Running away, let’s do it.
Free from the ties that bind.
No more despair, or burdens to bear,
Out there in the yonder.
Running away, go to it…
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son, the farther you run,
The more you’ll be wandering blind.
For what you have left undone, and more,
What you’ve left behind.
We disappoint, we leave a mess, we die, but we don’t.
We disappoint in turn, I guess. Forget, though, we won’t.
All this week, the Sondheim musical Into the Woods has tiptoed into my memory. It is a dark musical, a modern parable about confronting fear. Sondheim’s Woods is a thicket of uncertain outcomes and unintended consequences. It is a dark place, to be passed through of necessity. Gradually the light will guide the traveler out. He will be changed, challenged. He will go on about the business of living. The woods will remain adjacent to daily life, perhaps summoning him to return. This summons, to live fully, cannot be ignored. He will go back Into the Woods.
We have been plunged into a place of darkness for the past week.
Violence aimed at innocents. Fire, immolating life for an entire town. Catastrophic flooding, taking away homes and memories. The faces of parents who lost children in Newtown, being rebuffed by a powerful gun lobby. A mother who killed her child for failing at toilet training. A manhunt, full of violence and death. Earthquake in China. Kidnapping in Afghanistan.
There is a temptation to despair, to declare that we are embarking on a diminished future. “Life as we knew it will never be the same…..”To wallow in the woods.
No. It was a very bad week. There will be better ones, and ones that are worse.
How forgetful are we? Our grandfathers faced mustard gas, our fathers participated in the salvation of an ethnic group that was being culled via genocide. Atom bombs became a fact of life. We spent time under desks, awaiting a Russian version. Our nation watched its president fall to an assassination, and the leader of the Civil Rights movement be killed on a balcony. We have, as a generation, watched demonstrations turn violent, cities burn. Giant towers of steel have tumbled, humbled by a low tech band of radicals. Schools and movie theaters have morphed into killing fields. No generation will be immune from horror.
Yet we get up, and get on with it. We will do it again. Really, what choice do we have?
To live, or to cower? To keep on moving, or freeze?
The runners kept moving. The responders turned toward danger and helped. Race viewers proffered life saving assistance to strangers. Police strapped on vests and headed into gunfire and uncertainty. Texans joined hands and dug out the injured. Deluged Midwesterners pulled on waders, shared boats and filled sandbags. They tossed the debris, salvaged the stuff they could, and planned the next move. Defeated Newtown parents returned home to regroup, but not to dissolve.
Standing still is not an option. Controlling what we can is a mandate.
Life is not the continuum we imagine it to be. It is a series of uncontrollable events, which we resolutely try to manage. There are triumphs and setbacks. Glory and shame. Advancements and collapses. There will be chaos at times, and long stretches of peace. We are less pilots than navigators.
Those decrying our loss of innocence and security are wasting their lungs and our time. Men who distort these events to sow seeds of paranoia (and sell Prepper kits) disgrace themselves. Those who purport to have a one stop legislative (anti-immigration/pro gun-pick one) solution demonstrate shallow problem solving. Others, busily pointing fingers at governmental, presidential, intelligence and media failures are merely diffusing attention from the fact that there is no guarantee of absolute safety in a free society.
Intellectually, we have always known this. It is easier to get up and shuffle through the day assuming that all will be well. In America, this resilient, messy, wonderful country- it is a pretty safe assumption. That is the glory of living here. The odds are with us. Happy Days, mostly.
Yet, if we live long enough, we will navigate around illness, perhaps violence, great loss, pain and disappointment. To live fully, we will have to free ourselves from this spindle of sorrow, and move forward. To be trapped on the sharp point of despair is to allow the bad event to become the Maypole in our life. We circle it over and over, never advancing. We stop growing, exploring, and challenging our fears. We become redundant burdens to those who live in our shared airspace.
Better to have a reference point in the rear view mirror that informs and inspires us. Because we have to go forward.
Life is one-way.
So- Into the Woods, away from the light of certainty. We will manage the fear that could cripple us. We may succeed, we may flop. But we will live on. Boston Strong. Texas Strong. USA Strong. Mom and Dad strong. As strong as we can be. Toward the light. Smarter. Less innocent. Braver.
There will be other forests, other woods. Other meadows full of sunlight and joy. Life. Forward, one foot in front of the other.
So into the woods you go again,
You have to every now and then.
Into the woods, no telling when,
Be ready for the journey.
Into the woods, but not too fast
or what you wish, you lose at last.
Into the woods, but mind the past.
Into the woods, but mind the future.
Into the woods, but not to stray,
Or tempt the wolf, or steal from the giant–
The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there’s you, me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there.
Into the woods–you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go,
There’s more to learn of what you know.
Into the woods, but not too slow–
Into the woods, it’s nearing midnight–
Into the woods to mind the wolf,
To heed the witch, to honor the giant,
To mind, to heed, to find, to think, to teach, to join,
To go to the Festival!
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods–
And happy ever after!
Cinderella: I wish…
Janet: Me, too.
All lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods
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