By Karen Mannino Monday, October 7th 2013
Several years ago I was invited to read George Eliot’s Middlemarch with a book club. In the introduction, Eliot talks about St. Teresa of Avila who had a burning passion, energy and vision to do something great. And by some miracle, she became a Saint. But, Eliot muses, there are untold millions of other women and men in the history of the world who had that same kind of passion and, through one circumstance or another, fail to reach any of the lofty ambitions they had. Then the story commences, following the lives and ambitions of various residents of a town and the surrounding area.
There are several people in my life, many of them my peers, who have the kind of passion that can change the world, or at least make something great of the life in which it exists. Our culture kind of worships this kind of passion. We celebrate and applaud people who are able to follow their passions and achieve their dreams. Even when they are not very good at just being good people. Don’t we all want to spend our lives doing that thing that makes us feel alive, that thing we are passionate about? I have heard many a life lamented because something held it back from that passion; that thing that could have been. Often the loss of a career is grieved. The career is sacrificed to family, as often as not. When someone could have done something culturally earth shattering, and is torn away from it by family trouble, or even every day obligations, our culture grieves.
Our culture, and perhaps my generation especially, values autonomy very highly. We want to live our American dream, building our lives just the way we want them, standing on our own feet and pursuing our passions without hindrance.
For me, this autonomous and independent pursuit of a dream is among the most attractive false teachings of our culture. I have as many dreams as the next Millennial, I suppose. And I would like to arrange my life so that I am free to pursue them. But my point of view is limited, being human, not to mention very young. Perhaps it will be the things that I see as obstacles to my ambitions that will make me into a fulfilled person, not just a person who achieved a dream. Often those things I see as obstacles are people. It’s not just the people who demand my time and attention when I would like to be doing something else. It’s the people I very effectively ignore. The people I chose not to bother about. I can live side by side with lots and lots of people and never invest myself in them, or let them effect me in any way. I can even live with my family in a way that sets me apart, as an autonomous adult, who happens to live here, as if my home were a hotel. This is very effective in getting everything done on my to do list.
Somewhere on that bucket list is written “become a saint.”
As it turns out, the best way to do this, is to interact with the people around you. God’s dream for me is not the same as mine. The more I conform my will to God’s, I find that the most important goal is actually to love God with all my heart, and share eternal life with him in heaven. Some of the great things I want to do might fit in somewhere. But the every day interactions with the other immortal beings around me are where the rubber hits the road. To live every day with an awareness of being part of something larger than myself is a struggle. I suppose that’s the whole human condition, right? We have to learn to stop being so darn self centered. But even if it means that I never get to do all the great things I dream of doing, it will be worth it. The world won’t see it, but the more important dream, the eternal one, is getting closer.
In Eliot’s Middlemarch, there are several characters who have ambitions, big or small, and very few of them achieve them. It is always in the moment of deepest failure that the true strength of their characters are shown. There are maybe two true main characters, but the novel is really about the connections between them; The web of ambitions and obligations that make up the community of Middlemarch. The achievements that the world sees are not the important ones. The hidden life of the hardworking woman who marries the lad with little to no moral strength seems to be the happiest in the end. The world suspects and misunderstands them, but they have no illusions about themselves or each other. They will make each other saints by being more committed to each other and their community than they are to their own dreams.
Karen Mannino graduated from Aquinas College in 2012 with a BA in studio art. She lives in Spokane, WA with her family and tries to keep her baby brother from chewing on her charcoal eraser.