Today has been a winter wonderland of a day, which has both made me guilty for not stepping outside and also has quieted me and made me pensive. It is not always easy to be still — often not — but thickly falling snowflakes have a way of settling a soul.
I remind myself that frantic activity is often used as a way of hiding from thoughts and feelings and struggles that one does not want to face, or have the resources to face. As a generalization, being relentlessly busy is a means for a troubled soul to flee or else it is a burden that will very shortly cause a soul to be troubled. Or perhaps both, because life is never simple.
I picked a book up the other day, an expose of sorts of Laura Ingalls Wilder — her life and her writing career, and her fairly insane daughter. I’ve known since I was a child that her writing was “fictionalized” — cleaned up, edited down, showing the things she wanted to show, not the things she didn’t want to show. But every time a book purporting to tell the actual truth comes along, I find myself holding my breath about a few things that I am surprised to discover I am urgently hoping to be true. I feel like I can’t breathe until I confirm (once again) that yes, that part was real. One of those things is Almanzo and Cap riding off into the great unknown in a desperate attempt to save the town. That has to be real. It just has to be real — and yes, it is real.
In stark contrast, I was flipping through someone I barely known on Instagram. He is either an adrenaline junkie or at the very least, wants to fictionalize his own life to portray himself as one. Because there is a difference between recklessness and courage. There is a difference between risking one’s life for the thrill of it and risking one’s life for the sake of preserving others. To my sadness, it seems that both have been romanticized to the point that one has to do a lot of digging through societal cultures and traditions to figure out what is really going on. Risking one’s life for the trill of it has been lauded to the point I can’t tell whether this fellow really feels the way he says he does, or if he is just very nicely parroting the cliche that he’s been told is glamorous– and really is about as destructive as a drug habit. And risking one’s life for the sake of preserving others has been so romanticized that there’s a terrible secret fear it isn’t really true — just the stuff of fantasy and legends, and “heroes” that have been celebrated at the cost of fictionalizing the darkness they have really been through.
As I’m coerced into a bit of quiet and stillness and a chance at some reflection, I remember Paul encouraging people to take note of those who live admirably and to imitate them. That passage always struck me as odd, because are we not just to imitate Christ? Sometimes I think I get a glimpse of an understanding, though. We are by nature comparers and contrasters, measuring, weighing, judging, describing, naming. And even, yes, mimicers. And, if I am right (which well I not might be), the young man who has embraced the Red Bull culture of “adventure” has not so very much done it on purpose as much as what he saw, he mimiced. It appealed to some part of him, even if it was the part of him probing for a way to escape or turn away from something else.
The harder thing is seeing that which we admire — young men riding in to possible death in a gamble there was hope out there somewhere, the courage to take the risk to care for the vulnerable — and observing how very much we fall short. Examining where we’ve turned from that which we know to be good and true, and setting our face to press toward that which is hard, but valuable. It requires a good deal of humility to face up to the fact that it is not excusable to flee from hard things, as though it would be inhuman to actually do such things.
Being busy is far different than producing value. Being reckless is far different from sacrifice. Imitating others is different than imitating what is good. Holding standards is different that pursuing excellence. Both can break you. I guess in some ways, the question comes down to, is it really Worth It?
To determine Worth It, one must return to what is the authority of their life. Power? Logic? Pleasure? For those of us who claim to seek follow Christ, the answer must be God. But that is a humbling, humbling thing. It is one thing to mouth “You are my king” and “I surrender.” It is another to examine your life and recognize all the ways and all the places where you don’t get to decide if something is Worth It or A Priority. That instead you have to accept what God says is Worth It or A Priority or when you are done, or not done, or when you rest or when you don’t get to rest.
The thing about God is, it seems like He’s modus operandi is to be unpredictable. And as human beings, we don’t really seem to like unpredictable. Unpredictable means we aren’t in control. Unpredictable means we are small. I was reading in John and Jesus is doing these wonderful things — an abundant catch for struggling fishermen, a beautiful healing of a person who had been paralyzed — and the reaction is fear, resentment, and in many cases an irrational pushing away. Because the only other reaction is “You are a holy and I am sinful.” And that is hard.
When God says “follow Me,” He is also saying, “stop following all of those other things.” The chapter I was reading in John seemed to be saying a lot of, “oh my goodness, you people have such a pre-occupation with the things of this world. Don’t you realize how terribly fleeting is? Don’t you realize what an occupation you need to have with the things that come after, the things that are not passing away?”
As we come to the end of a year and the beginning of another — an arbitrary marking, but still, a human marking nonetheless — the urge to introspect on what comes next can be nearly irresistible. Oddly enough, the examination of the previous year is usually squirmingly avoided. It reveals all that is small in us, all that is out of our control, all that we thought we had the power to achieve yet could not, all that we didn’t see coming, all that we have no authority to change. When we think we’ll plan what our priorities will be in the coming year, what we will accomplish, what life will look like in 1 or 3 or 5 years, we are essentially trying exert control. . .on that of which we cannot control. It feels good, because power feels good. But it feels bad, because we know it’s a lie.
Almanzo assuredly did not write in his New Years Resolutions: risk life to save town. The Insta-chap may well write: hike all the highest mountains in this state. You might say they are both admirable, but when we stop to think how we’d like to be remembered or what might survive past the end of the age, it’s the action that could not be planned that leaves us most humble, most convicted that we are not the humans we ought to be.
I did not plan on being sick from September through December, rotating through viruses like a child choosing toys. It ruined lots of my plans, and my human inclination is to assert I won’t be sick any longer, and my plans will work. I confess to being very angry and resentful that so much of my last few years has been confined and crunched to being sick, and yet, still, I assert: this year I will not be sick. I will do things. I will transform my life.
Yet when I look around at the people or traits I admire, it’s the people who have lived small, held loosely, and understood the holiness of the ground that they were on without striving for “better.” I want to seize control, but what I admire is actually obedience.
I don’t want being sick; I want being healthy and marvelously in control of my own body. I don’t want sitting quietly and healing; I want to tackle my to-do list and achieve my goals. I don’t want feeling lost and adrift; I want moving with a purpose and a plan that gives me joy and a spring in my step.
Yet here I am, admiring those who can bear the adversity of this life without complaining incessantly (like I do), who can accept the changes of the reality of their life without fighting (like I do), who can see the mercifully hand of good even as their dreams are crushed or are quietly withering.
God doesn’t care. That sounds harsh, but I think sometimes we do need our breath taken away and to actually look at the naked truth. We’re the ones with the pre-occupation with this world, not Him. He’s busy trying to call us out of it, and we’re busy trying to crawl into it. The things that we think matter, don’t. Our priorities are wildly askew. The change of focus from ourselves on to God is a thing easy to give mouth-space to, easy to commend to others, and a slippery intangible task for ourselves, full of backsliding and doubts and being tossed by every light breeze.
If I seem to have stumbled here and there and back and forth all about through this post, I suppose I have a bit. My drunken weaving is not because there is nothing of importance to be said, but because I know there are no simple 12 steps to figuring life out, to seeking God, or to assure that next year will be better, or I will be better. I don’t expect that I can resolve to live the coming year full of courage and humility. There is the sobriety of recognizing that seeking God means deliberately turning from or choosing not to do a vast array of things (including many things that are good). But there is little simplicity in it; we want the one simple rule, the law to live by. Instead there is the continual seeking of Him who will never be totally found in this life time. Day by day, moment by moment faithfulness does not well chart and graph out over a serious of lists and plans and years. Very little in the way of profound words will actually make it easier to lay your head down, easier to pick your body up out of bed the next day.
If I have said anything at all, I suppose I have really just offered the reminder that this life takes humility, demands sacrifice and calls us to stillness that we often irrationally resent. And as we recognize other people fighting against God’s goodness, holiness and power, we would do well to ask ourselves what is we’re afraid of and why.