Clarisse. She’s one of my favorite literary characters. Every November when I have the chance to teach Ray Bradbury’s classic Dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 to my sophomore classes, I ruminate about her character, drawing parallels to my own life.
In case you aren’t familiar, Fahrenheit 451 is a book set in the future where firemen create fires rather than prevent them in order to burn books and destroy information. In a society that heavily relies on technology and conformity– where critical thinking is no longer valued–you can imagine how a free and curious spirit who asks lots of questions and challenges the status quo would be seen as a threat. Clarisse, a seventeen year old girl, is that threat.
One day she runs into Guy Montag, the confident fireman protagonist. They talk over the next several weeks and get to know each other. In their interactions, Montag begins to feel something awaken within him. He is drawn to Clarisse and compares her to a mirror, refracting his own light back to himself. On one occasion after a deep conversation with her, he comes home to his unconscious wife who had overdosed on pills and has the glaring realization that…“he was not happy. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.”
In many ways, I identify with Clarisse’s seeking nature: not afraid to explore, ask questions, imagine a better world for myself and others, or push back against systems that seem to not make sense. I admire her bravery and willingness to live life on her terms. In the story, she is an outcast and looked at as dangerous and untrustworthy, but she never apologizes for how she shows up in the world. She KNOWS who she is even while she’s surrounded by fellow citizens who are completely desensitized and living robotic lives– addicted to technology and numbed-out. Nobody thinks, nobody grows, nobody questions any of it.
But I have not always identified with Clarisse’s character…
Just a few short years ago, I related to Montag much more. When Clarisse first asks if he’s happy, he doesn’t even understand what she means. He tells her of course he’s happy: he’s married, has a house and a job, and he gets a great deal of satisfaction out of his life…why wouldn’t he be?
But that question nags at him, and he remembers a time several years prior where he had a conversation with a professor on a park bench and they had talked about books….ideas….dangerous things. He tries to put it all out of his mind but he can’t. The girl had run off with his happiness and there was no way to get it back.
In this powerful scene where he questions his happiness, Montag is slowly waking up to his life. Clarisse had forced him to acknowledge all that he was missing, and he finally confronts it head on. Waking up scares him. He doesn’t like this new place because in some sense he knows his life will never be the same. He realizes he doesn’t even remember why he fell in love with his wife or how he chose his profession. One realization leads to another leads to another, like dominoes falling swiftly and no way to stop the momentum. Suddenly everything bothers him. Everything feels phony. He doesn’t know who he is anymore because his old identity has been obliterated. It’s almost like he has to demolish his old life to be able to reconstruct the new one that he will only be able to discover as he painstakingly moves forward with fear and faith, hoping that something better will be awaiting him on the other side. All he knows is that with new eyes, complacency is no longer an option.
My experience mirrors Montag’s in that I have recently experienced a life awakening and been forced to confront and grapple with many things I had never examined closely before. The death of a friend and Covid-19 were two major catalysts for some big paradigm shifts for me, while a feminist awakening and full-blown faith crisis have been the painful yet liberating side effects. The dominoes fell and then did not stop. I have before likened it to hurricane winds sweeping me up: no matter how hard I tried to resist my spiral into an abyss of unknowns, I could not put a halt to the trajectory my journey was taking me. Once I realized I couldn’t go back–that I would never see things the same way again–I had to make the choice to surrender and let myself be changed for the better.
Sleepwalking Through Life
I think humans are great at sleepwalking. We take what is handed to us and incorporate it into our lives. Religions, traditions, systems, behaviors, norms, our culture at large–whatever it is, we take no qualms with melding ourselves to the status quo. We are like little automatons going through the motions at sometimes frantic paces, rarely stopping to question what’s real, right or true. When we allow ourselves to detach from culture, only then can we see that we were living in a sort of sleepy haze. Only then can we have the clearest vision.
Sometimes a catastrophic or life-changing event, or even an unexpected person, interferes with our autopilot mode, flipping a switch in our minds. This can be a violent awakening, but I have heard it said before that tip-toeing out of our comfort zone doesn’t serve us because we will most likely go back. It is in these life moments that we examine all that we thought we were and knew. These moments change us, but not before they confuse and scare the hell out of us. Dramatic experiences that shift us onto unsteady ground might FEEL like the world is ending, but they are really just a necessary vehicle to help us reach our higher nature. First the pain, then the rising.
When we allow ourselves to detach from culture, only then can we see that we were living in a sort of sleepy haze. Only then can we have the clearest vision.
Waking up to my life has been terrifying and exhilarating. In the past several years, I have surveyed and scrutinized every single belief, value, behavior and relationship up close. What do I believe? What is real to me? What matters most? Why do I do this thing? Questioning everything has become second nature.
Embracing A Wider Lens
Sometimes all it takes to wake up is just thinking. It’s engaging with the things that have control over us that we might not even realize we are victim to. It’s stepping out of our own narrow views and embracing a wider lens, objectively observing the constructs that we have accepted and internalized. It’s easy to let confirmation bias be our master. When we don’t have a Clarisse to wake us up, how will we ever know whether we are truly living? Who will shake us out of our complacency?
An alternate perspective can do wonders for helping us grow into who we are truly meant to be, but we have to be open to those perspectives and not shut the door on them because of our own ignorance or fear. If and when those hurricane winds come, will you fight them or surrender to them? What will await you on the other side? Only YOU can answer these questions, once you are willing to do the work.
When we don’t have a Clarisse to wake us up, how will we know we are truly living?
I want to end with some summarized words from the brilliant Martha Beck: “Wanting something independent of the culture is true freedom. We don’t have to be IN the culture, but we don’t have to be in direct OPPOSITION to the culture either (because is that our true nature or just us rebelling and proving a point?) We can simply tune in to what our soul is reaching for and show up as OURSELVES, whatever that looks like.”
How will we know we are where we are supposed to be? Martha says, “When you look weird on the outside and feel good on the inside, that is how you know you’re on the right track.” 🙂