refugees, and while I can’t say that I made much of an impact myself, the people there changed me. After witnessing hundreds of children and adults suffer in the face of a conflict they could not help, I could not go on living as I once had. Watching the faces of children whose lives were upended by conflict and adults whose dreams struggle to survive after complete devastation, I began to understood (although it never clicked in relation to my own circumstances until months later) that hope and love must take a new form in the face of such circumstances and involve a rediscovery of the simple joy of living and a thankfulness for mere existence. Back home, I found old wisdom, ignored for years, return and a renewed gratitude for life and the powerful little choices I have been alotted in this short life. I gained new lenses for my eyes after seeing greater struggles than I have ever experienced. Although it took awhile for me to actually see through them.

In solitude, I found that life is not about striving toward the future. It’s about contentment. Dreams are good, and keep us alive, but dreams can also consume our lives.

I met an older gentleman while overseas who, despite all the circumstances surrounding him, the prejudice, the poverty, and the knowledge that his family still risked death across the border, loved life like hardly anyone I’ve ever met. He seemed like a much younger man than he was. My own dissatisfaction with life seemed silly compared to his love for mere existence, his appreciation for long walks, and his joy at little pleasures of the everyday. He did not need anyone to verify his value or measure his worth.

Now, with a New Year on the horizon, I commit to, no matter my circumstance, whether this will be another year of contemplation or full of bustling activity, I will take every opportunity to grow in my convictions and let my beliefs mature within me. I do not want to live so that other humans can affirm what I am doing, I want to live a life of internal satisfaction. So, for this year, as I try to emerge from the cave of my own making, from the uncertainty and doubt that plague the lonely mind, I commit to a life renewed and driven to grow closer to God and to the vision of life that aligns best with his wisdom.

Today is a brand new day. A world that changes with simple acts of kindness, a future that will be transformed by quiet preparation. I spent the first few months of this year seeking out a call, today, I start preparing for a life of many calls, of numerous passions, and of a million possible paths. Instead of worrying too much about my specific course, overwhelmed with possibility, I begin with the next step, using the present moment to guide the next decision.  I choose to live more content. I will strive to never be complacent, but always satisfied. The world keeps spinning and I keep changing. Each day is an opportunity to learn more, to love more, and to live more. No matter whether in a season of quiet solitude or a phase of utter chaos, my happiness is never defined by circumstance.

This year, I’m ready to deliver on a promise I made to myself last year to live my best life, regardless of others’ expectations. I’m ready to imagine a better world while appreciating the little pleasures of the moment. I’m preparing for a future I cannot control by using the moments I can. My resolution to live a better life is not for a year, but for today. And for tomorrow’s today. And the today after that. I don’t know what’s next for me, but “-do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”- Matthew 6:34

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Turning Hawkins Upside Down Again: Stranger Things 2 Does Exactly What A Great Sequel Should Do

Last year’s Stranger Things was the breakout TV hit of the year. A huge win for Netflix, which, while cranking out some excellent original series for a few years, never quite made the same mainstream splash that they hungered for. While shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were critical darlings, they were still niche dramas, limited in viewership by both the subject material and mature content (most of Netflix’s original content aimed for a TV-MA rating to compete with adult drama cable behemoth HBO). Stranger Things meanwhile, is much easier to distribute to the widest possible audience (and watch in the living room before the kids’ bedtime).

However, what Stranger Things did not do was sacrifice compelling storytelling. The power of Stranger Things was not in the particular market value of a TV-14 show on a network who couldn’t seem to bridge the divide between populist comedies (ala Fuller House) and gritty, adult-themed dramas (ala almost all of the “well-received” bunch of Netflix’s live-action repertoire), but rested in the superb storytelling efforts of the Duffer Brothers to bring the 80s back onto our TV screens in glorious HD, exchanging the VCR player for the world-wide-web. The entire first season pulled off the glorious intermingling exhilaration of fear and discovery that permeated much of 80s sci-fi, including Spielberg classics like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Goonies (which, while not directed by Spielberg, was partially written by him and showcases his unique storytelling flare). Stranger Things, emulating these classics, embodied some of the best classic Hollywood escapist storytelling I’ve seen in a long time, leaving you at various times clinging to the edge of your seat or uncontrollably giggling in youthful anticipation at how the heroes we grow to love will respond to the next move of the villains we’re conditioned to hate.

When it was announced that Stranger Things’ second season was announced (officially titled Stranger Things 2) I knew one thing for certain. It could never outdo the first season. Not because it couldn’t be a better season, but it couldn’t take what the first season did successfully and improve on it.

Luckily, Stranger Things 2 did exactly what great sequels do. Instead of improving on the first installment, it just changed the formula a little. Instead of making the scares better, they made them bigger. Instead of reuniting all of the “Party” at the beginning, this season divides it before bringing the whole gang back together for the season’s climax. The change reminds me of how different 80s classic Alien (referenced in the first season) and its sequel Aliens. Instead of reinventing the successes of the former, the successor expanded the scope, escaping the trap of drawing too many comparisons. This shift in structure has mostly successful results, with a few missteps. One is an almost-great stand-alone episode that ends up wasting the talent of its two leads and a subplot that would feel like a dead-end were it not for the ratcheting up of romantic tension for two characters.

Once again, one of the greatest strengths of the series lay in its performances. Millie Bobby Brown is predictably excellent, with her tense exchanges with David Harbour’s Hopper particularly thrilling examples of her ability to balance the rage and vulnerability that made her such a thrilling performer in the first installment. However, the breakout performer of the sequel is Noah Schnapp playing a tortured Will Byers, who, after spending most of the first season absent from view, gets his just reward in a much meatier role. I don’t want to give too much away, but Schnapp manages to convincingly portray a boy split between two worlds, between light and darkness.

The rest of the cast manages to bring back the characters we loved with appropriate gusto, but also convey believable growth in their personalities. All of the original party would have their hands full dealing with the dramatic onset of puberty even if it weren’t a year after a nearly universe-shattering event and most of them play these little transformations very well. One sad exception is that of Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, although this deficiency is more the fault of the scriptwriters than the actor. Struggling to retain his authority in “The Party” Mike spends most of the season acting like an angry brat, although the character does eventually get some redemption in the latter half of the season.

The new additions are all welcome, albeit not all well-executed. Billy and Max, who play the “new kids in town” do provide some great material and new conflicts, but they are still more like pretty cardboard cutouts than people. Max is by far the stronger character, although Dacre Montgomery hams it up successfully as a kind of proto-Steve Herrington with serious anger issues, giving us a human antagonist, although in his case, not a well-rounded one.

That being said, speaking of Steve, Joe Keery returns with his gravity-defying hairstyle and infectious smirk, continuing his personal journey from the sometimes insufferable hard-partying persona of the first season to a relatable high school senior struggling to find his place in the world. His unlikely bonding with Dustin (played excellently by Gaten Matarazzo) during several later episodes providing a great example of the character’s dramatic growth.

The other, more technical elements of production are also excellent, although the original score does leave something to be desired after the excellent original music from the first one. The directors brought in for this season also did a bang-up job on helping create a tone, that while consistent with the first season, quickly takes us to new territory emotionally and thematically, forcing us to think about familiar characters in different ways. We even get two excellent episodes directed by none other than Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). Overdone CG of the upside down (the result of the increased budget of this season) can become tiring and disconcerting (and not in a good way) after a while, especially in the first few episodes.

To conclude, Stranger Things 2 provides a satisfying return to Hawkins, Indiana. I’m honestly divided on whether I consider the first season better or not. They say you can’t fall in love with the same girl twice, and I think that’s true of TV shows too. The thrill of discovery does fade, but just like good relationship partners, Stranger Things isn’t too worried about recreating the first few dates in an effort to recover the distant magic of new love. Instead, it encourages us to fall deeper in love, enveloping us into a world that is bigger and scarier, while also being more hopeful, as greater threats help inspire greater heroes.