I received “Mona Lisa Smile” in the mail from Netflix the other day. I’m a Julia Roberts fan, but the movie also looked good, so I ordered it. Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an Art professor originally from the West coast who is teaching her first year at 1950’s Wellsley, a women’s college of Ivy League stature in Massachusetts. While Wellesley is a very conservative institution in this historical setting, Watson is more progressive, and goes about challenging her student’s perceptions of the roles women can live through the subject of art. The setting is a culture where June Cleaver is at home and Betty Friedan is considered subversive. Ultimately, the film speaks about finding your place in the world through the exploration of ideas, claiming it, and allowing others the same freedom.
The first time I saw it, I was moved by it immensely. It wasn’t just the artistry or story, though. Something felt personal, like it had something to say to me, a middle-age man in the new century. As I began to reflect on the movie, I remembered a scene where Watkins uses class to address how narrow minded the culture of the time was regarding the role of women. Watkins used advertisements to reinforce how women were corralled into the model of “the perfect housewife.”
“Don’t let them fit you into their idea of what you should be.” Watkins shouted at one point.
Suddenly, my mind cleared. I realized that I have lived my life in just that fashion. I always looked to others to find how I should approach life, how I should view God, where I should work, how I should organize my time… and on an on. I realized that some people who have loved me and whom I have loved were trying to fit me into their vision of who I should be, but not really valuing who I am. Actually, I did the same thing to myself by measuring myself according to some subtle cultural message of how “successful people” live their lives.
Recently, I have had a dear friend who has challenged my view of how I tried to live my life. She consistantly shares how valuable my talents are and how courageous she believes I have been in the last few years. I must say that I didn’t believe her at first. But, as we have continued our conversations, her message has begun to sink in. I have begun the pathway of defining what I believe. Many times, I have found those definitions to either be quite different than I understood throughout my life, or they have become more refined and truer to my understanding of who I am. You must understand, I have always wanted to be liked by other people. But I felt a little out of place in the norm of life. I have been dissatisfied with an ordinary life. I value an ordinary life, and have great respect for people who go about the daily task of going to work, caring for their family and friends, and being content in the life they lead. I felt out of place and guilty because I couldn’t be satisfied in the values of that kind of life, although I admired people living in that manner. I figured I must be wrong. Something must be wrong with me and my character. I got that implicit message from people around me, too. So I tried… and tried…. and tried…. I would do well, for awhile. Sometimes for long stretches of time, even up to 10 years. But always, the restlessness would stalk me until it finally caught up.
I always had ideas about how to do things more efficiently or would see problems others either didn’t see, or just worked around. Frankly, I would get bored with the everyday and would seek new challenges in ideas. Ideas of others in books would often spur my own thinking and I naturally expanded them and combined them with other ideas in other books to come up with something different. The ideas would become like opium to me. In fact, I have described ideas in another post in that very fashion. The opium would make me high, remove my consciousness from the monotony of the ordinary life in which I lived, and supplant it into what could be. Seldom did I communicate these ideas, though because they seemed very ordinary and obvious to me, so I didn’t believe other people would glean much value from them. For years, I didn’t act on the ideas, I just lived in them, afraid to communicate them because I thought they wouldn’t be accepted. Yet neither did I act upon them. What if they didn’t work? Or what if they failed? I wasn’t sure how I would handle that failure. And yet, my daily life wasn’t all that successful. The successes I did have, weren’t significant to me, yet still I was afraid.
Actually, when I did share my ideas, and was in a position to implement some of them, I didn’t feel they were received nor followed in the way my vision held them. So I grew less and less confident in the ideas I had and my abilities to carry them through to the end. I began to lack courage, if not ideas. I felt very much like an ambitious woman in the 1950’s, as if my lot in life were shaped by a culture in which I didn’t really fit.
Now, I am at a point in my life… a new adolescence is how Divorce Care describes it… where I can re-evaluate and change the course of my life. After watching “Mona Lisa Smile”, and remembering the conversations with my friend, I thought, “What if it were possible to live life defined by who I was made to be? Do I have the courage?”
Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is action spurred by higher values than mere self protection. Courage is tied to trust… trust in God… trust in the importance of the mission… trust in your own committment to that mission…. trust that you aren’t alone. Courage acknowledges risk, yet believes in the transcendence of the reward for the effort. Actually, it takes courage to believe.
Courage to Believe in God…
It takes courage to believe in God, although to me, it takes more courage to not believe in God and live a giving life. I mean, what’s the point? If there is no God who loves us and created us with innate value, then why wouldn’t you immerse yourself in the heights of hedonism? I would! I have struggled with my perception of my own worth for years. For years, I lived with the belief that my value was determined by my performance, my family, and the church. When those three facets of my life fell apart, I could have decided to just screw it, and lose myself in the pursuit of pleasure. It was a temptation, and I did loosen up to some vices, but somewhere in the depths of my soul, I still believed that my ultimate value came from a God that created me and loves me. I didn’t manufacture the idea of God, he came to me, and continues to show himself to me every day. And it’s not because of my effort, but because of his love. Believing that and responding to that is taking courage. Especially when God speaks in ways and in places for which my religious training didn’t prepare me. Yet, the things he says and the timbre of his voice I know from time spent in the scriptures. It matters not whether that fact squares with what anyone else thinks, I believe it to be true. It is my experience. Trying to keep God in a box is an exhausting process, which is attempted due to fear. Trusting God to reveal himself as he is, and allowing my perceptions of him to be shaped through that interaction takes courage. Its tricky, and not perfect… filled with honesty, humility, anger, joy, confusion, mis-communication, pain, remorse, birth, death… ultimately it is life. The interaction in all its complexity and imperfections pervades and colors all of life. I trust God and I don’t trust God… its filled with discrepancies of what I say and how I live, no matter how authenticly I try to live. What is amazing, is that God keeps coming back to the table, even when he doesn’t speak, he is there. That fact can especially require courage to believe sometimes. Yet it holds true.
Courage to Believe in Me… Next post.