Looking Towards Reality
Life isn't always easy, and one thing that I've found to be true time and time again is that it will shock you back to reality at the earliest possible moment. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I've found that the American Realism movement, which embodies a large portion of the idea mentioned above, speaks the most poignantly to me. One author in particular, Ambrose Bierce, is a favorite of mine. His short work, Chickamauga, is one example of many where I feel he uses poignant realism to drive home the harsh realities of life.
"One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure; for this child's spirit, in bodies of its ancestors, had for thousands of years been trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquest... From the cradle of its race it had conquered its way through two continents and passing a great sea had penetrated a third, there to be born in war and dominion as heritage."
The opening passage to Chickamauga is moving to me because it relates to the reader of the confidence we have in ourselves when life is going well. I find this relates well to my personal life. I grew up in an otherwise excellent middle-class home where I did sports and was good at school, but was struck by mental and physical illness around the time I was 15. My physical and mental illness became severe enough that I was forced to drop out of high school and stay at an in-patient hospital for some time. During this time I wasn't allowed to speak with my friends, and I had limited contact with my family. Eventually I was released when they felt the medication had stabilized me enough to live a somewhat normal life, but truthfully I was still very far from that point. At this point in my life I had no friends I could safely associate with, my family didn't completely understand what was wrong with me, and I suffered excruciating depression at my plight.
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction.
The story of Chickamauga is one of a boy who imagines himself on the field of battle, only to fall asleep and actually find himself in the aftermath of a real battle. Here the story relates to the broken bodies of the survivors in their dreadful attempt to escape their agony. In relation to myself, I felt as if my illness had rendered me paralyzed with life. I felt as if I was a soldier who had been broken and beaten, and the people around me were like the boy who could never understand the reality of the situation.
Shifting his position, his eyes fell upon some out-buildings which had an oddly familiar appearance, as if he had dreamed of them. He stood considering them with wonder, when suddenly the entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around; the points on the compass were reversed. he recognized the blazing building as his own home!
At the end of the story, the boy awakes from his battle fantasy to find that his own home and family have been consumed by the reality of war. In the story, the boy stands there with "quivering lips," and the story ends.
This concept of a sudden awakening in Bierce's stories is one I find I can relate with time and time again. From the time we're born and raised, I believe all of us expect that we'll live a normal life. We believe we'll excel at the things we enjoy, and that eventually we'll find happiness in the order we set for ourselves. In my experience, however, life is anything except a lesson in normalcy. My illness crippled my dreams of a normal high school experience with all the "normal" friends and activities. Even now, I find it's a struggle just to balance my illness against every day adult life. No matter what I want to imagine, life doesn't care what I want out of it. This "awakening" to reality has left me with many questions: How can a person be happy when your life is burned to the ground? Is it fair to the child in "Chickamauga" that his fantasy became a morbid reality? Is anything "fair" to any of us?
These questions are ones the Bierce forces on his readers. Bierce never gives us a straight answer to any of these questions though. More often than not, his stories follow the same path that life does: we live under the illusion of control, and life shocks us back to reality. The point of "Realism" is not to answer life's questions, but to remind us that the world doesn't care about what's "right" and "wrong." Life and reality simply happens, and we have to find our own methods of dealing with it. For myself, I'm still looking for ways to deal with my own reality. In the meantime though, I find that Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga" does an excellent job posing a reality that few of us can challenge.