Lost and Found, Above and Below

Beginning in August, I’ll be starting the first semester of my thesis writing to finish my Master’s degree. I’ve decided to study British dystopian fiction, analyzing how language is used to shape identity. My theory is that dystopian fiction is often driven by the intense fear of losing one’s own individual identity and the loss of identity on a global scale. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with the professor who has agreed to advise my thesis. Dr. Stuart has a strong interest in science fiction, too (she even occasionally teaches a class in British science fiction!), and she gave me some book recommendations. One of which was Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.

Now, just for clarity, I’ll go ahead and preface this blog by stating that I won’t be using Neverwhere as one of the primary texts for my thesis. While language and identity certainly play roles in the novel, this work should be classified as fantasy, but not actually dystopian. Basically, I’m interested in how dystopian writers imagine the future of a society that exists now; I’m interested in works of literature that can show a worst-case scenario of continuing culture. Books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which portrays life after an apocalyptic disaster, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which shows the results of government gone horribly awry (and a text that I plan to use for my thesis) are dystopic because of these imagined futures.

NOTE: There are spoilers in this post. If you don’t want to know how the books ends, stop reading.

Gaiman’s novel is the story of two Londons that exist simultaneously. London Above, which is the world in which the protagonist Richard Mayhew initially lives, is the London that most of humanity knows–all the familiar landmarks; people working jobs, going to the pub, and living in flats; etc. London Below is the seedy underbelly–literally. If one falls through the cracks (like the gap in the tube station), one lands in London Below, inhabited by such characters as rat-speakers (who speak for the rats in London Below), assassins like the dreadful (and morbidly amusing) Misters Croup and Vandemar, and the fascinating teenage girl named Door, whom Richard actually encounters in London Above and attempts to save. Because of the setting–a contemporary, although fantastic setting–I won’t be able to use this for my theory about dystopian literature. However, I’ll probably be brilliant and throw in a footnote or two to compare it to other novels that I’ve read. 🙂

Mostly, I’m fascinated by Richard’s character in the novel. In London Above, Richard has a completely average life. He works an office job, is engaged to a woman with whom he doesn’t really have much in common, and lives a life that is just ordinary. When he meets Door and saves her, he is inadvertently brought into the world of London Below, and it is there that he finds his true identity. The book, though an amazing exploration of the two Londons, is really Richard’s rite-of-passage. He’s on a quest, he saves a lady, and he earns the title of Warrior by the end of the novel. Then, when he returns to London Above, he finds that the life he once lived is not enough for him. His real identity lies below.

I was about halfway through this novel before I realized that Neverwhere was originally a BBC miniseries back in 1996 before Gaiman adapted it as a novel. There’s a chance that, if I can find the episodes online, I’ll be spending some of my glorious week off this week watching the 6 episodes.

After the Storm

I met my family in Columbia for dinner tonight, and I left the restaurant around 8:30. As I pulled onto I-26, the last rays of sunset illuminated the sky just enough for me to see an ominous cloud sprawled across the horizon. As the sky darkened and I started the long drive back to Greenville, I realized the drive was going to be intense.

I couldn’t gauge how far away the storm was. The lightning lit up the cloud almost constantly, growing stronger and stronger as I continued my drive. Traffic was scarce, and once Columbia was behind me, the road was dark and empty. The massive cloud was always just ahead of me, and eventually, I realized I was paying more attention to the lightning–so powerful and mesmerizing–than to the road. With the trees rising on either side of the interstate, and with little else to distract me, I could only focus on the impending danger ahead. The white lines became a secondary concern to the brilliant streaks of light. For 50 miles, I could only watch the sky, wondering when the rain would come.

As the split to I-385 approached, a few raindrops began to hit my windshield. I turned on my windshield wipers on low speed as the road curved left, and suddenly, the storm hit with little other warning. The rain was so heavy that my wipers, now set on their highest speed, did little to combat the water. The reflectors and white lines of the interstate disappeared under the flowing rain. And I leaned forward as far as I could, desperately praying that I didn’t run off the road and telling myself not to cry because, really, is a raging thunderstorm in the dark when I’m alone really the time to lose it? I also knew that there was no point in pulling over to wait out the storm; I knew I would just have to drive right back into it if I did attempt to wait it out.

Sometimes, the storm is so big and terrifying that I spend ages watching it approach, knowing that the only way out is through, and praying that I reach home on the other side. And when the storm passes, I watch it fade away in the rearview mirror, and I still see the lightning in my peripheral vision; I try to convince my hands to stop gripping the steering wheel so tightly and my heart to stop beating so quickly, and I search the dark, empty road for light or some other sign of civilization to convince myself that the worst has passed. And when I arrive at my destination, I breathe a sigh of relief and I pray that some time will pass before I have to face another challenge like that. I tell myself that the next drive will be better, and I try to embrace hope instead of fear. And I also recognize that the lightning, with all its power and terror, was actually beautiful.

Fighting the Good Fight

This morning, I found comfort and strength in some very familiar words from the Apostle Paul:

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected: but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:12-14

As an undergrad, these verses often came to mind at the end of the semester when I was exhausted and wondering where I was going to find the time and energy to finish up those last projects. The goal of my calling always seemed to be the end of the semester.

Now, several years later, it’s interesting to see how my perspective has changed. Yes, in some ways, this does still apply to the academic semester. Today, in fact, was the last day of final exams at NGU. I submitted my final grades this mornings, many of my students and friends have left campus, and I don’t have to worry about teaching for several more months. I’m also finishing up my term project for grad school. Pressing on towards the end of that semester.

But the past few days…well, actually, the past few months, I suppose, although everything seems to have culminated in an overwhelming last few days…I’ve been considering the tension in my life between my own desires and God’s calling. This consideration and recognition of the tension, I’m sure, began around the time I felt the call to go to Haiti and began to consider the role that missions is going to play in my life. That tension intensified when my trip to Haiti was postponed. And in the past few weeks, when I’ve thought about what it might look like to leave Greenville and move elsewhere to pursue a Ph.D., when I’ve seen those I love also wrestle with how to follow the very difficult calling of God on their lives, I’ve begun to feel overwhelmed by that tension between earthly desire and divine calling.

Here’s an example: our culture is obsessed with fairy tales. I’ve struggled for years to try to understand this obsession. I was reminded in a huge way early on Friday morning when I stupidly checked Facebook before leaving for work. All of those people awake at 5 a.m., posting ridiculous status updates? They were watching the royal wedding. They watched a girl become a princess after she walked down the aisle in a long white dress and got to kiss the prince.

I’ll admit. The obsession with fairy tales fascinates me because I want it, too. I want to be cherished and desired and adored. But I also recognize that I am imperfect, living in a vastly imperfect world populated by more imperfect people. I cannot have the fairy tale. The fairy tale doesn’t exist, and besides, I want to love a guy with flaws who can also love me in spite of my own flaws.

I also recognize that this desire is not going to come to fruition now. A relationship may not happen any time soon. It may never happen. I also recognize that, if this is the case, it’s because God’s calling is greater than anything I could imagine. Sure, I could get married to a great guy, we could have a family, and I could continue teaching. Maybe that will be my calling eventually. But right now, I have the sense that something bigger is going on. Maybe my trip to Haiti, which should finally happen in December, will be a step in revealing my calling. Maybe moving to another state (such as Texas) to enter a Ph.D. program (like maybe at Baylor) will also be another step in determining where I’m going and what God has planned for my life. Maybe the calling isn’t familiar and safe. Maybe it’s dangerous and challenging and scary and wonderful.

And the kicker–the idea that I’ve been considering more and more lately. Maybe the desires that I have right now–the things I so desperately want–aren’t part of my calling. Maybe the people I love so desperately right now are called in completely different directions, and they are only meant to be part of my life for a season. Maybe in running the race set before me, I have to sacrifice my own selfish desires for something greater than myself–for the glory of God and the spreading of His Kingdom. Maybe I fight against the flesh and fight for the Spirit, a fight that is so difficult when I’m tired and discouraged. A fight that becomes easier when those people I love who are also running their own races are also fighting, too.

All this to say: some days are difficult when I realize that some of my dreams (like a relationship) need to be sacrificed for others (finishing my degree and devoting as much time and energy to my students as I can). But God’s story is bigger than the end of a semester. It’s bigger than a stressful day. It’s way bigger than any fairy tale man could imagine.

Fight the good fight, friends. Fight with and for the God who is never going to let us go.