I recently watched an excellent Chinese TV fantasy drama called Love Between Fairy and Devil, or Cang Lan Jue (‘Separation of Cang and Orchid’). If you haven’t heard of it – it’s hugely popular in China and very popular overseas, airing back in August – it’s a truly beautiful, wonderfully-produced show with a great story, amazing acting, glorious backdrops and intricate sets, great music, and wonderful costumes.
Most of the Chinese drama series I’ve tried to watch, I haven’t liked, because they feel very fake, have ridiculous stories or premises, and don’t support standards like chastity (you might be surprised I expect this – but many Korean drama series, for example, do – these are what I usually watch), the characters are often silly and just hard to like or believe, and the acting isn’t great. (Maybe I just haven’t been watching the good ones – I did find more after this, so at least there is a cadre that’s decent). This one caught me – and many people – by surprise. It brings a standard of excellence for each aspect together into a wonderful whole.
As you can tell, I really, really loved it, and it’s been very hard to come back to reality, both during and after watching. Not just because it’s a fantasy story, which always have a bit of that effect, but for the reasons I gave above – so much goodness in all its parts that it presents something excellent, whole, and beautiful (that’s really the best word for it). The story is wonderful, in its depiction of love, compassion, pain and suffering, growth and redemption – and humour. Many very difficult things happen – it’s not a story of sunshine and roses, although there’s lots of visual beauty and lovely moments. And the outcome is beautiful and profound, too: the main characters grow immensely, and develop great power through humility, love, selflessness and sacrifice. Part of the reason the show is so affecting (along with the excellent acting in the main roles) is that the characters experience such hardship, seek growth, and both offer and gain redemption through their spiritual and emotional development. It touches on true things, not fluffy pretense.
The problem when watching and experiencing something like this is that this sort of growth happens very, very slowly in our own lives, and the beauty is really hard to see – in a portrayed story, you see this growth over the course of episodes watchable in a short period of time. You see the nobility of their choices, understand what each character is thinking and feeling (when we only partly know our own), and you see the results – the resolution, the peace, the love, etc. Most of that is a long way away for us still. Without even trying, we compare our own experience, and our own current situation, with this more complete story. It becomes harder to accept the mundanity and messiness of our own lives, including the frustrating weaknesses we constantly deal with. In comparison, our lives feel dull and plain and empty.
This, I’m sure, is one of the reasons we have the Veil over our minds regarding our pre-mortal existence. If not, how could we endure the conditions of a fallen world? Joseph Smith once said that if a man were to have the merest glimpse of even the telestial world/glory, he would not have the will to continue here on earth (paraphrasing here). The beauty and perfection is just too much for our finite, mortal minds to handle, and for us to see anything good still in our current situation. I think that stories like Cang Lan Jue do something a little similar: show us a beauty and perfection, both visually and in character and choices and so on, that’s beyond this world and beyond what we can hope to achieve here. It reaches for another world, and leaves us bereft with this one.
I’ve done a lot of thinking during these few weeks – and some talking with good people (sisters and friends are very helpful at these times 😊) – and, like usual when working through something difficult, I’ve gained some insights which I probably wouldn’t have searched for or understood otherwise. Here’s one quite profound thing I realised, which has proved very helpful, and I think will for a long time.
I’ve long struggled with some aspects of my personality, my gifts and skills, and my life conditions compared with other people, whom I admire and see as having better personality traits, more admirable skills, and who do something good with their situations. This is the result of many things, including the messages I received growing up and the hardships experienced there. It’s become an ingrained weakness, and leads me to feel envious and even jealous of those who have these things. I’m ashamed of it, and it’s a darker aspect of myself that I want to eliminate and turn into something much better. It comes out at times like this, when I see this sort of story, and the actors who are so friendly, talented and likeable themselves. As I said, this is something I don’t like in myself, and I also feel happy for people who have good things in their personalities and lives. But as I kept thinking about it – why I feel this way, and how to transcend it – I realised something.
What and who I am here, in this life, is only part of who I am. It’s the same for everyone. We are a product of the genes we’ve inherited – influenced over centuries by the conditions and experiences of countless generations – the parents we were born to, with their strengths, failings, beliefs and personalities, the country we live in, the opportunities we’ve had and which are available to us…. So many things influence my current personality, my strengths, talents and weaknesses, and my situation. Becoming an admirable, fun, talented person depends too much on all of these circumstances for it to be a goal I should try to reach, or even can. (Or whatever the things are that you or I want and do not have).
In this life, this mortal life, I am not, and will not be, all that I fully am or can be. I am the result of the context I’ve been placed in, the strengths and weaknesses I’ve been given, the skills I have and have had the opportunity to develop; so much is a function of the particular sphere of my mortal life.
What actually matters is what I do with what I have. And not in the sense that I should be able to do amazing things with it – completely transcend my self and my circumstances to achieve wonderful success. I don’t need to worry about whether I have all the personality traits I want, or an admirable career that I’m very good at. What I do need to ‘worry’ about is doing my utmost in the particular circumstances this mortal sphere presents for me. Whatever it is, these are my materials. I can only work with them, not with the materials others have. This is my test. Not, will I become everything I need to be – that’s impossible, based on all the imperfect circumstances described. I’m not everything my immortal soul is, and there are too many messy and fallen aspects in me and which I have to deal with.
I just need to do my best in this test – my test.
We are more than who we are here. There must be many things that we are eternally, but are not here. And we each have enormous potential that’s largely not apparent here – and that’s part of the test.
What do we need to do here, then? If it’s not about becoming all the possible things we could be, or having all the great experiences we could have, or doing all the possible good there is to do in the world?
Our test is this:
And there stood one among them who was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;Abraham 3:24-25
It is to choose God’s will over our own. To learn to love Him, and to love others as best we can. Do our best, each day, to overcome our baser desires and so on. Keep giving up our own wills to take on God’s. This, over and over, until the end.
Not trying to fit everything in; not trying to be everything. Accepting others’ successes and happiness, being grateful for my own, helping my neighbour when I see their need, being content to have what I have, and slowly rooting out the pride, selfishness and self-will that is in me.
Knowing that it will work – that there is a possibility of becoming all I want to be and experiencing all that I desire to, beyond this mortal sphere – a sphere which is only for testing, not for everything.