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“The Big Sea” by Langston Hughes

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“Salvation” is a short story which appears in the autobiography “The Big Sea” by Langston Hughes.  In  the story, a twelve year old boy learns a very difficult lesson when attending a church service and the experiences described in the story as well as the fresh language used to describe them make this story something easy to relate to. The situation the boy goes through is similar to  what almost every teenager goes through in terms of not knowing how to behave, who or what to believe, and constantly feeling inadequate, even when acting adequately.

At the beginning of the story, the young boy attends a church service where he, along with other youngsters, is supposed to be saved. The way in which his family, namely his “Auntie Reed” and acquaintances have described the event led him to believe he would literally see a light and Jesus come to him. When this does not happen, he feels disappointed and when he feels the pressure from the whole congregation, he pretends – out of guilt and embarrassment – to be saved, only to get home and cry in his bedroom, feeling guiltier, lonelier and having lost all faith.

The story deals with many topics; religion, conformity, the differences between the language of adults and children, deception, guilt and the list goes on. But to me, the theme that stands out and comprises all the others is growing up and all the pressures a teenager endures in that turbulent period.

First, I find the experience described in the text very similar to the one many of us have found as youngsters when our parents, motivated by their good memories of activities that they carried out and enjoyed – and which were probably fundamental for their later lives -expect us to relate to things as they were in their experience. These different perceptions contribute enormously to a lack of communication that leads to a sense of isolation in us. Bearing in mind that children only have their elders for direction, –“it seemed to me they ought to know”- this creates a situation where they feel they must be somehow mistaken in their judgement of the subject in question or may even feel guilty at having to live another somehow poorer reality than what their parents or elders remember. They may even feel the urge not to disappoint their mother or father and thus, again, feel inadequate.

Also, just like Langston, many times as a teenager, we were told one thing, but understood another. What the boy understood from what his aunt said was that, in fact, “when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! “. Metaphors are not easily understood by twelve year olds.

There is also the issue of group and peer pressure. This pressure went in crescendo in a way that tortured the boy who felt completely alone “in a mighty wail of moans and voices”. The author says that he heard “prayers and songs swirled all around” and this forced the boy to act against his better judgement. And, to make matters worse, after his friend chose to fake it and stand, he had even more pressure, because now he knew that nothing happened to those who acted like Wesley, who in my opinion, represents the “cool” teenager who always gets away with things. After all, “God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple”.

At twelve, the way I remember it, it was very difficult to choose who to imitate, who would be our role model, or reference, so to speak. For those growing up in a religious environment, that reference will have to be associated to faith. We know that spirituality is a difficult subject to put our finger on and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but we might ignore that when we lack perspective we start thinking in terms of winners and losers and sometimes irredeemable right or wrong. All too often as children we see ourselves clutching at the short straw. Naturally, we do not think we are the hero of the picture.

Take our young Langston, for example, who feels he has drifted away from God, or God from him – “I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn’t come to help me” – , when in fact he has lived up to the challenge; he acted on belief and not to please, before being subjected to enormous pressure. He lived through that experience and might have learnt, not a fully fledged hero yet, but one well in his way.  But of course, Langston was a teenager, and as teenagers we seldom see the glass half full, especially when it has to do with the way we see ourselves, or the way we judge our own actions.

Those who act to please others definitely seem at times to be the winners and those left inevitably alone for not following the crowd might appear to be left behind.  However, experience and circumstances teach and those who live these episodes learn and take home something truly inspiring.

Langston thought his world was coming to an end, but it was not. He thought other people did things better than him. But they did not. We, as readers, can see that he acted well. But he could not.  We can see that the reason he did not get up was because he was obediently waiting for Jesus; that he did not want to lie, that he felt guilty about lying, as a good Christian would. But he could not. Because he was twelve, “going on thirteen”. The problem with adolescence is that when we finally learn how to cope with it, and can truly appreciate ourselves as individuals who can make decisions and are free to decide, it is over and all we can do is remember all those times when we felt embarrassed, or guilty, or out of place, and tell ourselves that we have grown and became better people thanks to, and not, as we would believe, in spite of them.

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