As a kid, I didn’t read much. But effectively enough, there were a few novels that grabbed my attention almost immediately. One was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. You might remember it. The other was Looking for Alaska by John Green.
It’s a poignant young adult novel written from the perspective of a teen named Miles, inspired by Green’s childhood. In the story, Miles is infatuated with Alaska Young, who finds Miles’ obsession with “last words” fascinating. She reminds Miles of Simón Bolívar’s own last words: “Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
Within the novel, Alaska decides that life’s most important question is ‘how will we ever escape this labyrinth of suffering?’ Labyrinths differ from mazes in that labyrinths only have one possible path, while mazes have many paths.
In Christianity, labyrinths symbolize a path to salvation. It’s not so clear or transparent, but eventually, if one follows the labyrinth, they’ll arrive at God’s doorstep. Life isn’t a maze, by contrast. It doesn’t have a dead end.
One of my favorite excerpts from Looking for Alaska is this:
“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the past.”
It’s a fantastic novel, and if you love it, watching Hulu’s single-season adaptation is fantastic.
As I grow older, I can’t help but repurpose the labyrinth metaphor for modern day politics in the United States.
It’s important to understand that racism isn’t over. It’s not a past-tense subject. It’s happening right now. Years of Jim Crow laws and redlining policies have prevented — and still prevent — Black people from getting home loans. If you live in a suburb, your area is probably segregated by race as a result. My hometown is more than 95% white.
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most unpopular public figures at the time he was alive and for much of the years following. Rosa Parks lived until the mid-2000s. We are in the middle of a civil rights moment in history. Those same ones you read about in U.S. history, you’re living through them today.
I‘m an optimist and I’d like to think that we’re… kind of heading in the right direction? At least, we might be even if we can’t see it at first.
A friend of mine studying political science once told me this: “Justice isn’t so much thought of as a straightforward path, and often it’s messy. It’s more like a rubber band. Each time it’s stretched, it tightens just a little more, but eventually gets loose… until it finally breaks.”
I’m not sure if someone more wise than I am said this, or who they were, but a similar quote by MLK was this: “the moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice.”
Both quotes are very true, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often likes to remind us that the work we’re doing will not be accomplished overnight. This is a lifelong mission and we need to do the work now.
But as I think to the labyrinth metaphor, it’s hard to answer that question. How will we ever escape the labyrinth of suffering? Will we ever heal our racism and internal struggles?
I really do think we’re building a future that benefits all right now. I think you’re seeing that. This week alone has been one of the worst in United States history. A president just incited violence on the U.S. Capitol and then was suspended from a top public forum for glorification of violence.
It’s long overdue, if we’re being serious. This is the same president who said while campaigning, “I could shoot someone in the middle of fifth avenue and not lose votes.” He’s well aware of his impact, but not all actions lack consequences, even for white men.
It’s not certain if we’ll escape the labyrinth in my lifetime. God, I hope we do. But when we finally escape, will you be remembered for aiding the escape or fighting to stay inside?
Just something to think about.
Here’s a trailer of “Looking for Alaska” which I highly recommend.