I’ve mentioned on this blog before how strange and difficult it has been for me to sift through all the thoughts, emotions, and events of my recent life and to find therein any coherent way to understand all that has happened. Some things in life perhaps cannot be thought, but only felt. Still, as weeks and months have passed, and as I’ve begun to read through old blog posts, to let the weight of the last few years sink in, to feel old pains in the presence of new hopes, and to express to different people in different ways piecemeal glimpses of my past, certain things have begun to come into some kind of focus. I’ll get to those things, in roundabout and disorganized ways, as I type what follows.
It’s still a process — I’m still processing all the memories and emotions. That has made the last few weeks … difficult. Besides being legitimately ill, which is normal, I have also been especially tired, particularly befuddled. When I tell my computer to do too many things at once, it first takes a moment to do absolutely nothing. It just stops, and a little circle comes up and spins around and around until the computer has thoroughly thought through everything and sorted itself out. I sometimes think that life should be that way. In all honesty, I sometimes do indeed just freeze, crippled by the blank, effortless, mindless comfort of lethargy after a long work week or when I’m beset by intensified physical pain. But even then, there are things to be done — the world doesn’t slow down just because I have. I’d like to hibernate for a week or two, or hit some kind of cosmic pause button. But life just doesn’t stop.
That’s one of the first things I’ve discovered. I think I have (and have always had) in the back of my mind some expectation that at some point life will just magically slow down and become “normal” … whatever that means, haha. Throughout the last two years, I had maintained the hope that we’d get there — that we’d have meaningful work and thus meaningful rest, and that the complications of our bustling, anxious, restless culture would fade away. We were naive and idealistic, perhaps to a fault. And yet, there will likely always remain in me the childlike spark of hope that the possibility of a simple and peaceable life exists — at least I hope I never doubt that desire. But even a hobbit must occasionally face the great ills of the wide world, and I am fairly confident that simplicity and peace are not to be found in any ideal set of circumstances. Rather, I must learn to cultivate them in my character, and I must pray to be granted the faith to meet all of life’s circumstances with joy and confidence in Christ.
Other things have come to me more subtly, not in a sneaking, creeping way, but gently, patiently, and kindly. It’s funny how such simple things as a few words from a friend, or the refrain of an old, familiar song, can provide the catalyst for realizations that could never have been reached through some cold, intellectual process of thought. Songs have always deeply affected me, and I can almost chart the course of my life by what lyrics gave voice to my feelings along the way. This time, it was Hopes and Fears by Keane — particularly “Can’t Stop Now.”
I noticed tonight that
the world has been turning,
while I’ve been stuck here,
Though I know I said
I’d wait around till you need me,
I have to go, I hate to let you down,
But I can’t stop now,
I’ve got troubles of my own,
Cause I’m short on time,
I’m lonely, and I’m
too tired to talk …
The motion keeps my heart running.
I was listening through that album last time I drove back to WV, and I realized for the first time that some part of me does feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. “Dithering around,” haha — such a perfect phrase for what the last two years (goodness, or even the last ten years) have felt like. Here I’ve been, all along thinking that I’ve finally got life all figured out, only to realize in the end that I’d just been trembling, vacillating, in a sort of arrested anxiety. And what was keeping me still, stuck? I was afraid of feeling selfish.
Even now that anxiety still haunts me. I am still firmly convinced that with Christianity comes a relinquishment of all selfish desires, of the need to defend one’s “rights,” of the impulse to be always correct. Christianity entails resignation. It is death. But all too often I am inclined to forget that it is also LIFE, and that a life abundant. Yes, we are not of the world, but we are most decidedly in it.
I don’t know exactly how the connection was made, but somehow last summer we read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a friend from the White Hart. I believe that person knows how much he turned our worlds upside-down by inviting us into his yearly reading of that text. I am so very thankful for the work that God began in my heart during those discussions — those were the first moments at which I began to suspect that I had become wildly imbalanced in the way I viewed the Christian life. Yes, we are to sacrifice our selves and our desires on one another’s behalf. Yes, we are not to hold our possessions as though they are our own — we are to hold all we have, and even the people we love, with an open hand, recognizing that we have nothing apart from what God has placed in our lives, and that all those things and people and places belong to Him. Yes, we are utterly and completely dead to the world and the flesh. But Kierkegaard speaks of the knight of faith as someone who has felt the pain of that resignation, who has borne the weight of the cross of Christ, and who has been buried in His likeness, yet who is capable of delighting in everything. He is the one who has experienced the depth of life’s sorrows and the full extent of Christianity’s call to lowness and to death and to utter separation from the things of the world, but who nonetheless paradoxically finds wonder and beauty and joy in all that God has created. He freely admits and cherishes his desires, he busies himself with the occupations of this life, he cares deeply about his interests, his family, his meals even. But he is the same with or without any of those blessings, because he has both simultaneously relinquished them to God’s control and yet grasped them profoundly enough to find therein genuine happiness. That’s just my paraphrase — perhaps it would make more sense for Kierkegaard to say it himself:
With infinite resignation he has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world, and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher, for his continuance in the finite did not bear a trace of the cowed and fearful spirit produced by the process of training; and yet he has this sense of security in enjoying it, as though the finite life were the surest thing of all. And yet, and yet the whole earthly form he exhibits is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd.
Make of it what you will, those words changed me. I hope I won’t recover from them. Because, you see, we can resign all things without faith. In self-control, with self-willed steadfastness, we can relinquish all our earthly hopes, desires, and gains. But it is only by the gift of faith from God in Christ that such a resignation does not end in bitterness and despair. It requires faith (and such faith as I do not yet claim to possess or even understand) to face the harsh realities of life and Christianity’s call to death, and still to find unadulterated delight in such minute daily worldly occurrences as a sunbeam through a cloud, the expectation of a warm and hearty meal in good company, a smile on a child’s face.
But I have found brief glimpses of such joy since allowing myself to be “selfish” to some degree. And though the line for me is quite fuzzy between sinful, meddling, unloving selfishness and the need to embrace and enjoy my life and my interests and my hopes, I am thankful for the reminder that resignation and stone-faced asceticism are not the heart and soul of Christianity. For faith, hope, and love are joyous and wondrous gifts, and these allay the more burdensome aspects of our lives as Christians in the world.
Speaking of faith, hope, and love, I had a conversation this week (if you can call what happens on Facebook “conversation” — which, of course, you can, though I often wish the more significant Facebook interactions could’ve taken place in person instead). At any rate, I had a conversation this week that I just keep thinking about. I’d asked a simple enough question, and I received a much longer answer than I’d expected. And though I doubt my friend knew how much I needed to hear the things he said, he gave me a lot to think about.
This is ironic, because one of the things I’ve been thinking about is over-thinking. Sheesh. *roll eyes* That, and intellect and education. There’s so, so much I could say about these topics, but right now I’m talking about the last two years of my life, so I’ll try to convey how it all relates. I guess I’ll start with a quote, which I use without permission (haha, like all the other quotes I use …).
Thinking brings you nothing of value, it is a false sense of accomplishment. Faith, Hope, and Love have value.
We were discussing the profundity (or lack thereof) of a work of literature. But when I initially asked if the work was indeed profound (having heard conflicting reports of its quality and worth), I received the answer to a different question: What is profundity after all? What makes something truly profound? This is a question that is not limited in its application to literature alone — and it keeps company with similar questions: Does pretense preclude profundity? (Alliteration unintentional, haha.) For that matter, what does it mean to be pretentious? And what ought one’s level of expectation be (in regards to literature … and in regards to life)?
Before I get there, I’ll backtrack a little. I’ve camped among philosophical types for quite some time now. Looking back over my life, it has probably been inevitable all along that I’d end up keeping such company. I still don’t know exactly why I majored in Philosophy in college despite my deeper love for grammar and literature and all that English-y stuff (though I know parts of reasons for that choice). I’m thankful that I did. It shaped the course of my life, and it shaped me.
But I’ve noticed a peculiar phenomenon within myself when I am in company with dear friends, discussing philosophical topics. I never used to be outspoken — but now I am opinionated … very opinionated … but only on subjects I enjoy or care about. I think it’s a good thing to feel deeply about the things and people you love (as I do), but I know that also at times I can become exuberant to the point of ridiculousness. And I tend to want to hold my own even in arguments that are over my head — I can be quite defensive. But whenever the conversation dies down, I often have this sick, nauseated feeling in my gut — typically only when I’ve been reckless in my speaking, or when I’ve been especially loquacious on subjects I don’t really know anything about. It’s strongest when I’ve been on the “right” side of the argument — I find “winning” on the battlefield of thought rather a lackluster and uncomfortable accomplishment.
And so, I at once related to the quote I posted above, having known full well for quite some time that my unfortunate tendency towards intellectual discussion was something that I could enjoy, perhaps, but which I should not take as meaningful in any sense — unless it engenders faith, hope, love, and communion among the body of Christ. Still, despite my opinions and my occasional intellectual spars, this discomfort was also probably the reason I didn’t end up in academia. I simply couldn’t devote my life to pursuits which for me would have been far removed from human interaction — would have been empty and fruitless.
And the conversation about profundity serves to illustrate why I was never a very good philosopher — I simply don’t care nearly as much about logic and rationality as I do about that elusive, difficult-to-define, mysterious gut-feeling that happens when something is genuinely profound. It’s a vague familiarity, a “hitting home,” if you will. It’s when the thing you’re reading lands so very close to heart that you can’t help but be changed or moved or encouraged or amazed by it. I’ve always said that the best kind of books are the ones that are profound in that way. It’s as though instead of you reading the book, the book is reading you — searching your soul and showing you the words for things you’ve always felt but never expressed, challenging your deepest faults and drawing you into growth and hope and joy. But this happens so easily and quietly, not at all heavy-handedly or explicitly. This kind of thing has nothing to do with proofs and equations, with valid argumentation and intellectual certainties. (I feel like I stole that last line from the X-Files, of which I have been watching … a lot.)
I will add, though, this disclaimer, for those who find such a definition of profundity too absurd or subjective or flimsy: I believe that anything truly profound will also be profoundly scriptural — and what is profoundly scriptural will be profoundly beautiful and true and good. This is the baseline from which to make judgments — but apart from that qualification, who am I to deal out declarations of what is or is not profound? What strikes me to the core may not move another, and what might seem silly or shallow to me may be the very substance of another’s edification. This is not to say that there are no objectives — good and bad, etc. It is simply to recognize the fact that not all people are ready to hear the same things at the same time, and that God uses widely varying means to shape a person’s life and character.
As to pretense, “who among us is not pretentious?” There I go, stealing quotes again. If you ask my younger brother, he’ll tell you that pretentious is a bit of a buzz word for me, which I employ to condescend upon whatever I happen to think of as silly or worthy of such condescension. (Which makes me pretentious.) Crazy. Everyone and everything is pretentious to some degree or another. To some degree, Christianity entails pretense (though that might not be the most choice of words), as we are called to embrace the hope of the righteousness of Christ in our lives, knowing that we are unworthy to be called sons of God, but that we have been made worthy by Christ’s sacrifice — we do the things we hate, and neglect to do the things we love — we are not always what we claim to be, and must therefore rest upon the Providence of God for strength in our weakness and for the faith and devotion we all too often lack. So of course pretension does not preclude profundity! This very post is pretentious (and probably meaningless to anyone save myself), and yet, to me, it is profound, because it is confessional, because it is deeply personal, and because I hope that in years to come I may look to it for reminders, and for biblical edification and hope.
Now, what does all this have to do with the last two years of my life? Right? I’m getting there. Expectations. That’s where it’ll start to make sense. My friend said something else that I thought was incredibly well-worded, but more than that, it is so very indicative of what it means to be human. Again, we were talking about literature. This is the thought:
People should stop sneaking up on books, pouncing on them and devouring them viciously and then telling people what their insides are made of. It’s gross.
I am still amused and amazed by what a precise and appropriate statement that is. We are gross. And I think we all do this, too, though perhaps not always to books. I know I sometimes sneak up on people (augh, which has zombie-like implications given the quote above, but perhaps that’s still not too far a stretch from what we sometimes do to one another), full of unfounded expectations and judgments and demands. I sneak up on situations, on church, on my workday, on so many things, armed with preconceived notions and intent on getting out of whatever it is, whatever I want. We all do, I think. We take advantage of one another, whether maliciously or innocently, and yet we somehow feel entitled to complain when we are taken advantage of.
I have never been so cynical and bitter as I had become towards the end of these last two years of my life. I entered on an endeavor that I still believe was initiated by God and the Spirit’s work among our members — and I wouldn’t trade these two years for the world. But we made mistakes, and I intend to learn from them, if I can. At some point, or more likely in a slow, creeping malaise that took root over time, I built up so many expectations about what home life, church life, work life, etc. ought to be, that I ceased to appreciate what it was. Christians ought to do this, ought to do that, must be this way or that way. And then it became more specific — that particular person must do this or that.
Perhaps I’m being too vague to make much sense. Let me put it this way — another thing I learned about myself is that I am impatient. I am so, so very impatient. And I cannot stand it when people say they will do something, and then don’t do it. I always try not to take offense at that type of thing, and I know I do it myself — fleeting statements or brief verbal assents are easy to neglect, particularly when you’re busy. But I am easily hurt and disappointed, and try as I might, when someone says “I’ll do that,” or “I’ll be there,” and they don’t do that, or they’re not there … I feel sad … haha. Once or twice, no big deal. But, seriously, over time, that disappointment builds up into resentment, and bitterness takes root, and anger begins to fester. If it weren’t for the expectation, there would be no disappointment, and there would be no bitterness to follow.
Now, not all expectations are unjust. But I do think that it has become normal to expect more than we ought … and then to feel as though we have a right to whatever we expect. Tolkien fans expect The Hobbit to be pretty much the most awesome thing ever, but then are not content to let the film be what it is (which was pretty darn good), but must pick apart all the ways in which it’s not like the book or it’s not this or that. I think we almost long to be malcontent, as if it’s an enviable state. Rather than expect, we ought to learn to hope, and to be satisfied with the will of God, because whatever He has planned for us will be far greater than anything we could expect anyhow.
During the last few years, I lost hope in the people I loved (and I love them still), because I held them to a standard that even I could not live up to. I found myself underwhelmed by their care for me because I wanted more, I thought there would be more, I expected more. I endured my fair share of disappointments, but I ought not to have let this become an excuse for bitterness and hopelessness. I ought to have loved them enough to express my frustrations, whatever that might have meant, even if it was in anger. I think sometimes it’s more loving to have a yelling match and experience genuine forgiveness afterwards than to bottle stuff up inside and smile as though nothing is wrong. I should’ve loved them enough not to expect them never to fail me, and not to expect myself never to fail them. That is what it means for love to cover a multitude of sins … their sins and mine.
What we longed for through those years never came — perhaps it may never come for any of us. And I believe we wanted truly good things. But unless the Lord builds the house … they labor in vain that build it. Another friend of mine said he thought that in desiring some return to a simpler time, we were probably actually desiring something no one had ever really had. Sometimes the trappings of our culture are no worse than those of our predecessors, though we often think they are. No, things aren’t getting better all the time, but there is also nothing new under the sun, and who’s really to say that they’re getting worse? I for one don’t think so. At any rate, God had other plans for us — incredible plans, which I am still in the process of discovering for myself. I am so very blessed.
I am struck at the moment by how very, very much I took for granted. In the moment, it was all tension and pain. I couldn’t see my way to navigate relationships tainted by passive-agressive reservation, by tacit judgments and misunderstandings, by disappointments and regrets. It has taken me awhile to admit to myself that as much as it was a time of joy and growth and fellowship and learning, it was also a very dark and lonely time for me — I suspect that there are never any times in our lives that are ever purely either light or darkness, unmixed. We live in a kind of twilight — Lewis called it the Shadowlands.
Nonetheless, I miss it. I desperately miss Sunday mornings at the White Hart, with cups of Blackwater Coffee, silent communion prayers, heartfelt discussion, cozy, familiar joys. I miss gathering around the dining room table and singing hymns, our untrained acapella vocals straining towards heaven in a humble and discordant yet unbelievably gorgeous symphony. I miss what we thought we wanted, and I miss what we actually had.
I think the thing I hope to learn in life is to take things as they come, to live in the moment and to enjoy what each day brings. I spend far too much time looking behind or looking ahead and ignoring what’s happening right now. I am easily dissatisfied, easily discouraged. Hearkening back to an earlier part of this post, that conversation I had on Facebook also led me to a quote by G.K. Chesterton. It’s relevant, so here it is:
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Chesterton is right, I think. (Though I might be biased, since I lean far more towards a poetic than a logical nature.) However, though his head remains intact, the poet has problems of his own. I think we should neither seek to get our heads into the heavens nor the heavens into our heads — either way, we’re spending all our time floating in some sort of Laputan fog rather than living our lives and loving those around us. Indeed, those like myself who are inclined to think poetically rather than logically can end up entirely in their own heads, regardless of the respective locale of the heavens.
Basically, what is unbalanced should be balanced — God can heal what is out of joint, and I pray that He will do so in my life. I hope I can continue to learn what it means to relish life, and to have genuine hope. I hope I can figure out how to appreciate and understand the past without pining for it, and how to desire things for the future without setting myself up for the disappointment of unjust expectations. I hope I can learn what it means to live Christianly. And I am so thankful for the people in my life who have and who will let me struggle through learning what it means to love others as Christ has loved me.
I’ve said many things, disjointedly, and inefficiently. I have that sick feeling in my gut that I’ve been talking at length about things that are far over my head (because I have). But my brain has been so full of all these things that I simply needed to work through it all. I’m not really capable of thinking discursively to myself — I tend to feel things rather than think through them. But when I write, it helps to squish those feelings into some sort of order, and this helps me understand them more clearly, even when my expression of them is feeble at best. So there are some thoughts, incomplete and halting though they may be.