My children remember when they were in elementary school, I played Simon and Garfunkel’s popular song, “I am a Rock” (written by Paul Simon), several times daily. I loved it. Stark and sad, yet brutally honest, the song reflected an aspect of myself I did not realize anybody else knew about.
The narrator, early on, sings “I’ve built walls.” We soon learn that the “deep and mighty” walled fortress’ job is to keep pain—understood to be a direct result of friendship—at bay. Even more poignant is the narrator’s assertion that love is the culprit of shed tears so they refuse to “disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.”
The fourth stanza follows:
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
Day in and day out, playing this song over and over again, I felt comforted knowing that at least one other person in the world understood me. It took years to gather enough courage and strength to venture out from my “deep and mighty” fortress, peel away my insulating armor and allow myself to take part in Lord Shiva’s invitation to partake in the dance of the universe, risking (and receiving) pain, but also feeling the wide gamut of emotions—including joy—that one experiences when engaged with the living.
Why was I so fearful? Why did I feel the need to “close off?” I attribute one of the reasons I led such a frozen existence for so long to the impossible standard of behavior—especially for girls and women—set by the faith community I was born into and remained in for decades. Of course, some of my peers didn’t feel the constriction and heaviness of the institution in the same way I did. But for me, I believed that achieving holiness (as defined by the group who insisted that they based their standard on God’s Word) would ultimately give me a sense of belonging and love I so craved. That never happened—not within this group.
My role model was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Obedient, compliant, passive, but most of all, a virgin. When told by the angel in Luke 1 that she (Mary) would conceive and bear a son (Jesus), she was perplexed, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel’s explanation seemed to satisfy her so she replied, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”
And there it was—in a nutshell. Be the actor in somebody else’s agenda—an object for male purposes. Attempting to live, think, and feel “outside of God’s plan” (as defined by those in charge) won’t bring contentment. No need to learn from experience because God’s instructions enable us to bypass that step. Experience sullies us. Wait on God’s timing. Keep yourself untainted from the world. Use restraint. Perform needed tasks perfunctorily. Your feelings don’t matter. Holiness does.
I recently saw the movie, “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s a coming-of-age love story between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver. Oliver is an American PhD student studying for six weeks in Italy with Elio’s father, Mr. Perlman, an archaeology professor. When Oliver returns to the United States, Elio is devastated. Elio’s father speaks gently and lovingly with his hurting and confused son, telling him he noticed the intense connection he had with Oliver. “You had a beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.”
Mr. Perlman, very much the antithesis to Paul Simon’s song, continues: “In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough, but I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”
It’s a beautiful monologue conveying Mr. Perlman’s acceptance of his son’s sexuality, but it’s so much more than that. Hadn’t I withdrawn from feeling in my life in an attempt to stay pure? Hadn’t I tried to keep pain at bay, protected by my books and poetry? Hadn’t I been brutal with myself for wanting to experience something, anything and then feeling guilty about breaking the rules? Hadn’t I endeavored to feel nothing in order to not feel anything?
We all suffer pain and loss during our sojourn in this earthly realm. Death of loved ones. Children and parents become estranged from one other. Unemployment. Sickness takes a toll on our dignity and financial resources. Right now, I’m facing the loss of the “daily-ness” of a long friendship as my friend plans to move several hundred miles away. It’s tempting to deny the pain, stoically move on, and cocoon myself within those impenetrable, “deep and mighty” fortress walls. But, what a waste that would be.
I’m choosing to nurse (embrace) the pain, to not snuff out the flame, and be grateful that I did not sit on the sidelines, but actively partook in this particular dance of friendship. As Garth Brooks sings, “I could have missed the pain/But I’d have had to miss the dance.” The dance is where it all happens, and I plan to keep at it.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.