What do Elsa, a Japanese anime character, and the year 2020 have anything to do with each other?
We all had so many expectations for 2020. It was supposed to be the year of “vision” (20/20 vision if you’re a cheesy person like me). Many of us had dreams of career progression, travelling, pursuing new ventures, or simply making it through another day with the people we love close to us. Now our schedules are boxed in with Zoom calls, our employment status is often shaky or going through enormous change, travelling is a wistful aspiration, and our loved ones may be physically separated from us for longer than we ever anticipated.
I feel the gravity of all that’s been lost in this time. Rituals like wedding ceremonies, birthday parties, graduations, college orientations have been inevitably altered. Instead celebration is tinged with anxiety, expectations dulled by uncertainty. These events are supposed to be markers of our life journeys, milestones reminding us of how far we’ve come and all that still awaits us. And while in the grand scheme of things, missing out on something like an in-person college orientation week doesn’t carry the same weight and value as life and health itself, it serves as one more reminder that everything has changed in our world.
The New World
I’m a college academic advisor, and I’m sending my students into a world that is unmappable, praying that they will locate themselves and find their way forward. I cannot tell them that jobs are guaranteed, that all their academic and professional efforts will result in tangible success, that everything will be “ok.” I know that difficult days are still ahead of us. But these are the words I want to share with them as we prepare for a new school year, and what I want to share with you:
We are all facing a new world, and it’s scary. This season has been marked with loss: loss of loved ones and the ability to say goodbye to them, plans and dreams, physical presence, jobs, health. I grieve with you in these losses and acknowledge that none of us experience them in the same way. We are in this time of collective trauma, but our journeys through it are still very much our own.
The longing for certainty of the future will always be present. We want to know what the next day will bring. We want to know where our next source of income will come from. We want to know what is going to happen to all our relationships when we are separated by physical distance. We want to know when we can touch someone again without trepidation.
Some channel this longing into bravado. “I got this!” they crow as they draw out their quarantine plans and TikTok their accomplishments. We are eager to prove that we are managing everything and can establish our own normalcy. But let’s be honest with ourselves–there is no “normal” to any of this. Some of us are just trying to get out of bed and face the day…and that counts as a victory.
This is not a time where you have to be strong. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world, and you don’t have to try to fix everything, make everything stable around you when it’s not. But neither do I want you to be stagnant and just wait for everything to “go back to normal” or settle down so you can revert to the life that made you comfortable. We are not going to be the same after this pandemic. It has thrown into sharp relief everything corrupt and broken and sick in our society, a sick state that has always been present, but now its symptoms are on full display. We cannot look at that and go back to where we were.
So I charge you with this instead: Go forth into the unknown with boldness and hope.
Into the Unknown
I’m afraid of what I’ll lose if I follow you
Into the unknown.
At this point in the story, Elsa hears a siren call to destiny, to awaken something in her that hasn’t been realized, and she is afraid. She is afraid that by pursuing this call in a unfamiliar realm where no outcomes are guaranteed, she might lose everything she has already fought for and holds dear, including her family and the control she has managed to attain over her ice powers.
She wrestles with the call and ultimately chooses to move forward into the mysterious enchanted forest. It is only because of that choice that she later discovers she has the ability to bring unity to her divided realm and function as a bridge between the different elemental powers originally causing havoc. She matures into an agent of reconciliation and grows in assurance of the gifts she has been given.
We all have calls on our lives we have yet to discover. It’s like the pull of the sea for Moana, the binary sunset for Luke Skywalker, and the ineffable draw Bilbo Baggins experiences to go off on a great adventure. There is something in us pulling us outward, drawing us out of our comfort zones because we have outgrown them.
Leaving the Island
I’ve been watching the anime show One Piece during quarantine, and this character Usopp stood out to me. He’s not necessarily the coolest or most talented, but the more I watched the show, the more I couldn’t help seeing some of myself in him. See, Usopp has been on his island all his life and declares that he is a pirate like his father…and yet he’s never been out to sea. So when the main character Luffy and his crew land on his island, an opportunity arises for Usopp to realize this dream of being a great sea warrior.
But here’s the thing: Usopp is a COWARD. He lets other people fight his literal battles and shies away from conflict. Rather than participating in situations in any active way, he just waits for them to unfold. He’s afraid of being hurt and so afraid of being seen as afraid that he covers it up with grandiose declarations about how capable he is. I feel this all too keenly in my own life, quick to assert my own capability to cover how afraid I am of vulnerability.
Eventually, Usopp does choose to leave his island, and this pivot point is given the weight it deserves in the narrative. He recognizes that to grow as a person, he can’t remain on familiar ground. He needs to go out to sea.
The sea has always been this classic image representing the unknown. We have tried to map it all and have not succeeded. It contains so many mysteries in its depths. And there are few things scarier than being lost in the middle of the big blue. But there is a sea calling to each of us. The unknown of all we could be and do vibrates in us, thrumming with anxious energy, seeking release.
The best thing we can do is to honor the soil from which we’ve grown into the people we are now and then choose to go to sea. We can take tangible steps forward in going after our callings, passions, and vocations even though we don’t yet know where it all will lead. We can take that online class, try out that creative project, consider a new job opportunity, step up into a leadership position, connect with an organization in our neighborhood. And we are allowed to mature within this journey and struggle at the same time.
No Gain Without Strain
Sometimes we can be on the sea and in a new season of life, and yet our mind and heart are still tethered to our islands. Elsa and Usopp often doubt the path they’ve chosen and end up looking back at what they have left behind–and so do I.
There are moments I yearn for a simpler time in my life where there were fewer consequences to the choices I made–less of a cost. Now contemplating the future in terms of careers, family, relationships, and other pursuits can put me in this state of tension because I can’t predict how anything will turn out with much certainty. It’s easier to stick with what I know because I feel like I’m familiar enough with my current lifestyle and responsibilities to have control over them. But when I settle into this posture, maybe I won’t lose much…but I also don’t have the opportunity to learn or gain anything.
In these moments, I’m like Usopp, dreaming of becoming more but too afraid of the time and effort and risks that might be involved in changing the course of any aspect of my life. I settle too much instead of expecting and pursuing more for myself.
But you can be longing for the familiar even as you are developing muscles to hold the weight of something new. The path to maturity requires being stretched.
Not Throwing Away My Shot
It’s fitting that Usopp’s weapon of choice is a slingshot. For anyone who’s ever attempted to use a slingshot, you know that if you pull it without much effort, the ball just drops lamely a foot away with a big anticlimatic plop. To fling something farther into the distance, there needs to be tension. You need to pull back that rubber band, feel the strain, and then let the shot fly. All potential energy is stored and expands with possibility within the taut tension of that band; without it, you’ll never know how far the slingshot could have gone.
My students and friends, allow yourself to be stretched because that is the only way you can fling farther beyond what you have imagined for yourselves, beyond the limits you resign yourself to. This pandemic has destabilized our routines and aspirations, and we no longer have the luxury of settling for a passive life. We must be open to adapting to the constant changes in our environment and leaning into the challenges they bring. We also must face our fears head-on in order to pursue opportunities that will stretch and grow us.
I think of the person I was when I first came to college. I was so insecure and so afraid of being seen even though I craved it at the same time. I didn’t think I had much of a voice or much to contribute compared to other brighter, smarter people.
I dreamed of being a writer but was afraid of the judgement that could await me. I longed to be in a romantic partnership but was afraid of someone actually seeing me in all my messiness and flaws. I wanted to experiment with my artistic passions but was afraid of failing. I wanted to take on injustice but was afraid my will was too feeble and passive to make any impact.
Fear still often dominates my thoughts in all these areas, but this is what has conquered that fear again and again and challenged me to take risks: The knowledge that fear is not fixed but fades into lesser significance before the love of an almighty God.
The Wild God
I serve a wild, untameable God who is not swayed by my attempts to completely control my environment. He is not deterred by my tendency to overthink all my decisions as if more thinking will determine my success. “O, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and untraceable His ways!” declares Romans 11:33. God sees far more and farther along than I do, and if I trust that He loves me, I can also then trust that He will bring good out of the journey still ahead of me as long as I commit that journey to Him.
This doesn’t mean things will always turn out the way I want or expect, but I can trust that this wild God loves me so much and has the best in store for me. We can trust him to journey with us and make a way for us through the situations we fear, that He will gift us courage to keep going. And sometimes the most courageous step we can take is continuing to pursue Jesus himself and ask him constantly to redefine our trajectory, our understanding of our callings.
Jesus charged his disciples to leave everything behind to follow Him into the unknown. In the same way, we must leave behind whatever we are clinging to for our security if it is only dragging our steps and dominating our vision when Christ should dominate our gaze.
I want to leave you with these words I heard Resheeda Graham-Washington share at a conference I attended in 2018, words that I’ve returned to during this quarantine period:
Living courageously does not happen while we wait for fear to pass. It happens when we choose to act anyway with fear and trembling. Do it afraid.
Do it afraid. Don’t act only when you think you have a handle on everything and can control all the potential outcomes. Don’t wait for that shining moment where you are at peak courage and all anxiety in you has been expunged. Realize that you can be afraid and still act despite your fear. Every small choice counts, and all the small choices cultivate the person you are growing into.
Do it afraid and know the fear is not permanent. What mountains have loomed over you in the distance will not always seem so large as you move towards and past them. They will not hold the same power over your imagination as they once did. They are static. You are growing. And you will not remain on your island forever.
Do it afraid. The sea waits for you.