“I can’t tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world—what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn’t understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.” – Gilead
In high school, when I was first introduced to philosophy officially, I feel in love with how one word could come with so much meaning. How a word like Existentialism refers to more than one thought or even one cohesive system but instead implies a complex web of meaning and significance and, in that particular case, comes with such powerful paradox. This is also something I love about phrases from novels. How whenever I say “So it goes” I am also referring to the lesson Billy Pilgrim learned on the planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five that the past is always alive in the present. Even the dead are still living through time, and so it goes.
These phrases with their rich meanings and significance stick with me. They come back to me when my own words would fail me. Most of all, I reach out to one phrase in particular to express that extravagance of feeling, that extends far beyond us, that takes me over at moments very similar to the one I shared from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. In those moments, I reach out to the perks of being a wallflower. All I can say, just like Charlie, with such power and simplicity, is that I feel infinite.
In the novel, Charlie is a very lonely, unhappy boy who is befriend by two misfits who help him navigate through grief and puberty. One night they speed through the hills listening to music. He’s in the truck bed. As he stands, arms outstretched, flooded by wind and joy, he feels infinite.
That scene and phrase have always made me think of the two most important parts of the film “American Beauty.” When Ricky, a young man who has suffered so much pain and yet is still so good and loving, shares with his girlfriend a film of a plastic bag dancing in the air. He says to her, “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember…Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
And the last scene. Lester has been shot but what we see is the flood of memories that hit him. All the beauty of his life. Narrating he says, “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”
This feeling of infinity is I think the most profound expression of life. It is one I have experienced quite often and so often at such inexplicable moments. Like when I would be walking through deserted streets in the Bronx late at night after riding the train home from Manhattan. Taking a short cut through a playground near my apartment I would look around me at this humble part of New York City that meant so much to me even in its modesty. As I took long strides through the night air I would feel infinite.
An interesting thing about these experiences of infinity is that they so often happen in the midst of grief, loneliness, sorrow, suffering, disappointment. That’s true of all the characters in these stories. It’s true of me. I experienced it so often in New York City, though those two years were filled with so much grief and loneliness. Recently, reading a beautiful blog post a friend of mine wrote in commemoration of his grandfather, he seems to have experienced it at his grandfather’s funeral.
The profoundest mystery of life is the joy, peace and serenity we can find in these inexplicable moments. When the simplest of things, wind against your face, feeling the curve of the earth under your feet as you walk, seeing a bag dance before you, fill us with an overwhelming sense of the abundance of existence and the goodness of life despite the senselessness of pain.