“He saw nothing but colours–colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things til you know roughly what they are.” (CS Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet). When Ransom, a kidnapped philologist from England, finds himself on a strange planet, this is the sight that greets him. Pinks and purples and blues. Colors assault him from all sides. But he could not, at first glance, process what those colors were shaped into: plants, water, sky, creatures, and so on. Maybe this sounds strange to you, but Lewis’ description struck me.
A year ago, I graduated from high school. Just a few short months later, I was riding in a van with my family. In mid-August of 2011, I found myself in a strange (read: unfamiliar) town surrounded by strange people. I was attending a strange church. I was eating food prepared by strange hands and living in a room with strangers on a campus full of even more strangers. I couldn’t quite figure out where I was at first. All the streets in the neighborhood across from campus looked the same. Dozens of people’s names were slurred in my head. Was that another Steven I just met, or was his name Andrew? Well, at least I know what dorm she lives in, or was she just visiting a friend? Somebody told me that he was dating her, right? Or was it that other girl? They all look so similar! Which professor is which? Do I have US History today, or is it Western Civ? Is that girl an upperclassman who could answer my question, or is she another clueless freshman like me? The questions piled up, my brain was overloaded, and I had to keep up in classes too! Some days, I couldn’t even remember which dorm was mine (and there are only 3 girls dorms on campus!). Everything was beautiful though, full of color and light and the glory of God’s goodness! Even scummy Lake Bob was a blessing. =) It just took time for my eyes to adjust and see roughly what I was looking at. Suddenly, everything clicked. I can navigate the shortest route through the neighborhood to town (without cutting through backyards!). It wasn’t Steven after all; it was Andrew. Yes, she does like in this dorm, but her best friend lives two buildings over. In fact, he is dating her, and that other girl looks nothing like her. That professor teaches US History (which is on these days), and he likes baseball. That one over there teaches Western Civ, which is on those days. And here comes my Theology professor. And look, it’s one of the Lit professors! Yes, that girl is an upperclassman, and she actually wants to get to know me! Pretty soon, everything just fell into place. I saw roughly what I was looking at, and the colors formed into things, people, and places.
Now, if adjusting to college was that jolting (though not unhappy; it was rather pleasant), can you imagine getting used to another country? Before I even went to college, I had been to Mexico twice. The first time was much like my first weeks away at school–names blurred, confusion reigned, and I clung tightly to my schedule and youth pastors’ directions. I didn’t bother to memorize streets or anything; we were traveling to different homes and around the city, but I never had to figure the streets out. I just gaped at the clowns juggling fire in the streets, the dozens of stands selling everything from fruit to furniture, and the hundreds of dogs that lived in the streets or on roofs. When I went down to Mexico a second time, though, I found myself recognizing “shapes” in what had only been colors before. The Walmart we visited wasn’t so big and intimidating, some of the streets were familiar, and the church was full of somewhat familiar faces. The pastor even came and thanked me (again) for the work my team had done the previous year. It felt a little more like home, and the disorienting colors were becoming shapes. I could see roughly what I was looking at, so I became more aware of my surroundings. Now, when I look back at pictures from either year, I can say with fairly good accuracy that so-and-so was from such-and-such home at the orphanage, even though the picture is clearly from another home for this, that, and the other reasons. I knowmore than roughly what I’m looking at. I know the faces, the places, and many of the stories.
I’m not sure exactly what my point is, except to say that I was struck by Lewis’ striking description of the confusion and disorientation that surrounds us when we encounter a new city, a new country, or even a new world. How at first everything truly is just color. The the shapes slowly form, taking their cues from similar shapes we already know. Finally, things become familiar, and we are at home in a once-foreign place. Even though it’s frightening and frustrating at first, we must press on. We only live once, right? Then each day is brand-new. We’ve never lived it before! Every day is simply awash in brilliant color at first. Some things appear to instantly have shape: our bedrooms, our homes, our friends. We don’t have to go through the long–and sometimes embarrassing–process of turning those colors into shapes. They instantly and involuntarily transform. But they are still bright and new color every day. Our friends, our families, the people we have only met once before–they are all different from the people we knew them to be a day before. They are growing and changing and living and breathing. Even if our bedrooms and homes don’t change, we are changing. So, our bedroom may look just as messy as it was when we went to sleep, but as we grow, our rooms “change.” Our perceptions of the familiar things are morphing constantly. If you’ve ever been on a long trip (or gone away to school or moved away from home and come back), you probably know the feeling. You walk to your room, push open the door, and find that it has changed–or rather that you have. There’s something familiar about it; you know roughly what you are looking at, so it doesn’t just look like a blur of colors. But it is different. You have to take a moment to process the change in yourself, in your things, or in your companions.
With things, it’s easier. Colors on a painting might fade, metal might rust, toys might break. But in the end, things are still things. They don’t change unpredictably. We know that stuffed animals lose their fur after a lot of love. Barbie dolls lose limbs if little brothers get a hold of them. Clothes wear thin. Paint chips. Food rots. The list could go on. We know to some degree how things will change.
But people aren’t things. We aren’t even like things. It’s not so bad when we live with someone, when we see them every day (or almost every day), when we’re around them as they change bit by bit. When we haven’t seen someone in weeks, months, or years, though… Well, we can’t predict how they’ve changed. Their life has been affected by dozens, if not hundreds of other people’s changes. They have changed in countless little ways. And then there’s the big stuff. What if someone has suddenly grown up? Or at least it seems sudden to me because I haven’t seen them in so long. And then there’s the next problem: I’ve changed. Not only has my friend grown and been influenced by her companions, so have I. Maybe she’s met someone special; maybe I’ve made another close friend. Maybe our changes make us closer friends; maybe those changes seem to drive a wedge between us. And suddenly–it seems–we are standing on the opposite ends of an impossibly deep and wide gulf. We want to be as close as we were before, but we’re headed in opposite directions. There’s too much bright color in the other person right now. The shape we expected to see is gone. I’ve changed, so has she. We can’t see eye-to-eye on everything anymore.
Does this mean we have to give up on our friendship? No! Does this mean there’s no way we can love each other and be there for each other? By no means! We are still called to love each other, to care for each other, and to pray for each other. Maybe we won’t be as close as we once were, but that doesn’t mean we have to hate each other. We just have to work harder at seeing through the brilliant new colors. What shape does God have under all the new things? That’s it! If our friend has grown and if we have as well, we can at the very least look for the God-shape in each other. As we mature and seek His face, we look more like Him. We’re not always going to have the shape to see who our friends are now, or who we are for that matter. But the goal is to be more like our Heavenly Father. If we look for His fingerprints, His work, in each other, we should find more of that in our growing friends. Maybe we don’t like the same things anymore, but we are children of the same loving Father. And so we love.