What really matters. . .

Something happened 6 years ago that changed my life. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize that until just yesterday.

You’d think that you’d notice when your deepest motivations are profoundly and permanently changed, but apparently not. I guess game changing events can be pretty subtle–in some ways.

The event itself was anything but subtle. The closest area of civilization experienced a “hundred-year flood” (which are becoming increasingly common, now that they don’t believe in dredging the river and still haven’t caught on that means other real estate decisions will have to be made as a result).

I say “closest area of civilization” because it really didn’t effect us at all. Water rushed down our hills into the brook in the valley, who swelled over her banks quite impressively, but receded demurely in a few days. There were some wet basements here and there, but no real damage. We heard of all the “major flooding!!!1!” in the “city”, but it was about 40 minutes away. We went about our merry lives, feeling maybe slightly sobered by what “those people” had to “go through”, but pretty much figured they were “dealing with it.”

We were quite confused when we got a phone call about a month later. A friend of a friend of a friend said that they were still in major need of volunteers. Wha-? It’d been a whole month! Weren’t they done with that yet? I mean, c’mon–a whole month, and everything isn’t back in order yet? (Just a tad naive, yes?)

So we got together a rag-tag group and trundled out to good-naturedly offer our services. I was 19. It turned into one of the most grueling months of my existence–emotionally intense and physically exhausting. My 22 year old brother was ever oblivious to the fact he was leading a crew of women and children (yes, really!), and set what he considered a “steady working pace.” The group we were working through referred to us as “The Army”, so clearly they shared more my view of our pace.

I was so physically exhausted afterwards that my body had totally lost appetite; it took days for me to feel like eating again. And I was strangely overwhelmed by all that I had seen and heard and done. I wrote very long (very–trust me!) emails to friends trying to process it all, yet was still unable to understand why it had touched me so deeply. I wasn’t sorry I’d done it–I knew it had been very important work. But it was a one-off. A once-in-a-life-time (it was supposed to be a hundred-year flood, remember?). A good story to tell your great grandkids, but not really a substantial part of your life.

But I was alive, then. I remember standing by the trash heap of the most depressing job we’d ever worked on, watching someone in a hot-pink snug-shorts running out-fit jogging by, and the contrast was powerful. This–what I was doing, was real. This was what life was really like. That? That was fake. That was pretending everything was okay, and ignore what this world is really about.

And since then, I don’t think I have ever really stopped looking, in the deepest parts of me, to be in that spot. Not standing by the rubbish heap of a crazy-cat-lady house, soaked in sewage and river water and abandoned for a few months, although sometimes it looks like that, I guess. But at the spot of knowing that what I am doing really matters and is why I am here. It’s tantalizing–almost addicting–even though it is so incredibly draining.

And yet so fleeting.

Although the raw desire to reach your arms out to help those with overwhelming need and show them that they’re worth your effort and sacrifice is very real, it’s frighteningly easy to loose under those things called “the cares of this world.” Yet the further and further I get from the reality of saying “yes” to putting value on the health, food and shelter of others, the more and more unhappy I get–and the more obsessed with stupid things.

I know I’m not looking for an easy thing. I know how tired I was; I know how burning with that kind of passion can threaten to consume you, burn you out entirely. But the more times I taste from that cup and then slide back into first-world worries (grades! exercise! eat “right”! change oil in car! ), the more I find myself wondering if this first-world kind of life is really worth it for me to live.

I don’t want to look back on my life and say, “Man! I sure did an awesome job keeping up with my laundry!” I see the saving charts showing the power of compounded interest, and they make me feel guilty. . .but dead inside. I don’t want to save up piles of money; I don’t want my life to be defined by money any more than I want it to be defined by laundry. I don’t want to have the nice job, with the nice house and the nice car and the nice life. Nice is such a shallow adjective, with so little depth. I don’t want to look back on my life and say, “well, it was nice.”

I want to say, “it was gut-wrenching, incredible, awe-inspiring, exhausting, breath-taking, intense, and full of more love that I ever knew could exist.” Not “nice”. Yet I feel inexorably pulled into worrying about tuition debt and how to plan for my next car and good grades and a neat little “just-so” lifestyle–even though it’s against everything I want my life to be like.

How do I harness the passion that drives toward “nothing less than the best!” in my grades–a complete waste of my energy–into the things that really matter instead? How to I change the endless planning and scheming from “organizing my life” into making a real change in the lives of thousands?

I know it could be done. I know my life could be so much more than it is. I have tasted it. I know its burn, but I also know how much more deeply satisfying it is.

But I’m scared.

Part of it is the desire to be in control. If I don’t take care of tuition payments, who will? And the car, and the new computer when this dino dies, and keeping my body healthy and All Of The Just-So Things that I somehow think life cannot be lived without. And there’s the other thing. Without. I want that realness so bad I can almost taste it, but I’m scared of they very real sacrifices that come along with it.

How about never really having a home? A life of constant upheaval? When you give and you give and you give, and it’s never enough? Being alone, really alone? Loving, and not being loved in return? Health problems a suburbanite would never have (dengue fever, anyone?). Being in very real danger that you can’t even pretend to your loved ones at home that it’s okay. Being hungry and being cold and definitely not having 2-day shipping from Amazon.

I think about it a lot, in my waking hours and my almost-asleep hours, and I keep coming back to one thing.

I don’t want to do this alone.

I really, really don’t want to do this alone.

Even as I say it, I some how hear the resolve that if I have to do it alone, then I will. But I don’t want to, and now more than ever I want to bargain with God. I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything, I’ll drink the bitterness and cry Your tears–but don’t make me do this alone. I don’t have the right to make that bargain, even if I really did know what I was saying–and I know that I don’t. But I know I’m thinking it.

When I hear myself thinking about the Just-So life, I hear myself whispering over and over. . .”it isn’t enough, it isn’t enough.” But when I think of my impending departure to grad school, butterflies fill my stomach and my chest grows tight. I can’t do this–I can’t do even this. In our third year, we have the option of going to Bangladesh, and I want to go so bad–and I’m panicking at the thought of moving five hours away.

I’m not strong, God. I need someone to do it with.

When I think about “after”–“after grad school”–I can see that the “smart” thing to do would be to work at a stable job for several years, building up experience and bank account. I dread that idea almost more than I can say. No, I’m done with that. I’m done with reasonable and prudent and safe and just-so. I need to do real. Would I be ready? No. Heck, no. I’ll never be ready, and if I wait until I’m ready, I’ll be looking back on a life of laundry and bill-paying–a slow, painful death of Chinese drip-torture of slowly killing every dream and passion. I can’t live for Fridays. It’s too big of a waste for me to stomach.

I’m scared, but I’ll do it–help me God, I’ll do it. I don’t know the answers, I don’t know how–but I don’t want my life to be defined by turning away from what I knew to be right and true because I was afraid. Of all the reasons to fail at really living life–why fear of trying to do the very things you believe the most to matter?

But it doesn’t do away with the fear, or the silent sub-conscious bargaining with God. . .

. . .just don’t make me do this alone.

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