I saw the new Bo Burnham movie “8th Grade” this week with my friend Hon. It’s about a young girl named Kayla and her final weeks of middle school, with all the agita, insecurity, self-consciousness and frustration that involves. The movie explores the awkwardness of becoming a teenager (or becoming anyone different from who you have been!) in excruciating detail.
Hon seemed to think that I must have been such a different kind of 13 year old — self-confident and on top of the word in his imagination — that I could not even have understood the movie. I laughed: his projection might well say something more about him than me. I think all of us know awkward feelings at various times along life’s journey when we are not sure where or how we fit in, don’t you?
“8th Grade” is one of those slice of life movies, offering a glimpse at a certain moment in time in a specific life. And in this sense, nothing really happens in the movie. There is no dramatic arc, no particular situation or out-of-the-ordinary drama Kayla is experiencing — really no set up, build up, crisis, rearrangement and denoument to the narrative. So, for me, who has known the awkwardness and discomfort of misfitting, it was almost painful to have to sit with Kayla: her early teen suffering was unending. Her life wasn’t changing quick enough! But it’s that some lack of movement that struck me.
Church, sometimes as people, we focus mostly (or too much?) on these red letter days, great turning points, watershed moments, conversion experiences as what makes up our lives or really matter in how things work out. The things that historians looking back hundreds or even thousands of years might be able to identify still! And many of us remember a moment when we came to a crossroads that made all the difference in our world. Those moments of big decision where paths diverge… yes, they are important. And many of us might order up a few more if we had control of such things.
But we don’t. And sometimes our lives don’t seem to offer enough opportunities for radical rearrangement. “Eighth Grade” made me more aware that there might also be opportunities– even if only baby steps — in life when it seems as if nothing is happening. Perhaps, it was an insight fitting for a person in middle age! But the movie left me appreciating how those ‘ down times’ — minutes, hours and days — when nothing monumental is occurring can also be profound and intense. And our quiet, barely moving stretches, they also add up — or fail to add up to — to an important aspect of what we know and experience as our lives.
I think it is important to remember that the drama of becoming ourselves is important whether it happens in radical shifts and earthquakes, or in almost imperceptible tremors and movement that is only perceptible over the long haul. And for most of us, most of life will be the latter.
In other words, the mile markers or sign posts of your life, the probably look utterly ordinary, scarcely even noticeable. But they still matter and accumulate to equal where we are headed, even if we barely have words to notice much less to explain.
In these ‘slow times,’ life’s smaller gestures take on greater proportions and power. The kindness of an upper class woman; the respect of a young man who listens to a young woman’s wishes; the welcome, albeit clumsy and fumbling of a peer; the steady presence of a parent whose child’s volatility confounds him; the power of someone who appears together, poised and perfect admitting her own nervousness and vulnerability. There is a lot of pull that these simpler virtues claim in these downtimes in our lives.
I bring all this up, because it occurred to me there in the movie theater, our refuge from another sweltering night, that it’s these slow times, little movements and imperceptible choices — often far from the spotlights and even our awareness of what’s happening — that are where many, even most of our choices to be Christian (or not?) come in.
Yes, a few of us might be confronted with having to decide something confessional (are we going to take that cross or not!) that is also heroic and world-changing. There are the Mandelas and Kings of our world.
But for the far greater number of us, we are given to quieter lives that hardly standout, much less afford mountaintop stances. Instead, we move imperceptibly through the fabric of our days with the opportunities to be kind, respectful, welcoming, steady and present, honest and vulnerable. But if we ever hope to claim these mini-opportunities and small steps before us, we have to recognize all that is going on even when it seems nothing is happening,
See you in church,