Game of Life: Excitement, Fear, Exhilaration, and then Reality Bites 

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

 I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.

I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!

But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.

And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”

So I jumped.

And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.

Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!

I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.

Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.

In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”

In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”

Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.

Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.

So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.

When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.

If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.

But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?

I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)

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Love of Words, Words of Love

JMU lake 2

One of the many things that I like about Dostoevsky’s style is the distinct voices of each of his characters. (Perhaps credit is also due tothe translator who understands the nuances of the Russian language.) If the character is highly educated, then he or she can speak eloquently in long, complex and profound sentences on a variety of subjects with numerous allusions to literary works. Such as the narrator of White Nights, who speaks so eruditely, that Nastenka, who considers herself a simple uneducated girl has to say to him: “You describe it all so splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it less splendidly?” The narrator’s language is reflective of a person who is used to internal monologues, and not that of one accustomed to conversing with other people.

Nastenka, on the other hand, simple as she is, expresses herself in the simplest way possible. Her sentences are short, even incomplete sometimes reflecting a very conversational use of language.

****
White Nights, a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer

It makes a huge difference that Dostoevsky included “a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer” in the title, because then the reader can excuse the sentimentality of the story, for are we not prone to sentimentality ourselves, albeit only in our heads?

The narrator, a 27-year old dreamer, who hasnever been with a woman, meets an 18-year old heartbroken woman, and they become friends and each other’s confidant. The woman, Nastenka, asks of him only one thing — not to fall in love with her, which of course, is impossible, she being the only woman (beautiful at that) to ever spend time with him, and listen to him.

Nastenka is distressed because the man who promised to come back to Petersburg to marry her has not come to see her yet even though it is past the date they have agreed to meet. The narrator counsels and comforts her, until he falls in love with her and finally one evening tells her. Nastenka does not turn him away, saying she will learn to love him as she already loves him as a friend. They walk, holding hands, happy with life when the man she has been waiting for, appears and she runs to him. And they walk away, leaving our poor, poor hero behind.

Days later, the young man receives a letter from Nastenka that says, “We shall meet, you will come to us, you will be for ever a friend, a brother to me.” And she asks him to forgive her, and to continue loving her because “when one loves a wrong is forgotten.” Then she tells him she is getting married and wishes for him to be there at their wedding.

Our poor hero ends his story with these words(only in his head):

“But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka. That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and and grateful heart!

“My god, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for a whole of man’s life? “

I know very few women and not a single man who could love that way.

Apart from parents, how many people can truly love selflessly? To wish nothing for oneself but to see the happiness of another, even if it means being neglected, abandoned?

*****

“I don’t know how to be silent when my heart is speaking.”

The narrator says these words to Nastenka as he tells her about himself.

These words remind me of the biblical verse, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Rare is a person who can keep his secret love totally secret from everyone but himself.

When one is in love, why is it difficult to keep that to oneself? Even if one does not admit he is, he will not be able to stop mentioning the subject of his affection in every conversation, and he will always find a way to keep in touch with the same person no matter how mundane it is that he says to her.

But indeed some secret feelings are better carried to one’s grave, especially if they will not do any good to anyone.

If the narrator were my friend, I would have advised him to keep his feelings a secret, then he would not have had the unwanted pity that Nastenka must have felt for him. And he himself would not have felt guilty for making Nastenka worry about him, and their friendship would have remained pure and unsullied by knowledge of romantic feelings one had for the other.

To keep a friendship one has to be silent sometimes. Or even silence one’s heart.

Restraint is key.