Restarting the Conversation about Faith
“[My dad] always has a different look and opinion that is different than anyone [else’s] about things… he’s always honest with me. He doesn’t try to make things seem better than they are, and always just tells me the straight up truth, because he believes that I should know everything that is going on around me.”
“My Personal Michigan Hero” (a school homework assignment my son wrote about me)
Who on earth would title a book, Blinded by Normalcy? Are you talking to me? What exactly are you suggesting? And now you want me to purchase this book? I just turned thirty-seven years old recently and I have resolved in my own heart and mind that there just isn’t time anymore for anything but the truth… the whole truth and nothing but the truth. These are my best efforts toward this goal. You may agree with some of my thoughts and you will certainly disagree with many others. I believe this sort of writing makes for good literature and good conversation. But there is an imminent danger lurking in our generation: we judge a book by its cover and we end the conversation much too soon. Our culture is making its closing arguments before the trial even begins. We are reaching conclusions about the narrative before the story even begins. I challenge you, the reader, to resist this restless itch. I challenge you to continue reading even if all of your ‘tried and true’ assumptions are confronted.
My father is a single-engine aircraft pilot. I have traveled the friendly (and not so friendly) skies with him many times as a young boy. When the aircraft first lifts off from the certainty of the runway below and you look up through the windshield of the steeply ascending vehicle, all you can see is the bright, open sky before you. You cannot see the earth below… you cannot see landmarks or terrestrial reference points… you cannot even see the glorious horizon where sky meets earth! All you can see is the bright sky, the flashing lights and buttons of the instrument panel, and your fellow traveler. For an inexperienced pilot or a mere passenger, this can be a very disorienting experience—if not nauseating. Suddenly your faith transforms you from the traditional laws of gravity to both the faith and the science of aviation… whether you like it or not. I mostly enjoyed these experiences as a child. I hope that you will feel the same of this, our journey together.
In the discourse of the 21st century, our elders, guides, and leaders often define faith by the way in which they themselves have chosen to live life. This is often a traditioning process that has been handed down to them as young aspiring boys and girls in the world. Be wonderful in the world, they say, even as you often feel as though you are watching the world pass you by. A marathon runner for example is said to have faith if they reach the finish line… a lot of faith if they win a coveted place in the winner’s circle. From the runner’s perspective, the overweight spectator standing behind the ropes of the marathon track thus can only be lacking in faith for failing to apply themselves to the discipline of the race track. (Don’t you just hate those marathon runners?) But what if the spectator isn’t called to run those sorts of races in this life? What if the spectator is instead called to write a book or something else? Is that example too simplistic? Well, try this one.
What if faith is once again found in the cockpit of an airplane, but this time the aircraft is a jumbo jet carrying hundreds of passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight? Now say that the faith of a certain few passengers on this particular flight is radically different than your own… say that this very flight, in fact, is suddenly going to become the object of this radical faith. Say that the existential fate of the unsuspecting passengers is forcibly steered in a whole new ideological direction? Can we really call these reckless and inhumane actions faith? Or what if faith is standing at the highest point of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco looking down into the icy waters far below? Once again the existential fate of a single human being lies in the balance. Does faith take the next step forward over the edge… or does faith only awaken with that grueling first small step away from the railing? (I will share personally with you on this particular experience of faith.)
In what can we really believe anyways? Do we believe only in what we have experienced personally or can we believe other’s experiences? Is the past reliable as it is told to us through our history teachers or our elected public officials? Is the future predictable as it told to us by our employers, religious leaders, or mentors? What we believe about ourselves and the world around us quickly becomes our normative experience… our normalcy. Often normalcy is published in glossy hard-cover academic books by respected publishers, delivered through well-dressed messengers with professional degrees, or perhaps just subtly flashing across your 52-inch flat screen television. In any event, there is always a conversation going on between you… and your culture. What you believe about your own self-worth, the importance of your own personal contributions in life, and even whether it is worth it to continue trying to survive, are all a result of the cumulative messages you receive in your human development from cradle to grave.
If you believe that living all comes down to rugged individualism and achieving the “American Dream” you will live accordingly. If living actually boils down to a collection of experiences with no inherent purpose or meaning, you will then live a life that produces that result. If living is simply doing more good things than bad things, you will live the safest possible life. If on the other hand, living is confronting every Mt. Everest without fear or trepidation—‘danger be damned’—you may don the cover of Time magazine in your lifetime. In any event, you will absolutely live the life that makes the most sense to your unique human development. You will live the life that produces the most sensational and self-affirming stories around your kitchen table of family and friends. Maybe that is good enough for you… but somehow I doubt it. You did after all pick up this audacious book title.
Maybe we can learn more from the things that defy our natural experiences—the ones that interrupt common sense. Maybe normalcy has already taken us as far as it can for intellectual, creative, and gifted people like you and I. Therein lies the thesis of this book. I would submit to you that only when we roll back the cultural, political, religious, et al. covers that potentially blind our reality, can we purport to living an intentional life of purpose. Only then can we purport to change the world as we come to know it. Do we still even need people to change the world anymore or is that the passé idea of past generations? I think a quick scan of today’s CNN news headlines, a drive through the center of urban life in your locale, or even a walk through your own neighborhood will quickly reveal the need for urgent changes. In fact, I would submit that the world needs you… but maybe not in the way in which you are presently thinking.
As you journey through part one of this book, I hope you will be enlightened by a rare but critical step back from life as we are currently living it. I hope you will be encouraged by some fresh, sometimes controversial, insights into life as we have come to know it. But once you have completed this critical review of the bully pulpit, the church pulpit, or any other soap box you encounter along the way, I hope that you will persevere a bit further down this road. What is life without love?… acceptance?… security?… significance?… or even rewards? How many of us are still trying to find life without these essential—even existential—necessities? I am proud of this presentation in part two. It reflects my own very personal journey before, during, and even after the writing of this book. It also reflects a very intimate conversation I have enjoyed with a completely unnatural source of inspiration, wisdom, and infinite creativity in my life.
STOP. It’s not what you are thinking. This is not an elaborate or clever trick to get you to change habits, commit to a new direction in life, or to start acting differently. In fact, the whole point of this book is to encourage you to stop acting altogether. My fourteen-year-old son loves the art of acting. He performs in school plays, community civic theatre, and once even on the sidewalk as a fully-costumed Easter bunny for the younger (and older) passerbys. He’s really good at it and he will go as far as he chooses to go with this natural gift. But he hates practicing, rehearsing, and memorizing lines. He really only comes to life as an actor when he is on stage… and then boy does he ever! Is there any way that you, Drew, and I could just show up for the curtain call on performance day? Is there any way by which we could ditch the practices, rehearsals, or memorization? The answer is unequivocally: yes!
Finally, comes the part when your name is called and it’s your turn to take the stage. If my writing causes you to think, re-think, and struggle with your own convictions about life… then I will have only made it to the fifty yard line. The “touchdown” here is if you decide to act, re-act, and choose to fight for the Life you discover within these pages. Chapter eleven is my personal favorite: living the… abnormal life! I have always been afraid of getting a piercing or a tattoo on my body, but this is mild in comparison to the ‘new prescription’ offered in part three.
As you will soon read within these pages, I had a difficult decision to make on March 25, 2009 while standing atop one of the tallest bridges in the world. My greatest fear in life has always been ‘looking death face to face’. (I have had a few brushes with death in my thirty-seven years of existence.) On March 25th I decided to do exactly that. Much to my surprise, I learned that it is infinitely more difficult to look Life squarely in the face than it is to stare down the face of death. This is the springboard for the literary work that follows.
I have written this book first and foremost for my five adorable boys. My two youngest, Joshua and Nicolas will not understand all of my word choices just yet as they are seven and five years old respectively. I hope that they will choose to apprehend my tireless efforts at a later date in their lives. In the meantime, maybe my older boys Stefan, Drew, and Adrian will benefit from their dad’s life experience living through the hell of my own mental illness, countless tragic losses, and immense sadness… but yet also the beautiful discovery I finally found hiding behind every beat of your human life—regardless of how many beats you get.
For everyone else, I hope that you engage the pages of this book with the curiosity of my youngest son and the audacity of my oldest. Whatever you do, don’t judge this book by its cover and for God’s sake (and for your own)… don’t end this conversation too soon. With every printing of this book, there is yet another genuine invitation for you to participate in the strangely quiet notion of your own greatness: redefined. If you are initially uncomfortable with the idea of a spiritual “rebirth”, perhaps it will be consolation enough to offer you the very first literary eulogy of religion. But for right now… it is at least time to stop being Blinded by Normalcy.
©2010 Kurtis J. VanderMolen