Jasonpost 3: lost

Speaking of careers, the whole issue of “what ifs” came nosing out of it dirty little hole the other night. I had just finished watching “Lost”, a T.V. series Susan and I are addicted to. Really, it’s a fascinating series, in which a group of people are stranded on a tropical island, and all sorts of inexplicable things begin to happen to them. The second season is gathering around a conflict between Jack, the doctor and de-facto leader of the group, and a character named Locke, who, after being wheel chair bound, mysteriously regained the use of his legs after their plane crashed on the island. The conflict between Jack and Locke is about faith. Jack doesn’t want to deal with it if it can’t be logically explained. Locke talks a great deal about “destiny”, and enters into the situations the island leads him to with a sense of wonder and unquestioning faith, faith that this is what was meant to be. How could I not be gripped?

The actor playing Locke is named Terry O’Quinn, and he and I share a resemblance. Knowing that this series was cast with an ensemble of newcomers and relative unknowns (except for Dominic Monegan, the actor who played Pippin in the Lord of The Rings movies), I was suddenly seized with envy of Terry, thinking: that could have been me. If I had been a bit more adventurous and had given L.A. a try, if I hadn’t been paralyzed with alcoholism, if, if if . . . How I fantasize about acting in a hit T.V. series shot in Hawaii, and how easily I forget that if it were true, Griffen and Ella wouldn’t be alive, and the struggles I endure now would be replaced by others, like the ones Terry had to endure on the way to playing Locke. The darkness says, you’re a loser Ben, and what’s worse, you could have been a winner, like Terry.

What pulls me back into the light is my family and my work. Pulling on the costumes I wear for Jason and exploring these wild and wonderful characters, hearing the extraordinary sound of intergenerational laughter from the audience, feeling my kinship to the artists I work with and to the audience I serve. It’s a kinship I share with Terry O’Quinn, and with actors everywhere, and I am comforted by the truth that it doesn’t matter where you act, it matters that you act at all, and act well.

This morning, we played for a school group of about 12 kids and a handful of teachers (the theater holds 175). Peter, who plays a bunch of roles in the play, was grumpy about having to put on all his make-up for such a small group. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t. Something has changed in me. Others have witnessed it. This summer, my friend Kathryn who was my partner on stage in two of the three short plays I acted in for 30Fest, said to me during a tech rehearsal, “So what’s up with you? You’re different – good different”. Abbey, during a conference about the upcoming season at the theater, commented, “People have been glad to have you around Ben. Please take this in the best possible way, they tell me, ‘It’s like the good Ben is here!’” Here’s what I told Kathryn, but couldn’t say to Abbey: I have God in my life now.

I think, very quietly, and with no fanfare, I have been born again. It took about 13 years, beginning with my surrender to my addiction and having its apotheosis through The Religious Society of Friends. It has been a slow motion conversion. And I feel in my struggle and pain around being denied tenure, I have passed through a rite of purification, and what had been closed up inside has finally unfolded on the outside. It is private – I don’t talk about it unless asked, and then only to those who I feel can hear it without alarm or confusion. And it’s not scripture based. It’s not even Christocentric by any conventional standard, although I was deeply moved by Anne Lamott’s account of her conversion. In it, she imagined Christ following her around as a stray dog, and then sitting in the corner of her room, a hunched and shadowy figure, until finally she stood up in her misery and said, “Okay! You can come in!”. Nothing that dramatic for me, but I relate to the sense of being pursued by Something with enormous spiritual goodness. For me, S/He hovers, or sits near me like the angels in Wenders’ movie Wings of Desire. I feel renewed by my Suitor, and I have held the image of Jesus in my mind during meeting for worship, seeing Him sit amongst us, occasionally sliding off his bench to wash someone’s feet.

I have just finished reading the 19th century journal of American Quaker John Woolman. I figured, if I have set out to write a 21st century Quaker journal, I might as well read the most famous one I can find from the past. Woolman’s journal is even more widely read that Fox’s, in part because he articulates spirit-based positions on economic justice that were far ahead of his time, in part because his ministry to abolish slavery is so forceful and so personal, in part because the quality of his faith is overpowering. I confess, friends, I felt ashamed at my puny faith when I hold it against John’s, who could not meet a moment in his life without being completely aware of the spiritual implications of it. He took the principal of living one’s faith to the logical extreme, and famously refused to wear dyed clothes because he felt the use of dyes to be both ostentatious, and leading to the oppression of those forced to make them. I fear that if poor John were alive today, her would throw himself from the Ben Franklin bridge in despair, so deeply into the darkness – by his definition – we have drifted as country.

But I also saw that I can’t be an 18th century Quaker in the 21st century. I feel I am called to Quaker ministry in the terms of my own time, and live in the world I have been given. Too often, I fear, Quakers use examples like Woolman as ways to prop up defeatist positions. The only way John is useful to us today is if he propels us forward into action. We cannot wallow in regret at the sad state of the world, and the inability of our Society to bring Divine Light more fully to earth. We must trust in continuing revelation – that we are just as much agents of God’s will as was John Woolman, each to our own measure.