To Live is to Die

In a life full of complexities and hidden truths, the human race is confusing and full of surprises. There are some people who give their whole lives for a single purpose, and who dedicate everything that they have, expecting a final reward at the end of the maze of life. But not everyone fulfills their ambitions and are satisfied with what they have. And there are also those who find life too perplexing and tiresome that the thought of going at it headstrong makes them wilt and run away. Annie Dillard’s “Transfiguration” and Bernard Cooper’s “Labyrinthine” explore the ideas of the balance of loss and gain and the complexity of life.

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In Annie Dillard’s “Transfiguration”, I believe that the moth is used to represent the idea that every loss is balanced with some sort of gain or benefit. Dillard talks about the moth that flew into her candle and ignited into flames – the moth on fire is compared to “an immolating monk” in a “saffron-yellow” robe (399), which is reminiscent of the Buddhist monks in orange-yellow robes who set themselves on fire in 1963 in Saigon, to protest their treatment by the Diem Regime. They sacrificed their lives but in doing so in such a dramatic way, by self-immolation, they brought world attention to their situation. The moth on fire was no longer just another dead insect, it acted as another wick in the candle that burned for two hours until she blew it out. Even though the moth went through a gruesome death, it’s loss of life was balanced with the given light that it shed as it burned like a wick. I interpreted this “light” as a new purpose that represented the “calm after the storm”. I think that Dillard uses the moth as a metaphor for any human being who goes through hardships and difficulties, but uses the flame as the balanced gain that the human being receives. In her case, being a writer can be very difficult, and she even states in her essay that in order to go into that profession, you must “go at your life with a broadax…” (Dillard, 399). Just like the Buddhist monks in 1963 who self-immolated to bring attention to their plight, one must give his or her life to become a writer. But even the losses you endure during the process of becoming a writer, a doctor, or anything, there will always be a balanced gain after all those adversities.

Another essay I read that further grabbed my interest about the idea of the balance between loss and gain was “Labyrinthine” by Bernard Cooper. Cooper talks about how as a child he was fascinated by mazes and loved the complexities that came with it. He would even design his own mazes and challenged his parents to solve them. However, his parents would always refuse the challenge within seconds, and he mentioned the effect that it had on them – “But mazes had a strange effect on my parents: they took one look at those tangled paths and seemed to wilt.” (346) As a child, he unquestionably could not have understand his parents and the pressures and burdens that continued to pile up and haunt them. Years later, Cooper recalls his parents saying “When you’ve lived as long as we have….”(346) and understands his parents refusal. As adults, it seems as though recalling the past was difficult and his tone of voice later on in the essay is completely different. There is a presence of tiredness and pain as he grows older. The very last sentence of his essay really interested me as it made me think about the idea and sense of balance I got from Dillard’s essay. “Labyrinthine. The very sound of that word sums it up – as slippery as thought, as perplexing as the truth, as long and convoluted as a life.” (347) It’s as if he’s describing life itself as a never-ending maze, something so twisted and confusing that it makes people want to give up and run away from the conflicts and obstacles that arise. I can understand Cooper’s point of view as my parents have told me their past whilst living in Korea. There are so many adversities in life and obstacles, some that are impossible to overcome and run away from.

It makes life seem so not worth it and fruitless. Why should we spend our whole lives trying to find the middle of the maze where the reward is when all we get in the end is death and pain? This thought made me question my idea of Dillard’s essay, where I thought that there was a balance in which there is always a benefit. Realistically, not everyone pursues their number one dream and not everyone lives a happy life where the reward in the end is worth their time. And Cooper brings this idea to light as he writes his essay remembering the days where he didn’t understand the complexity of life while later becomes more practical and even uses his parents words “When you’ve lived as long as I have, uncertainty is virtually indistinguishable from the truth, which as far as I know is never naked, but always wearing some disguise.” (346-347) I look back at Dillard’s essay and wonder then, why must be go at something with our entire life, when very possibly and likely, there is no reward? From my personal experience and even while observing those around me, it is human nature to pursue something if only there is an incentive. With these conflicting thoughts, I decided to go back and read “Transfiguration” with a little more skepticism and different perspective.

As I went back and read Dillard’s essay, a few of my ideas changed and I perceived certain things in a different way. She describes camping alone for some writing inspiration, and she uses the moth she sees as an symbol for gain and loss. However, she is obviously an accomplished writer, but is still going through writer’s block, which I presume is normal for most writers. However, she seems lost and even with all her accomplishments it appears that she still feels empty and needs to keep writing. There is no sense of a final reward, something that I grasped earlier when I had read this essay. Also, when Dillard diligently tries to explain to her students to go at writing with their lives, it appears as though she is dissatisfied and frustrated with herself. She has given her whole to writing, and through the process of it all, she has even changed. She mentions kids towards the end of her essay – “..”I’ll do it in the evenings, after skiing, or on the way home from the bank; or after the children are asleep…” (399) Earlier she mentions not having any kids or a family, and it seems as if she regrets a little not having the chance to be something other than a writer. She realizes that maybe she could have things other than writing, but in the end she is just a writer. There is a sense of regret and sadness from her tone of voice near the end of the essay. And even if she goes through saying that giving your all for something in the end is worth it, maybe there is a tiny little thought in the back of her mind that disagrees with that idea. I don’t want to completely disagree with the idea of loss and gain though because there are cases where some people give there entire life for something and undergo a process of difficulty and pain, yet achieve their ultimate happiness. And even for some people, they experience the same thing too, yet feel the same way as Cooper. Even through my personal experience, I can see that there are two sides to a story – both sides agreeing with either Cooper or Dillard.

While thinking about the ideas of sacrifice, and the balance of loss and gain, I was reminded of my own experiences which interconnected with these concepts. My father always told me that “every experience is a lesson, and every loss is a gain” whenever I thought I was suffering through a hardship. These wise words are actually from an Indian guru named Sathya Sai Baba, and every time I saw one of my loved ones or even myself weighed down by loss, unfairness, or anything unfortunate, I would think back to this quote. Life isn’t about living easy and comfortably. It’s very difficult to remember, especially during times of difficulty, but there is no growth without change, no change without fear or loss, and no loss without pain. So to sum everything up, there is no change without pain. As people live life, there is constant change whether it’s wanted or not, and the process may be extremely painful. And the end result may not even be what one desired. It’s the complexity of life that makes it a mystery, so one must diligently work and pursue something with no expectations of a priceless reward.

While reading “Transfiguration” by Annie Dillard and “Labyrinthine” by Bernard Cooper, I was reminded of the balance between loss and gain and the mysterious results of life. This made me think of a very simple, yet significant aspect of my life – Christianity. Personally, this is the religion I grew up with and believe in as I had been a Christian since before I can remember. Although I am a Christian, like most others, there is a struggle between the life of a devoted and loyal Christian, and those who just believe and attend church for some existing reason. I thought of the lives of the missionaries who risk their lives for their religion and God. This one sentence that Dillard says has such a great impact on me because I have never truly suffered anything so horrible before, and I believe that I never had a reason to go at something with my own life.

I have been on a few mission trips in my life, but I would have never gone if it weren’t for the little push that my parents gave me. I was always challenged with living the life devoted to God or simply living a life without any care about my religion. In my personal opinion, there is no point of pretending to live a double life, where I would devote myself to my religion on certain days of the week and with certain people, while living a completely different life with no care at all on different days with different people. If I wanted to live a loyal and devoted life, I wanted to “go at it with a broadax” and sincerely give it my all. Because, what was the point of pretending and living two lives? There would be no change, no difference, and most importantly no balance taking place. It would just be a never ending cycle of constantly switching between the two opposite lives.

I decided to go on my first short-term mission trip in Haiti in the summer of 2011, and there I saw what it truly meant to dedicate your life to being a loyal servant of God. I saw long-term missionaries who had been there for five or six years without having visited home once, and weren’t planning to. These missionaries are losing out on opportunities to lead a normal life without the risk of working in a highly dangerous area with so little protection that we are surrounded with in America. Living in a country, trying to help the Haitians and preach the gospel in a different language that they are unfamiliar with, while at the same time giving them medical attention with the money that they were able to fundraise. They struggled with threats from several gangs, conflict with the U.S. government and the Haitian government, and the physical pain of the unfamiliar surroundings they lived in. And to top it off, they were unable to see their families and friends and were unable to contact many people as internet service and other necessities were limited. Although the smiles and love that they received from the Haitians may feel like it’s worth it at that exact time, is it truly worth it in the end? Most of these missionaries aren’t able to witness many people accept Jesus into their lives, and they don’t witness the achievement of the ultimate goal that they work for.

Although I was blessed and going was truly a life-changing experience, I can’t help but think between the two ideas I formed from Dillard’s and Cooper’s essay. I believe that these conflicting ideas are present in everyone’s lives. Life itself is a maze with it’s complex and twisted paths, and it’s a painful journey with so many obstacles that seemingly has no reward. But throughout this mysterious and confusing life, there are those little instances that reward you in that moment. It’s these little gains that are so precious in life that make it bearable and somewhat worth giving your all for.

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