On my recent trip to Poland, I ended up unexpectedly back in the Stare Miasto of Kraków–fog (mgła) had delayed my flight, giving me 12 extra hours in the city. Since I was alone, I walked for half an hour from the apartment where I was staying into town, first up to the Dominican Church to pay my respects. I entered during the consecration and felt overwhelmed (by the way, at a Monday noon Mass, there was standing room only in a fairly large church). Then I wandered to the Rynek Głowny and sat down with a cappuccino to people-watch.
I felt more unsettled than I had expected. Six years ago I visited Kraków for the first time, also on a cold October day. The coat I wore was the same one I had bought in the train station there. It made me nervous to contemplate the differences between myself as I was then and as I am now. I had visited Kraków at a time in my life before anything had really hurt me–when the trauma of moving from home and of studying abroad were the most difficult aspects of my life. I returned 8 months later with my dearest friends, before we had to worry about parting ways. It is still difficult for me not to become emotional when I think about how happy we were then.
Other places like New York keep up with the changes six years have wrought. Why, my dearest city, must you always remain the same? Why do you hold such sweet memories in perfect fixity? Why have you not grown weary as I have?
Sometimes those of us cursed with Irish blood just end up a drunken, crying mess at the end of the night.
“What,” my friend asked a religious the other night, “is the difference between being sad and having a spirit of sadness?” He replied that a spirit of sadness permeates everything you do and that it leads you to live your life completely without hope. Where (diagnosed, clinical) depression fits into all of this, I think, is a post for another day. The friar’s words caught my attention. Last night I convinced some of my friends to watch The Dead, the film adaptation of Joyce’s short story in Dubliners. One friend astutely pointed out that everyone but Gabriel seems to miss something, have a lack or a wound that they mourn over, and at the end he laments that he has never felt such deep love for someone or something. But the Irish approach, as I’ve come to know it through generations of sadness in my family, is quite dangerous. It leaves you always trying to escape, discarding the present completely. It plunges you into a world of drunkenness and emotions and stasis. It’s everything I’ve written that Christians should not do.
There’s a deep romantic beauty to the Irish outlook on life, and yes, I tear up when Greta talks about Michael Furey and during Gabriel’s last speech when he sees so little difference between the living and the dead. But ultimately Joyce’s characters are stuck in a quagmire they believe they have no control over. In a perverse way it can be fun to throw one’s hands up, say “life is terrible,” and then drink oneself to the point of oblivion. But this is not sustainable, because nostalgia becomes one’s god, and when it comes to gods, the human heart has a limited capacity for how many it can worship.
God is never powerless unless we force him to be. Nothing shall be impossible for him. The past, present, and future can all be healed and glorified through him, but we can’t cling to sadness because it feels good and safe and familiar. That is part of the lie that sadness tells us: that only fools are happy. It’s not so. Foolish are the ones who have let their lamps burn out because they no longer wait in expectation of the Bridegroom. The wise rejoice because they know the hour is close at hand.
1) Don’t tell a man, “You’ll have to think for both of us,” unless that man is Humphrey Bogart and you are Ingrid Bergman, or else I’ll throw a shoe at you. But Ingrid, girl, I get it.
2) After watching Casablanca, you must cry when listening to “As Time Goes By” even when you’re on a subway platform and the singer is accompanied by a portable keyboard. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re being overly sentimental. Scold them for their unfeeling tear ducts.
3) Don’t watch Casablanca if you are in love, were in love, or ever expect to be in love.
4) Humphrey Bogart, marry me.