“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?” –J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey.
When I was seventeen, my family took our yearly summer vacation down to the hot, dry, almost completely vacant haven that is Palm Springs in August. It is a tradition in our family that on long car rides, my dad will read books, articles, or scripture out loud to us for a few hours along the way. On this particular trip he brought a small, paperback book that I had never heard of, and frankly had little interest on. It was called Franny and Zooey. Despite my lack of interest, I was hooked within pages. There was something so honest and true about the dialogue-heavy story that made me listen attentively and want more long after the book had ended.
That fall I convinced my mom to let me read a selection of Salinger’s other works as part of my schoolwork. I read Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. There are portions of Nine Stories that I now have almost memorized because I often carry it with me in my purse and reread it when I am bored. However, I never reread Franny and Zooey. Until this weekend, when, in an effort to center myself and direct my thoughts in a purposeful way, I reached for the nearest Salinger book, which happened to be none other than Franny and Zooey.
After a few minutes I came across a line that made me get up and find a highlighter. One of the main characters, Franny Glass, is trying to explain to her boyfriend the meaning of this book that she just can’t get off of her mind. The book in question is The Way of a Pilgrim and what Franny is stuck on is the concept of praying without ceasing which the main character in the book masters and shares with people he meets on his travels.
“–you only have to just do it with your lips at first–then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing.”
Like Franny, I am very attracted to the idea of this centering heartbeat. The idea of having a sense of peace and belovedness that is so deep that you are constantly connected with the greater power of the universe, is something that I feel pulls at the very core of my being. However, I often struggle, like Franny does, to balance how I feel about my real life with how I feel about this otherworldly pull on my heart. The belief that it is because I am defective that I cannot attain this level of centeredness and clarity, is one that I often find myself fighting. I’ll think that if I was really good, and committed, and if I just worked hard enough, I could live in a constant state of peace, unconditional love, and a ceaseless sense of connection to God and the world around me. Alas, as both Franny and I seem to forget, that isn’t really how being a human works. You can strive for all the right things and deny your own desires, but still fall short of perfection. And to be honest, I think that a great deal of my and Franny’s shortsightedness comes from an inability to accept what is right in front of us–the truth about ourselves.
In the book, Franny puts her life on hold, allowing herself to become obsessed with the idea that if she prays this prayer she will find peace. She fears that, by doing anything else, she will fall prey to the egotism and materialism that she feels is consuming her peers. While remaining humble and unattached to possessions are worthy goals, Franny uses the prayer to distance herself from not only her own passions, but also her fellow human beings. Here the parallels between Franny and I breakdown somewhat. My criticism is more likely exercised on myself than on others, but the effects of my fears and unbalanced thought-patterns are often similar. They lead me to feel isolated, disconnected, unfocused, and un-accepting of myself. Pretty much the exact opposite of a centering heartbeat.
In Salinger’s novel, the counterargument to Franny’s desperate self denial and feelings of isolation is presented in the form of her debatably insufferable, but somehow also wise older brother, Zooey. Although a complete mess himself, Zooey is able to speak a jarring amount of truth into Franny’s predicament. In a conversation that had me reaching for my highlighter every three of four lines, he forces Franny to examine her beliefs and thought process more close, specifically pointing out that if she is praying the Jesus prayer in hopes of finding peace and to isolate herself from the difficulties and evils of life, then she doesn’t really understand Jesus. Zooey argues that a Jesus who flipped over tables and loves even the most egotistical and frustrating of humankind, isn’t a Jesus that is looking for detachment. He argues that what sets Jesus apart from other profits and philosophers was that he didn’t need to “keep in touch” with God, that he simply knew that there is no separation from God, whether we recognize it or not. Which brings us to the quote at the beginning of this post–a quote that has been running through my mind incessantly for the past couple of days.
“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?”
Is it just me, or is that a stunningly poignant statement to find in a book that consists entirely of conversations between rich, dysfunctional New Yorkers in the 1950s? (I could go on and on about the literary genius of Salinger for hours, but that is not the point of this blogpost, so I’ll refrain.)
My best self (that is, who I am when I feel confident and connected to something bigger than myself) understands Zooey’s argument completely. My best self is excited and moved by the prospect of discovering how to bring the kingdom of heaven that I carry inside of myself out into the world. But the line between that life-giving excitement and an irrational belief that I should be something beyond the realms of humanity can be dangerously thin. Franny too, seems to struggle with reconciling even her most noble human desires with her compulsion to detach herself wholly from worldly things. I often feel that I shouldn’t want anything. Even things that are good and make me a better person. I shouldn’t want to work a fulfilling job, I shouldn’t want to find a life partner, I shouldn’t want to feel loved and wanted by people in my life. But, as Zooey seems to argue (I say “seems” because Zooey is not the most straight-forward of talkers), it is our desires that make us human. We can’t get rid of them. We can decide how much we allow them to rule us, we can decide how we use them, but whether we acknowledge them or not, they are part of us. Living out our desires for love, fulfillment, and connection in a healthy, God-conscious way, is one of the most important things we can do to honor our Creator. (Note: when Zooey makes this point he speaks very metaphorically, so this is more interpretation than paraphrase on my part.)
The fact that I will never be more than human, may seem really obvious to most of you. But accepting all of the imperfections of humanity, while still appreciating the incredible beauty and responsibility of carrying the kingdom of heaven, is seriously challenging for me, to say the least. Sometimes I can feel it all at once and it’s completely overwhelming. However, every so often I catch glimpses of what balance might look like, and I am driven to learn to internalize and believe the truth that as flawed as humans are, we are infinitely more loved.
*if you have never read Franny and Zooey, please go do so and enjoy it for yourself instead of relying on my crummy (and highly selective) summarization.