- Special Sections
- Public Notices
From the opening pages of Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi,” the reader is faced with the reality of suffering as a gift in human life.
He reminds us, “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”
If no other message was gleaned from this magical parable, this one is more than sufficient. Certainly, Pi suffered, from the torment he received as a result of his given name to the tragic losses he endured as an orphaned youth.
There is an epic simplicity about Pi and his relationship with Richard Parker, the menacing tiger. It is reflected in his Trinitarian understanding of faith expressed in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
Some might recoil at the amalgamation feeling that it reduces our understanding of God, making it a mushy nonentity. Others rejoice that barriers are broken and faith is newly discovered as mystery.
Martel’s work is replete with phrases that caused me to stop and ponder. He noted, at one point, that we are not aware of things as large as elephants in our life because they are so big we do not notice them. Yet, the more we look, the more we see. I think of the many elephantine ideas I have not heeded simply because they were so big.
One such idea might well be Martel’s comparison of religion and zoos. Both are plagued with certain illusions about the understanding of freedom. Both mark their territories, creating contentment with commands of “stay out” or “stay in.”
Another might be his declaration that “atheists are brothers and sisters of a different faith and every word they speak, speaks of faith. They go as far as the legs of reason will carry them, and then they leap.” So do we. Think about it.
Think about the fact that animals do not escape to somewhere, but from something and note how we humans are equally eager to flee from whatever it is that causes us to feel threatened. We cling to the familiar, whether it is our habits, customs or our understanding of God.
Clinging, we become possessive. Possessive we are unable to embrace those whose comprehension does not match ours. Worse yet, we diminish God, limiting the Divine solely to our perception and making God an entity too small for others to believe; however, when we change our way of seeing, everything changes. Harmony and unity prevail and we discover the presence of God as the finest of all rewards.
Martel is not naive in his presentation. He freely admits the reality of evil in the world, but he views it as evil from within that has been let out. With that understanding, “religion is about our dignity, not our depravity.” If we adhere to that conviction, Martel suggests that fear, beginning in the mind, attacks reason and becomes life’s only true opponent.
So it was that Richard Parker, the terrifyingly fearsome tiger who entered the boat of Pi’s life, ironically became the source of his wholeness. As is true with human existence, life with a tiger was never an either/or proposition. It would be both/and.
Both Pi and Parker would share the same habitat or neither would survive. Pi’s will to live was directly attributed to his relationship with that which he most feared—and most loved. He had but to tame his fear to discover the love.
He would accomplish that feat with the implements familiar to all of us as we address newness. It would be done using a whistle instead of a whip, with time, resolve, knowledge and reward. It would demand looking through the tiny peephole of our life knowing it is the only entry we have into the vastness of existence.
Through his experience, Pi learned that “opposites often take place at the same time, so that when the sun is scorching you till you are stricken down, you are also aware that it is drying the strips of fish and meat that are hanging from your lines and that it is a blessing for your solar stills. When it rains, you are nearly drowned and wish to be dry.”
Having reached the apex of understanding, Pi, and we, by transference, learn that we can “reach a point where we are at the bottom of hell, yet have our arms crossed and a smile on our face, and feel we’re the luckiest persons on earth...because at our feet we have a tiny dead fish.” We’ll know an infinitesimal bit of happiness, a glimpse of a silvery crescent moon in an ebony sky, and we know in the core of our soul that all is well.
Is this reasonable? I suspect the answer is yes...and no. It is reasonable to accept the coexistence of opposites. It is not reasonable to accept the coexistence, in a small space, of a 450-pound wild beast and a young human being.
This is the fantasy of faith. This is the marvel of life, love and caring. It is story of sharing space, of accepting the fact that opposites can and do take place at the same time. It is a vision of the improbable, even the impossible, becoming real and true.
“Life of Pi” is our life. We, too, are people who cannot be represented as a fraction of ourselves. We are not a fraction of humanity. All of us, together, are the totality of humanity. We are opposites sharing space at the same time.
We tame our tigers, exhaust our ingenuity, cry at the loss and then “re-member” ourselves. We put ourselves together in a new way to try again. We take stock of our resources, find joy in small successes and huge efforts. We change our name to reflect more accurately who we are.
We climb aboard lifeboats trusting that the sea will not swamp us. We befriend the friendless and embrace every opportunity as a carrier of joy. We believe the unbelievable and tell our surprising stories even if they are viewed as incredible. We recognize the value of being reasonable but also know that excessive reasonableness bears the risk of our throwing out the universe of possibility.
We begin and end our lives with the same words, “fare thee well.” We know that, amidst it all, we are learning to cast away our limits and look intently through the peephole of limitless life, the window of faith beyond all reason.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.