VI. 2. Stella’s Stellar Step-back Stunt

Human life unfolds like a day spent in the depth of the woods, if we were dropped there by force of nature. At first we don’t have any idea where we are, and the noises and sights emerging from the murk don’t mean anything to us. We survive due to our instincts, as well as the help coming from others. Gradually the flicker of our experience combined with the torch light from the ones who stride alongside our crib start guiding us into recognizing the world. By the time we walk on our own we can already distinguish in the day spring haze the tall old tree from the tiller, the rumble of the waterfall from the purl of the streamlet, the scent of the meadow from the stench of the swamp. Even though the patchy darkness still makes our steps uncertain, we gradually learn that everything we sense falls into either of the groups of Secure or Dangerous. Not too long afterward we get to know what is good or bad for us, and start choosing the good over the bad. The older we grow the more deliberate and independent our choices become. Our route deviates more and more from the common path, until the bright sunshine of the advancing day finds us completely separated from the rest, feeling mature enough to experience the beauty of the woods without mediation. But once we stop hearing their voices we discover that the sun is not shining that brightly anymore, and thick fog has obscured our view. When you are on your own the forest doesn’t look that hospitable. Yet we are full of energy and quite optimistic about our future. Approaching the prime of the day God has promised us in this moorland, we find ourselves strong enough to fulfill what we’ve meditated about earlier; we boldly intend to reach the destination of our dreams. Some of us aim at the peak we’ve only heard about, or seen from afar; others imagine a quiet lawn full of flowers; still others dream about a mysterious cave bearing the world’s secrets. From among all the “good” features of the forest every one of us selects the ones that are most attractive to him or her, and combines them in their minds into the location of their lifetime. Once the goal is set, we embrace the woods as the space that envelops the setting of our dreams.

At first we won’t accept substitutes: we hike through the fog in search of the full embodiment of our Wonderland. We don’t doubt even for a second its true existence. Meanwhile the forest keeps surprising us with unforeseen gifts, as well as obstacles. The former broaden our idea of what we strive for, while the latter teach us the lessons of survival. It is the balance between them that conditions our success. Often the floating trunk which we happily ride downstream would lead us into the fiercest cataract; the picturesque track we enjoy skipping on would bring us to an insurmountable crag. Luck plays such an important role in any of our endeavors. At other times we find out that the deep muddy road is the shortest way to the open sunny clearing, and the high cliff grants the only access to the crystal water underneath it. In those cases our progress depends on our shape and determination. Do we have the strong legs to get through the mire, or the courage to jump from the break-neck height? Luck and determination – these are the pillars of our mission’s success.

Passing its zenith, the sun reminds us of the time we have left. The fog is long gone, yet the spot we are looking for feels more and more remote, risking draining the meaning out of our entire journey. The necessity to adapt our destination to our current position grows together with the fatigue we experience. Without stopping to fight or avoid the impediments on our path, we lower our eyes and try focusing on closer, more achievable locations. The high summit changes into a hilltop, the flowery meadow turns into a tight patch of grass, the magic cave becomes a simple hollow. The transformations occur impalpably, keeping our sense of purpose intact. We stop seeing ourselves as the ultimate conquerors of the forest, and adopt a more modest, less intricate self-understanding, harmonious to our reduced expectations. By bringing the idea of the space we seek closer to what the rest of the day can offer we preserve our inner balance. Counting the hours, and then the minutes to sunset in a more and more hectic search of a place even remotely similar to our initial dream is not what would work for us. We come to the conclusion that peace could be found wherever. We begin enjoying the simple beauty of the “ordinary” trees, grass, rustles and scents that surround us, and settle down in a reverential expectation of the last of the sun’s rays that would kiss us farewell. The luckiest of us don’t even bother waiting for this moment; they build their Wonderland inside themselves, marveling at it no matter where or when. What they’ve dreamed for while young they attain by dreaming about for the rest of their lives.

Everybody’s story is different. There are people who get rewarded: they manage to reach their dreamland and enjoy their achievement in a real, material way. On the other hand, those who don’t show inner flexibility to the changes in reality stop moving forward and bitterly shut their eyes to avoid looking at the ugly sites around them. Besides, age is not a by-product of passing time. Some of us never – even at the beginning – see themselves as future “kings of the world”; others ground their ideals pretty quickly and suspend their journey in order to make the most out of their immediate surroundings.

However, throughout our day in the woods, all of us are united by a single striving: to change our environment in accordance to our needs. Both quantities in this formula are variable. Our self-projection drives us into a continuous battle with the obstacles the environment imposes on our advancement. Sometimes we win, causing changes in the environment. Yet some other times the environment doesn’t succumb to our efforts. In order to prevent us from being psychologically and even physically crushed our self-preservation modifies our needs to make them relevant to the unfriendly environment. This two-way process never goes into standstill. Its dynamics is ensured by the slight preponderance of our self-projection over our self-preservation drive: whatever the blows from the outside are, sooner or later we retool our strategy and proceed further. The constant process of adaptation to the environment and advancing towards changing it is what we call human behavior. It always streams in two directions: toward the outside, and toward ourselves. Both of these flows constitute action. Its ultimate goal is to build a harmonious relationship between our inner and outer worlds.

Fourth-grader Stella‘s first crush is her girlfriend’s brother. Being a year older, he still goes to the same private school, while Stella is just a starter after three years of homeschooling. Recently her parents got divorced, then her mom found a job in another city, so here is chubby little Stella, in a completely unfamiliar place, proudly making her way through her first school month ever. Another month later everybody knows about her feelings towards the boy. Completely innocent and socially inexperienced – even for her age – she shares with the other girls practically everything, including the small poem she dedicated to him. Soon most of the class starts snickering behind her back. Things get even worse when the news spreads and a good half of the school gets involved. Suddenly it becomes hip to make jokes about “ugly fat” Stella, and tease her girlfriend’s brother about the “love of his life” – as the poem read. The tall, blond, good looking boy, a heartthrob of every girl in school, gets pretty mad by all the clownish scenarios his classmates keep recreating about him and his sister’s friend. Stella’s attempts to get closer to him before and after school, or during lunch only fuel the mockery. But things get really out of control when one morning the students are greeted by graffiti on the fence near the entrance showing two locked hearts with both Stella’s and the boy’s initials underneath, and the inscription Beauty and the Beast. Outraged, the subject of Stella’s affection decides to strike back. He persuades his sister to ask Stella over to their home for a play date. Stella enthusiastically accepts, hoping to see the brother and even hold hands with him in sharing the pain from the insults of their classmates. Shortly after she arrives he shows up and, exactly as she has expected, invites her to spend some time with him, urging his sister to leave them alone. But instead of sitting down and talking about their relationship he proposes a game. Actually it’s a surprise photograph of her he wants to take. Without further explanations he covers her eyes with a blindfold and helps her out of the living room. In the back yard he poses her somewhere and tells her not to take off the blindfold until he says so. Then he starts asking her to take a step or two back and forth for the perfect position. Trembling with sweet expectation Stella follows his instructions. Suddenly at one of his commands she stops feeling the ground underneath. Her horrified cry and swinging arms don’t help much. Having completely lost her balance she reels backwards and heavily falls into what turns out to be the swimming pool. Petrified by the shock she can barely make a sound. All she does is flap her limbs in a desperate grasp for air.

The next day everything at school starts as usual, with the exception of Stella’s running nose. She has easily forgiven her friend for letting her fall into the pool, especially since he deeply and honestly apologized – even though the goal of the game was actually never revealed. But things start changing at the very first break. Stella can’t help noticing how quite a few of the students start laughing when they see her, trying to hide some paper once she gets closer. This continues during the lunch break as well, and probably would have lasted the whole day if one of her classmates doesn’t mercifully show her the photograph of her with spread legs and arms exactly while falling into the swimming pool, taken and distributed by her beau. Never before in her young life has Stella felt such an excruciating pain. As days pass by, it turns out to be a long-lasting one as well. To no avail gets the brother reprimanded, and Stella moved to another school. Only several months after the incident can she look at herself in the mirror again, without jittering and getting panic attacks. Gradually she gets used to what she sees there, and accepts it, even though she doesn’t like it that much. Her legs are a little short for her torso, her behind too heavy, and those long arms look so flaccid…

Getting out of that horrible experience Stella rediscovers herself and her body. From now on she will probably have many encounters with boys and, later, men, and her new knowledge about who she is and how she looks will make her aspirations more achievable. Within these several months Stella manages to adapt to the world and become stronger. She abandons the dreams of the loveliest lawn next to the clearest lake; she understands that she will never reach it. But the small pebbled parcel by the brook will make her way happier, because some day it can be truly hers – as long as she doesn’t forget what she wants, and keeps adapting.

Humans have developed an extremely high ability to adapt themselves to their goals, as well as adjust their goals to their capabilities, always with a slight superiority of the former over the latter – like our gait that makes human body slightly tilted forwards. However, the processes of adaptation and adjustment often force the pendulum of our perception of reality to swing into the range of dramatic changes, which not everyone is capable to endure. As with evolution, it is not the strongest or the fittest, but the most flexible who succeed. There is only one way to reach the highest possible degree of flexibility: action.

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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