One of my favorite books on writing describes a fundamental crisis the protagonist of every story faces: Stasis = Death. That is to say, at the outset of every story, the protagonist encounters a dilemma: stay the same and die (metaphorically or physically) or embrace change and face unknown dangers, possibly even death (metaphorically or physically). It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. And it’s the story of all of our lives.
Watch any movie and you’ll see it’s true. What if Luke had stayed on his home planet instead of following Obi-Wan? What if Marty hadn’t hopped in the DeLorean? What if Maria had remained cloistered in her Austrian convent? Had they clung to the status quo, each protagonist would have died in his or her own way (stormtroopers, Libyans, a stifled spirit). Stasis = Death.
I was reminded of this literary axiom over Christmas, when Constantino and I were down in Southern California visiting family and friends. These trips are always wrought with a cocktail of emotions for me, because I love Southern California and those who inhabit it. We have so many close friends and family that there’s never enough time to see them all, or spend enough time with the ones we do see.
While we were visiting this past week, we were able to stay in my old apartment, which I sublet out, but happened to be vacant this month. I’m especially fond of that apartment, having lived in it for eight years and accumulated countless memories of lively parties, intimate small groups from church, and cozy dinners with my sister and our dog. As I stared out the apartment’s front windows at a familiar view of the city’s skyline, it was easy to imagine that I had never moved to Portland. For just a few seconds, it was possible to pretend that the past two years had never happened. And it made me sad. Why? Stasis = Death.
For me, staying in that apartment would have been tantamount to living on autopilot. Life was comfortable, enjoyable, and relatively easy. But I was not emotionally challenged. I was not growing spiritually. I was living in only the most biological sense. There was nothing wrong with my life, and perhaps it was the adequacy of my existence that made me resist risk and change. I could have easily lived in that apartment, and in that life, for another 50 years. But in that place, I would have been living the exact same year 50 times over. Stasis = Death.
My catalyst for change wasn’t stormtroopers seeking the plans of the Death Star, or angry Libyans seeking stolen plutonium. It was Constantino. He sat outside my walls and eventually broke them down. When he moved to Portland for a job, it was my inciting dilemma: Would I stay in the comfort of the life I had established, or follow him and risk unknown dangers for a chance at greater rewards? It’s the crux of every storybook romance, and the question inherent in every budding relationship: Will they or won’t they?
In the mythology of the hero’s journey, the hero must heed the call to adventure, and the quest invariably leads him or her away from the safety of home. The Bible is no exception to this story structure: Abraham leaves for the promised land. Peter and the apostles abandon the safety of their community and travel the surrounding territories. Saul transforms into Paul and goes pretty much everywhere. There are no guarantees of happily-ever-after when we heed the call. Stasis leads to certain death, but change offers its own dangers.
Like a good protagonist, I heeded the call, and I have reaped the rewards: a wonderful marriage, a church I love, and a relationship with God that is evolving in ways I never imagined. But no one answers the call without sacrifice. I left family and friends and a home I adore. It’s impossible to explain to loved ones why you have to go, especially when the “death” we face is nothing obvious, but rather something internal and subtle. For Christians, the best words we find for moments like these are, “I feel God calling me.” As true as that is, it may be an unsatisfactory answer for family members who lament the idea of you moving a thousand miles away. But the call is individual, and private, and personal; it offers no explanations, reasons, or justifications to others. This is why it takes a bold heart to respond.
Whenever I visit home, there’s an unspoken question in the eyes my loved ones: “Why can’t you just return?” I don’t have an easy answer. All I know is, it’s not time. I don’t know if and when there will be a time. Spirit isn’t in the habit of offering us a timeline. If anything, Constantino and I feel called to dig in where we are and let our roots grow here. Even if we did return home, I know I couldn’t return to the way things were. Adventure changes a person fundamentally, and the stasis in which I once lived would be intolerable. I am a different man, and I am now only one half of a partnership that adventures together.
This is what made me sad as I looked out of the window of my old apartment. I could pretend that things were the same, but they were not. Because I am not the same. And so I cried. As glad as I am for the bounty of my current life, I wept for the familiar past to which I realized I can never fully return, and for the grief that change inflicts on both me and my loved ones. Growth doesn’t happen without pain, but I draw comfort in knowing that a small life—an existence that shuns growth—is the worst pain of all. It is the pain of unmet potential, the grief of living as a shadow of one’s self.
My sadness reminded me of a memory I have from when I was about five years old. I was on vacation with my family, in the back of our van, driving east through the California desert at night. I asked my mom to tell me the moment we crossed the state line. It would be my first time consciously leaving California. My parents thought I was excited, but when we finally crossed into Arizona I burst into tears. Even then I had a sense of the significance of change, and the pain that growing would involve. My world was widening, my walls of safety were crumbling, and I knew I would never be the same.
Photo by Michael Matti, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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