Preface, Part 2: Faith in Finding Nemo

A few weeks ago, I was talking on the phone with my parents, telling them about an article written by John Gerber, my friend Viv’s professor at UMass, titled “An Open Letter to Graduating Seniors.” In it, he mentions the need for “leaps into the dark” during transitional periods such as graduating, ending the article with the following Pixar reference:

I brought this scene up, mentioning how the whole “time to let go” concept definitely resonated with the whole “graduation” thing. It’s a type of risk-taking that I’m starting to think may be essential in life, yet it’s the exact kind of risk-taking I’ve never been good at. I wouldn’t not call myself a risk-taker — I have a tendency to make surprising decisions, and generally feel fine getting out of my comfort-zone in social situations, oceans, rocky mountains, and roller coasters — but when I take a risk, that risk generally has a plan. I constantly remember the disappointment I felt as a young child at Hershey Park when, after a particularly nasty experience on a wooden coaster that may or may not have left me concussed, I passed up going on the biggest baddest coaster in the park. I remind myself now to “always ride the roller-coaster,” my personal version of #YOLO. But the risks I take when I apply this mantra always have a specific coaster already envisioned. A key part of dives into the void is the lack of knowledge that there is anything waiting on the other side, let alone a specific roller coaster with a safety mechanism and a proven track record.

After bringing this up, my mother responded in her classic slow, repetitive laugh which roughly translates to “Derek, you’re unknowingly agreeing with something I’ve been telling you for years,” the pinnacle of motherly I-Told-You-So’s. The following scene commenced:

MARI TUMA FORET And do you know what that’s called, Derek?
ME Um.
A beat, as he thinks
MARI TUMA FORET You’re not going to be happy with the answer.
ME Wait. Amor fati?
MARI TUMA FORET No Derek, it’s faith.
A long, Annie Baker style pause.
MARI TUMA FORET I told you you wouldn’t like it!

Now, I swear my The-Chekhov-of-Our-Time inspired moment of silence after my mom dropping the mic in her own way was really more of a pause to think about what faith in this context would mean. Wikipedia says that faith is “confidence or trust in a particular system of religious belief.” But falls into the whale’s belly (which to be fair can also be called leaps of faith) do not really have trust or confidence in someone or something. In fact, the whole point of them is that it is trust or confidence in no one and nothing, but you still do it, anyway. As the scene goes in Finding Nemo:

DORY He (the whale) says it’s time to let go! Everything’s going to be alright!
MARLIN How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?
DORY (Beat, while she thinks). I don’t!

So clearly, Dory’s first line of reassurance to Marlin is either a lie, or things being “alright” have a different meaning than we generally like to think. It is also probably relevant here to remember that, as I (and I know I’m not alone) learned in middle school after slogging through Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Nemo” is latin for “no one.” And becoming no one is precisely what saved Odysseus from the cyclops.

It also reminds me of the following exchange from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:

DR. HORRIBLE I can’t imagine anyone firing you.
PENNY Neither could I. Now I can visualize it really well. But, you know… everything happens.
DR. HORRIBLE Don’t say “for a reason”.
PENNY No, I’m just saying that everything happens.
DR. HORRIBLE Not to me.

There are times in life that require both radical acceptance of things you have no control over and for you to take action without having any idea of what will happen after that action is complete. Now I like to call this amor fati, and much to the pleasure of one of the presidents of my fraternity, I’ll be the first to admit that love of my own fate is something I do struggle with. One of the most perceptive things a friend has ever said to me was that I tend to “make a map for myself that I don’t fit into.” My mom may call this the opposite of this faith. And the terminology isn’t the most important — the both of us could not give a complete definition for our respective terms. The important takeaway here is that, let’s call it faith, is not a belief that everything is going to be okay or happens for a reason, but that everything is going to be, and everything happens, as Penny says.

Thinking the former is making a non-rational assumption. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily false, but it has been proven true yet, either. And the problem with non-rational assumptions is that they can lead to incorrect decisions. Now you can really hear the math major coming out in me — certainly a reason I struggle with amor fati — and it would be preposterous to think that living a completely rational life is a possibility. First, it would require being a perfectly rational thinker, which, unless you’re Socrates, you’re probably out of luck. But even more importantly, it ignores times where the best choice for oneself is to jump into the dark ocean, not knowing if you will resurface. There is one time in everyone’s life that you are forced to do this, if not more.

So there grows a tension between this kind of faith and rationality. An individual needs both, and by very definition, knowing when to employ the correct one will be, at best, an educated guess. Recently, the Last-Friend-I-Made-at-Kenyon-College Aldis Petriceks wrote about the rationality of faith, a fine attempt to solve this issue. He hits the nail on the head by saying that

there is experience, knowledge, and meaning which cannot be measured by science

and that there is potential “data for Christianity” that includes (at a minimum)

the concept of a Moral Law, as well as historical analysis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Rationality is necessary to make that best educated guess on when to employ faith, but it’s not self-sufficient — or, at least, we would have to broaden our concept of scientific rationality to something greater. But even in that latter case, this new rationality would be very different from how we generally think of reason in terms of logic and mathematics.

So we need both rationality and faith to live our best lives. Rely too much on rationality and you’ll be Marlin clinging forever to the tongue of the whale, never taking the necessary chance to escape. But rely too much on faith, and you’ll let go in times where the plan the whale has in mind isn’t to blow you out of its blowhole. You need faith to get to P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. But you also need your rationality and your faith to be intertwined: you need to just keep swimming, but you also need to eventually be swimming in the right direction. Rationality may not be able to make any guarantees, but it’s the best thing we have to orient ourselves towards Australia.

You can kind of hear Dory chanting “this is water,” can’t you? In TIW, DFW talks a lot about orientation. He states that

a person’s most basic orientation towards the word…[is not] somehow automatically hardwired…[but is] a matter of personal, intentional choice (27-8).

He ties this choice to the most essential part of a liberal arts education, as

“learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think (53)…what has meaning and what doesn’t (95).

He then ties this rational orientating or adjusting to something that’s quite related to faith — worship. He claims that “everyone worships” (100) (even atheists), and that one will be “eat[en]…alive” (102) if they worship “money” (103) or “beauty” (106) or “power” (109) or “your intellect” (110). But what does he tell us to worship? What should we orient our faith towards? Here he becomes less clear. He does state that sacred things are

on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things (93)

and that “real freedom” (121)

involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day (120).

Yet he also claims that all of this isn’t necessarily true, as

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it (94),

and begs the listener to

please, don’t think I’m giving you moral advice (88).

So what orientation does he recommend? What, exactly, is his point?

You could say to be self-aware. To doubt your own convictions. To remind yourself that this is water. But none of that goes far enough. Now, maybe that is his point. But to know with the most certainty possible, we need more examination. That, and examining our results, will be the purpose of the posts yet to come.

I’ll finish with a general point to keep in mind: We’ll also have to remember that faith, like rationality, is a means to, or at least towards, something else. Now, this statement may be controversial to some. And I also don’t mean to rule out the possibility that, say, the continual process of orientation, what DFW calls the only capital-T truth, is, in a way, the end goal. To those who do find it controversial, I would first ask if you could buy if faith is at least a means towards God. Inherent faith would be non-oriented worship. And worshiping faith itself would be jumping for the sake of jumping. Where’s the rationality in that? I am reminded of another phrase that moms everywhere are famous for.

Because even when we let go and fall towards whale’s belly, we want our best chance at finding capital-N Nemo, and not, well, nemo. Right?

 

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