A More Honest Picture of Life
One thing that can be said about life is that it is eventful in the short term, and uneventful in the long term. Events that are said to be “life-changing” often turn out to be only minor upheavals in the history of an individual. Although many books portray an action-packed plot filled with twists and turns leading to an uplifting resolution, this structure is not very common in the real world.
Earlier this year, I read the book Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. I found the plot hard to follow, because there was not much plot. Almost all the ideas conveyed in the novel were details. It was a very unconventional way to organize a book. And this kind of structure made me feel, “hey, this is what life is like.”
In Sag Harbor, every chapter forms its own little compartment, with its own characters, events, and everything, save for the occasional recurring facet of everyday life. Randomly pick up a chapter and read from there, and probably you can still understand it without difficulty. The fact that the chapters are named like short stories, such as “if I could pay you less, I would”, without numbers, reinforces the mutual independence between chapters. You will notice that Whitehead, while writing Sag Harbor, decided to take the concept of Chekhov’s gun and throw it right out of the window. Many details appear once, only to have its minor effect on the plot a few pages later, and are wrapped up, never to be used again. On page 145 of Sag, a literal gun (a BB gun) was introduced to us as a toy gun that was supposed to be harmless, and that Benji and the gang wanted to fight with. Unfortunately, during the BB gunfight, it turned out that Benji was in fact (fortunately, lightly) wounded by a bullet. The chapter is wrapped up simply with sentences such as “the BB guns didn’t come out again that summer”. And the BB guns did not come out for the rest of the book, having lasted for a single chapter. Life is just like this. Although I keep track of the order of time, days, weeks and months, together with certain long-term plan, what feels important if not decisive is always the interests and conflicts of the moment. For example, “I need to finish this essay.” I do, but it’s due in a week, and it only affects a transient period of my life. Last year, for a few months, the MATHCOUNTS math competition become my life. I competed in multiple rounds, traveling to other cities for knockouts, practicing and practicing and having “Eureka!” moments, even making it to the nationals, granting me “prestige forever”. However, a year later, it has been put away in the drawer as a fun fact about me, while I navigate much of the same work and anxiety that came the year before.
Although it could be argued that Sag Harbor features recurring themes, it appears as if most of them are simply byproducts of the growth patterns of an average adolescent. For example, many times throughout the book, love is involved in some event or another. These events, however, are told individually and don’t really build on each other to make “a milestone in life”, or to convey “the meaning of life”, or something like that. In the modern day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a boy Benji’s age would likely be exploring love, and so naturally many parts of his life would revolve around it.
So, is life a flat, meaningless void after all? Probably not. There are many moments when Benji is experiencing what is indisputably happiness. At the start of the final chapter, a Labor Day party appears, distracting the characters from the impending school year. “But forget all those city intimations. Today was the Sag Harbor Hills Labor Day Party.” This portrays the feeling of a carefree moment regardless of what happens around it, a time to have fun, elevated above the void. Sometimes, such moments can serve as a distraction from the stubborn course of life. For me, moments like this might be taking a break from homework and visiting the newly hatched Canada geese in the central park, or when a friend says hello to me halfway through an exhausting school day.
Many people believe that life is full of drama and turning points that make up a breathtaking journey of progress (e.g. in the personal essays we write for college admission). Unfortunately, that mentality is a subtle misrepresentation of life. If you expect huge permanent changes or progresses to happen to your life every year, you’ll be disappointed in the end. True, there are life-changing events, but they usually only change specific aspects of life, and many of them turn out to be temporary. In the book, Benji decides that he would rather be called Ben, since he felt Benji was childish. The new name never stuck, and eventually he went back on his decision.
Continuing to go down the path of such beliefs, you’ll end up being blind to the true face of life. If you take a closer look at what you have experienced, you will see that it hasn’t changed that much from a few years ago. Even though the circumstances of your life have changed, your personality, motivations and values haven’t. And they are, so to speak, the backbone of your life.
The underlying fabric of life simply does not change that much. Most of the changes in life are just ripples on the surface of a lake. The deeper waters are eternal like heaven and firm like stones, only moving slowly with the flow of time.