by Jackie Wallace
When I was seventeen, I read a book called Paper Towns, by John Green. You may have heard of it due to the upcoming release of its movie adaptation. More on that later.
The book tells the story of a teenage boy who idolizes the girl next door. The girl disappears, leading the boy on a journey to find her. By searching for this girl, he realizes that he has dehumanized her by idolizing her. To refuse to acknowledge weakness and imperfections is to deny that person’s humanity. It’s a story about empathy, and brokenness, and valuing our weaknesses and imperfections.
I was suffering a nervous breakdown the first time I read this book. I felt broken, and isolated, and hid my overwhelming anxiety as thoroughly as I could. The more I fell apart, the more desperate I was to appear put together. My weakness terrified me. I was paralyzed by the fear that someone would eventually realize that I was broken. I read Paper Towns, and connected with the undercurrent of isolation that flowed through this girl, who everyone loved but nobody knew. The characters blossomed from the page as their own brokenness came to light, and I felt dazed by the beauty.
Near the end of the book, there is a passage that describes how people start out as watertight vessels. Then others hurt us or leave us or bad things happen to us, and the vessel starts to crack. And maybe the vessel will never be repaired, and we’ll always be damaged, but it’s not until we break open that we can see into each other and understand each other. My favorite line of the book is, “The light can get in, the light can get out.” I originally planned to get a tattoo of the quote.
A couple of years passed, and I went to college. I had another breakdown. My brokenness still terrified me, but it was the concept of weakness and imperfection as necessary for human connection that helped me recover. The book is still important to me, but I began to value the ideas behind it more than the book itself, and so decided not to get a quote as a tattoo.
I’ve reread Paper Towns half a dozen times. I have to avoid most media coverage about the movie adaptation, because I get my feelings hurt far too easily by others’ opinions about the book. I don’t usually feel protective of the books I love; I’m fine with film adaptations, and fine with others having whatever opinions they please about the story. But this is my book. I am willing to act selfishly to protect this story. I have high hopes for the film adaptation. I also know I will have to tune out the voices of every movie critic and twelve-year-old with an internet connection if I want to survive the ordeal.
I can passionately defend the value and beauty of imperfections and weakness, but the truth is that I still haven’t internalized it. I am still ashamed of my brokenness, of all these cracks in this vessel. But now I understand why I need them. We connect when we recognize vulnerability in another, and say, “me, too.” Our brokenness is not only necessary, but so incredibly valuable. It lets light in, and lets it out. And so I made a promise. I promised to always choose my true self. I choose the self with the cracks and scars and weaknesses. I won’t reject, hide, or wish myself away anymore.
There needed to be a sacrament to seal the vow I was making. I decided to get a tattoo showing the light that comes from the crack in the vessel. I liked how permanent it was, and that it would always be with me; I can’t exactly go back on my promise now, can I? When I’m overcome by feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, I imagine the light pouring from my shoulder, flowing in and out with my breath, like the tide. The light comes in. The light goes out.
Jackie Wallace graduated from Whitworth with a B.A. in Psychology in 2014. She spends her days pretending to be a writer while actually binge-watching kitschy television shows. Her favorite people are her pet rats and young nephews. Her blog can be found here.