Weird Sources of Wisdom 1: Labyrinth

As I was falling asleep at one point over last weekend, a line came into my head and stuck with me. It was one of those throw-away lines from a cartoon, and yet, as it crashed into whatever I’d been halfway to dreaming about, it made an odd amount of sense. Of course, I promptly forgot which line it was as soon as I fell asleep, but I remembered it happening. So I decided to start connecting the bits of wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years from odd places. These aren’t philosophers or classic writers. But you don’t have to be an ancient font of wisdom for your wisdom to be true nonetheless.

So, let’s start with Labyrinth.

If you’ve never seen it, you gotta fix that. Like now, today. Go find the movie and watch it. We can be friends again afterwards. If you just need a reminder, here you go:

There’s so much good in the movie, not just the fun and the puppets and David Bowie being the absolute king. It’s knowing who you are, where you’re going, what you really believe. Are you Hoggle, struggling to find the inner resolve to choose a path that frightens you? Are you Didymus, caught up how things should be done instead of looking to see how they can be done? Are you Ludo who just needs to be given a chance?

Labyrinth was one of the first VHS tapes I owned, and one of the first DVDs, too. It was also a soundtrack I listened to constantly my first year at college as I was on my own journey to figure out my way forward. But it goes farther back than that. Labyrinth was one of the four pillars — four shows/movies that pretty much defined how I saw myself and who I wanted to be while I was growing up. We’ll get to the other three another day.

So — the pieces of wisdom that Labyrinth embedded in my soul?

“Things are not always what they seem in this place, so you can’t take anything for granted.”

The little worm says this when Sarah is first running through the labyrinth. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it exchange, particularly afterwards when the worm makes its own assumptions (and thus doesn’t happen to mention that Sarah was face to face with a path directly to her goal). The labyrinth itself is always changing, evolving, and what was a path through turns into a dead end as soon as you quit looking at it. The only way through is to remain flexible on your feet and in your thinking. Question what you see, question what you assume, question what you think you know. And be prepared to be surprised.

“It’s not fair!”
“You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

It’s a harsh moment for Sarah, having her constant refrain called out. But Jareth is right — she DOES say it a lot. And, if you look at it, a lot of what Sarah considers “not fair” is really just “not the way she wants it to be.” “Fair” would be everything working out the way she wants regardless of anyone else’s needs or motivations. Sarah is self-centered, and doesn’t see that things that don’t seem fair to her are not therefore intentional slights or deliberate attacks — sometimes they are people trying to meet their own goals. Sure, Jareth isn’t making this easy for her, but he isn’t supposed to. Sarah is only the hero of her OWN story, not his. And when Sarah quits judging the actions and choices of others against what she wants, she loses a lot of her resentment, too. There are genuinely unfair things in the world. But there’s a huge difference between injustice and people getting in each other’s way by existing. A hero’s tale wouldn’t mean anything if everyone just got out of her path and let her win without a fight.

“The way forward is sometimes the way back.”

Okay, I like this one even though it’s trite. It comes from that “wiseman” with a talkative bird hat that Sarah and Hoggle meet after getting out of the tunnels under the labyrinth. Sarah asks for advice, and this is one of the lines he spouts while dodging quips from his hat. The hat insults him, but the point is still well intentioned. For me, I think specifically that it’s the emotional context where this works for me. Sure, I can push on, tackle the journey ahead of me without hesitating, but advancing my steps might mean unraveling me in other ways. Getting to the finish line and getting there with no spoons, fully burned out, exhausted — does it count as a win if I lost to get there? So I think it’s not just about realizing that sometimes you have to take a few steps backward to move forward, but also think about how those moves impact you on multiple levels. There is usually a way to move that won’t cut you apart.

“You have no power over me.”

The whole speech Sarah quotes at the start of the movie and then in her final confrontation with Jareth has always meant a lot to me. I used to have it up on the wall next to my dorm room in college. There’s courage in it, and defiance, and endurance. But it’s that last line that really drives itself into my heart. Jareth is all-powerful, and yet he is begging Sarah to fear him. From her obedience comes his power. And it’s so true in the world. It’s SO TRUE. So much of the world is predicated on a complicated set of social contracts. “Don’t correct an authority figure.” “Be polite even if it means allowing someone else to be rude.” “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t make a scene.” It’s garbage, all of it. Of course, I believe in being polite, and in being respectful, and in generally showing kindness. But I’m not going to let the unwritten social morays keep me from asserting my own power. Social rules say not to stick your nose in if somebody is being bullied — but the power of a bystander stepping up and saying “Enough” is greater than anyone realizes until it happens. Expectations can pile up like bounders on your shoulders, but you don’t have to play by them. No one, NO ONE has the power to make you anything but what you choose to be. And to exercise that strength is to be oneself, fully and unapologetically. And, like Jareth, those who would demand obedience and find none are themselves rendered powerless.

“It’s only forever, not long at all.”

This is my favorite line in the “Underground” song. I used to hang onto the “No one can blame you for running away” part, but that was when I was still struggling to find my way in a place I’d chosen for myself. But that “It’s only forever, not long at all” has always stuck with me, too, and far moreso after I no longer needed to run away. There’s something flippant to it, but it’s deep, too. Because forever is just the series of the next one. Telling myself I’m going to do X thing every day for the rest of my life feels daunting. But telling myself I’ll do it “next time” and then, after the day after that, “next time,” and after that, “next time” — those next times DO add up to forever. I’ve seen it used as a model for people trying to get out of habits or get in them, from changing their eating patterns to exercise to prayer or meditation. Critically, it also works on dealing with something difficult. Sure, balancing a level of stress and seeing no end to it can crush you. But taking a deep breath and saying, “I only need to do this today” is liberating. And then, when tomorrow becomes today, “I only need to do this today.” It makes the longest and heaviest of loads something quantifiable, something limited, something within the scope of endurance.

Put that way, “I’m going to write stories forever” becomes too short. Because I only have today to write stories. And then tomorrow. And someday my tomorrows will run out, but the story ideas won’t.

Forever could never be long enough, put that way.

I guess, when you consider that this was a fourth of where I began, there’s no real surprise I ended up where I did. After all, I did find my way into the Underground, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather spend my forever.

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