Often I find characters in books who are calloused–who have suffered and have created ways to walk through life with steps that enable them to avoid pain. In turn, they also lose the ability to feel joy and beauty and sink into cynicism. I am thankful to authors who can write this emotional place well–it helps me to feel less alone, especially when I’ve allowed busyness or the hard side of adolescent behavior to get the best of me in my day-to-day. But though it is normal, I am realizing (yet again) at the end of a jam-packed semester it is not a way to live.
I have found myself saying countless times in the past few months: “well, when my grad school semester ends on May 13th, then I’ll be able to live more fully. I’ll take out my paints and practice yoga and go for runs in the park again.” While this goal-mindset has helped me to move through the semester with fortitude, it has not enabled me live with an inner peace. Instead it fuels, accepts, and accompanies anxiety. The rest I do manage to get isn’t deep. I began to seek out some nonfiction favorites like Brene Brown and Henri Nouwen to feed my soul. And in a timely fashion, my mom handed me a book she’s been talking about for months that added a narrative angle to my effort to have a deeper peace.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by German author Jan-Philipp Sendker is a story framed in narration by Julia, the daughter of a wealthy Burmese immigrant father and American mother. Her father, who she describes as a person who truly had an inner peace while she was growing up, abandons the family and his business and disappears shortly after her graduation from law school. She ultimately decides to follow his trail to his native Burma in an effort to seek him out. She meets a man who tells her the story of her father’s childhood, which is the main narrative in the book. Julia comes to know a part of her father she never knew existed and as a reader, I was transported the same way she was by her father’s story of suffering, pain, love, and peace–and appreciated the truths that were able to be found within deeply complex and imperfect characters.
The story is written in lyrical prose and moves back and forth between the reality of suffering:
“Life is interwoven with suffering. That in every life, without exception, illnesses are unavoidable. That we will age, and that we cannot elude death. These are the laws and conditions of human existence,” (108).
and the beauty of life and love:
“Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot life without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person-a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
Calloused cynicism is certainly an easier way to live, but it prohibits inner peace and rarely allows for true joy to appear. About two-thirds of the way through the story, Julia remembers something about her father that I think gives insight to us all who are bumbling through busy days, sorrowful days, joyless days (and brings me back to my theme of the past year of developing life rhythms that help us sort through and make meaning from our lives):
Every evening before going to bed, he would sit in the living room, eyes closed, listening to music on headphones. How else will my soul find strength for the night, he had said quietly,” (234).