One of the wonderfully strange things about life is how we enter strange little sub-cultures. Sometimes its intentional, like joining a sports team. But sometimes it happens without you even realizing it. With me, for instance, I was 11 years old and I asked my uncle to take me to a place I had never been before: the comic book store.
Nearly 24 years later and I'm still going. I have friends with whom I can talk about the new developments in X-Men or which Robin was best (the answer, of course, is Dick Grayson. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool, I tell you). Most of the general population may not care at all about these things. When I talk about the rivalry between DC and Marvel to my students, the look at me as if I'm speaking in Elvish, which is something I only do on days when I'm talking (only Quenyan, never Sindarin).
Anyway, I've been thinking about how we are all fanatics about something. I don't necessarily mean that we lose our reason to enter into slavish, cultish devotion to something. I'm talking about that special hobby or obsession that no is not in everyone. We know that from the looks we get when our passions flare over the break-up of our favorite ska band or the casting of Ryan Philippe in any movie.
"What's the big deal?" is the reaction that the outsider has to our plight. "So Godzilla fell into a volcano, isn't that supposed to be good?" And we look at them sadly and think: they just don't get it.
To the one outside, often our fascinations seem odd, even bordering on outright messed-up. "Those who can't hear the music, think the dancer is insane." On the inside, we get it. We hear the "music," and it fills us with joy, contentment. But to those outside, we seem to be a strange lot going about some strange activity.
We learn early on that if others think what you like is weird, they will think you are weird. In high school, we become very sensitive to what is lame and not lame (don't ever call something "cool," because that is so not cool). When confronted with sneers over your Justice League backpack or your New Kids on the Block poster, it appears that we have four options.
1. Abandon your fascination. We want to be accepted. And if being accepted means getting rid of the thing that others find strange, then so be it. On this view, we let others dictate what we like and don't like. We become shape shifting sponges who absorb whatever is fashionable to their friends and changes who they are accordingly.
2. Close your circle. I can tell you first hand that geek culture can be very closed off. This is true of any group of like-minded people, but we can retreat into the comfortable shorthand we've developed, content to keep others on the outside. When the casual movie-goer can't tell Orc from Uruk-hai, we don't bother explaining and let them continue to blissfully enjoy their exile from Club Awesome. This is what I call the Aint-It-Cool Effect.
3. Brow Beat. The Internet is not just a place for pornography and Korean nonsense songs. It is also a place where people dive in and explain to the rest of us why we are stupid for not agreeing with them. They see the world as it should be, but we don't. And it is their job to explain how enlightened and insightful and superior they are. You can't say Game of Thrones is over-rated without someone online explaining to you that your taste is awful and that you are too unsophisticated to understand how they are using pornography to satirize pornography (or something). And even though you don't need the Internet to brow beat, it has made it a lot easier.
I am not a fan of the above three, so what I always hope for is:
4. Show the Beauty. In the movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the other martial arts masters do not want Bruce teaching non-Chinese. He says, "Americans are afraid because they don't know the beauty of our culture. Let's show it to them." In this method we don't abandon what we love because others don't, we don't retreat inward to only those who agree with us, and we don't attack those who don't.
Here, simply explain what is special about the thing we hold dear. We explain why we find it beautiful. For example, I know nothing really about wine. I don't enjoy the taste. I probably couldn't tell the difference between a Chateau Montelana 1973 and some grape juice that sat out too long. It seemed silly to me to collect bottles of the stuff and then go to tastings where you gurgle and spit in public.
But then I saw the movie Bottle Shock and I saw all of the hard work and artistry that it takes to make a good wine. And in the movie Sideways, the character Maya says about wine: How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity.
And while I still don't care for wine, for the briefest of glimpses I understood the beauty. I felt it. I heard the "music" and I now see the fascination.
I think of all of my little obsessions, like the above mentioned Dick Grayson. What a strange fixation to have on Batman's first sidekick. You may say it is strange or weird. And I in turn could either forget my fascination with him, or shun anyone who doesn't see it, or brow beat the "uninformed." But instead let me share with you what Dick Grayson means to me.
When I was a kid, we had blue bath towels and yellow bath towels. One of my earliest happy memories was my mom bobby pinning the blue one to my brother and the yellow one to me and we would run around the house, with me as Robin to his Batman.
Also growing up, I never felt like I was the hero of my own story. I looked at friends and family members who either seemed more gifted or accomplished and I was content to be a part of their story. I was the sidekick. But every once in a while, even Batman needed Robin. Frodo needed his Sam. Don Quixote would have lost his magical vision without Sancho Panza.
And the most important thing about Robin is that he grew up. As I grew up and life started changing, so it did for Dick Grayson. He realized that he was more than a supporting player. He was the hero of his own story and he needed to step out and become a man. And he taught me that it's okay grow up (which is ironic coming from a guy trying to talk seriously about a fictional character who ran around in green short-shorts).
The point is that I hope I have shown you a little bit of why Robin is important to me. Maybe it made sense to you and maybe it didn't, but I hope that you heard a little of the "music" I hear and you understand why it makes me "dance."
And we can do this for all of our seemingly strange interests. We don't have to be defensive. We just have to help others hear the music. Because sometimes it can change lives.
The faith can seem so strange to someone on the outside. If I asked you if you would like to sleep on a straw mat in a 10 x 10 cell, begin your days with 2 hours on your knees on cold stone, followed by hard labor and no pay, would you say yes? Probably not. But I just described to you the life of many of the nuns in Mother Teresa's religious order. That behavior seems like a punishment inflicted on another, not a freely chosen lifestyle.
As Rich Mullins wrote: "Who could move the mountains? Who could love their enemies? Who could love their enemies? Who could rejoice in pain, turn the other cheek, and still say surely God is with us?"
How strange we followers of a crucified Carpenter must seem sometimes. We must seem like those insane people dancing to some unheard music.
I've written before about how when I was 17 I went on a retreat called Teens Encounter Christ. I had been raised Catholic, but I kept it respectable. I went to my local youth group, but didn't participate much. I went to Church on Sunday, because that was what was expected of me.
At TEC we spent the weekend together sharing witnesses and the sacraments. So far so good. But then we had a Eucharistic Adoration, where all of us gathered around the Blessed Sacrament lifted up in the monstrance. And as I knelt there, I could hear the people around me shouting from the top of their lungs, "Praise You, Jesus! I love You, Jesus! Glory and honor to You, Jesus!" And I'll never forget the thought that came to me in that moment as I knelt there with my eyes closed:
"Oh crap. I'm in a cult!"
These people seemed so strange! They seemed weird. Maybe even a little insane.
But as the hour continued, another thought occurred to me:
"I've been a Catholic all of my life. And if I really believe what I've always said I believed, that this Host is actually Jesus Christ, the God of the Universe, right before me... then why would I not shout with joy to him with all that I am?"
And I heard the music. It all made sense. I saw the beauty of this thing which seemed so strange.
And I've been dancing ever since.