I Wonder If It Hurts to Live

I wonder if it hurts to live,

And if they have to try,

And whether, could they choose between,

They would not rather die.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

The fall my daughter Laura started college, a sophomore student climbed to the seventh floor of one of the classroom buildings and leapt from a balcony to his death. Laura went to the impromptu student-led candlelight vigil held in the university’s Brickyard that night. Prayers were said, Psalms read. Students, teachers, and staff alike wondered, Why? Nobody saw it coming, not even his suite mates.

~~~

Every time I go to work at the university food court, I walk through the Brickyard where the vigil was held. From the front windows of the dining area, I can look across the yard and see the building from which the young student fell. I didn’t know him but, after three years, I still feel the loss.

The reasons for suicide are many and complicated. Often a suicide is prompted by mental illness or substance abuse, twin demons that first kidnap the mind and then kill the body. Other people are overwhelmed by perceived failures, lost love, financial ruin. Each individual has his own tangled web of motives for choosing death. And yet if you boil the reasons down to their lowest common denominator, you always find despair.

~~~

It hurts to live. We live in a world of hurt, a place where pain often seems to outweigh pleasure and where all the shades of sadness—everything from small disappointments to unthinkable tragedies—paint the backdrop to our existence. I’ve often thought that even the easiest of lives is hard.

~~~

When the students line up at my cash register, we exchange smiles and a few words of greeting. They appear happy, most of them. But sometimes I wonder what’s really going on in their heads, behind those youthful eyes.

Even as they prepare for the future, I have no doubt the usual existential questions tug at their minds: Why am I here? What’s it all about? I shudder to think of the answers offered to them by the world. Do their professors insist that we are all cosmic accidents, free-floating agents of biology and fate with nothing to tether us to a meaningful purpose? Do their parents goad them to succeed at all costs, because short of success, a person is nothing? Do the media tell them they must be famous, beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and—God forbid—a rock star, when they know instinctively—most of them, anyway—they were born to be common, and that what should be celebrated as a grand thing—living a common life—is met instead with derision and contempt? Do they sense somehow that there is a God, but are these nascent longings crushed by those who mock any mention of the Divine, who view religious faith as, at best, a superstition, at worst, the source of all evil? Do all the world’s messages create such turmoil in the human psyche that finally the only seemingly sensible thing to do is to climb seven flights of stairs with no intention of walking back down?

~~~

Even if you don’t jump, you can be dead while you’re still breathing. Because if you don’t know what you’re living for, you aren’t living.

~~~

There’s the story about the man who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. When it hatched, naturally the eagle thought it was a chicken. It didn’t notice that it was different, and no one told him. Once he saw an eagle flying high on a current of wind, and something inside of him identified; he longed to be like that. But one of his chicken-brothers told him to forget it; he was a chicken and that was all he’d ever be. For years he scratched in the dirt for seed and insects like the other chickens. When he flew, he never got more than a few feet off the ground, because that’s how all the other chickens flew. The eagle didn’t know he had wings that were built to take him to great heights. He died without knowing that he could soar.

~~~

I wonder whether it might have made a difference to that young man if he had known he was created in the image of God and born to be in a love relationship with him. That his wings weren’t those of a prairie chicken, so stunted that he couldn’t rise above failures, fears, broken relationships—whatever it was that weighed him down as his feet carried him up the stairwell. I wonder whether it might have changed everything if he had known he was here because God wanted him here, that God loved him desperately and had plans for him far beyond the years that he would wander through this crazy world. That there was a whole eternity of love waiting for him beyond this life, the very love that makes this journey bearable, and at times almost unbearably beautiful.

~~~

Each one of us is here because God wants us here. We sprang from the loving heart of a Father who knew us individually before he laid the foundations of the world. God love us. He wants us to spend our lives loving him.

~~~

And, just to make this perfectly clear, I’m talking to you. The one who is reading this. God loves you. God loves you. He loves you. There are no exceptions. Spread your eagle-wings and live your life as the love story it was created to be. Even in a world of hurt, you were made to soar.

~~~

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   1 John 4:9, NRSV

Dropping out of the Human Race

Where I am now, almost six years after my father’s final words to me. A continuation of the story begun in my first post, “My Father’s Final Words,” (posted Sept. 22), and further thoughts on loving God over loving success…

Sometimes, when I’m sweeping the floor at the university’s food court, I wonder whether any of the students know that, like them, I went to college once upon a time. That I have both a college degree and a master’s degree. That I worked as a journalist and a novelist and taught creative writing on a university level.  They probably think I barely made it through high school, if they think of me at all. Aren’t most cashiers invisible? Secretly, I’m simply amused. I’m content to be there among them, if not as a professor of literature, then as a sweeper of floors.

~~~

I was 20-something and working as an editor for “Decision” magazine when I first met Brother Lawrence. He was a long-dead Carmelite monk who had spent much of his life toiling in the monastery’s kitchen, but whose letters posthumously ended up in a book titled The Practice of the Presence of God. He was an author but didn’t know it, which would have suited him just fine.

What Brother Lawrence really wanted was to live every moment of his life as a love affair with God. When I read his book I was most struck by these words: “I turn over my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have picked up a straw from the ground for the love of God.”*

His seemed to me a noble lifestyle, and I wanted to live like that. But as I looked around I didn’t see many people picking up straw for the love of God. Instead, I saw a massive stampede toward achievement, attainment and success.

~~~

And so one starts running too because everyone else is, and apparently this is what life is all about. Soon, though, one discovers that even doing her best isn’t good enough. A person has to do her best plus be better than everyone else. I may be wrong, but as I looked around, it seemed to me that the human race was indeed in something of a race, with everyone pitted against everyone else, clamoring not toward some finish line but upward to the top of the heap. It was a race to out-smart, out-perform, out-do, and out-wit everyone else to become number one, the winner, the champion of champions.

~~~

I wanted to be a novelist and, after 13 years of effort, I finally did get published. I released 11 novels, got some good reviews, won a few awards. I ran and ran, but I didn’t fully understand why I was running and I always felt a little lost. Somehow I had started out believing that the purpose of literature was to share ideas, to help others make sense of life, to create something beautiful and offer it as a gift. And to a certain extent, it is. But to a greater extent, it’s something else.

~~~

It took me years to understand that the publishing industry is not so much about words as it is about numbers. It has to be. I entered the industry a naïve romanticist (not in the sense of a romance writer, but as one who is a lover of beauty, poetry, art, ideas), and took not a single thought to the fact that the industry has to make money to survive. It is a business for profit before it is a place for the exchange of ideas and the offering of beauty. Because—as much as it hurts my artistic sensibilities—money makes the world go ’round and beauty is a luxury that is secondary to survival.

(And God knows that we all have to be financially successful to a certain extent simply to stay alive. Sadly, though, no matter one’s profession, all human industry bows down to the Almighty Dollar, as opposed to Heaven, where everything bows down to the Almighty Himself.)

So instead of “What words of hope do you have to offer?” and “What ideas do you have to share?” the primary questions in publishing are “How many books have you sold?” and “What’s your ranking on Amazon?”

~~~

Though I was good with words, I was never very good with numbers, and so by industry standards I was not successful. Sales of my books were low, translating into very little money for my publisher, my agent, and myself. After several years of coasting, this lover of words was at length defeated by numbers, and I was at the end of the road.

~~~

But God didn’t leave me there, and maybe it wasn’t so much the end of the road as a shift to a different path. Because right about the time I realized I had fallen hopelessly behind in this human race, God began telling me that the story I’m living is far more important that any story I had written or could ever hope to write because my story was never meant to be a success story in the first place, it was meant to be a love story with him.

That changed everything, and what might have been a soul-crushing encounter with despair became a life-giving encounter with the Lover of my soul.

~~~

In 2016, to help pay our bills, I took the only work I could find at my age which, believe me, is no longer 20-something. Though I tried for professional positions, I was offered only one job: as a cashier. I now work seven hours a day at a university food court—oddly enough, a job not all that different from what Brother Lawrence did in the monastery kitchen—so that even while my mornings are spent freelance editing for a small publishing house, the majority of my day is devoted to ringing up food sales, stocking cups and lids, and sweeping up waffle fries.

And yet, for the first time in my life, I’m at peace about my life. And that’s the amazing thing because joy and peace were largely elusive during those treadmill years of chasing after numbers. But that’s the difference between living for success and living for the love of God.  I finally understand Brother Lawrence and can make his words my own: “I run my little cash register for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough to sweep up waffle fries from the floor for the love of God.”

~~~

I’m dropping out of the human race not because I’m giving up on life, on myself, or my dreams, but because I’m giving in to God’s call to make my life not a success story, but a love story with him.

 

* Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Orleans MA: Paraclete Press, 1985, p. 146.

My Father’s Final Words

My Father’s Final Words to Me…

January 1, 2013. First day of a new year, supposedly a day of new beginnings, but I had no idea something would happen that day to change the way I lived my life.

It had started much like any other day, with me waking up to a sense of futility. Just a regular day of wondering what on earth I was on earth for. By mid-morning, I was so depressed I packed up all the copies I had of the books I’d written and carried them down to the laundry room to store. I didn’t want to look at them anymore. The sight of them only deepened my feelings of failure.

There was a time I believed God called me to be a writer. I was 18 years old in 1978 when writing became my goal, and between that time and January 1, 2013, I devoted all my time and effort to learning the craft and serving God through the written word. Some people thought that because I had published some novels and won some awards I had succeeded, but I knew differently. Because while in my outer life I was writing and editing and teaching, in my inner life I was someone who wasn’t good at all at running this seemingly mandatory race toward success, the race that—let’s face it—we’re all in as we clamber to be a winner, to be the best.

The voices that told me I wasn’t good enough started in childhood. I “heard” them all the time, the taunting loop of accusations that no matter how hard I tried, I would never make anything worthwhile of my life.

By my mid-twenties, as a person whose mind dealt in imagery and symbols, I began to picture all the negative thoughts and feelings as a knife to my head. For the next three decades the knife was always there, right at my temple, reminding me that my own mediocrity held me locked in a place of insignificance.

Still, I ran. I continued in the pursuit of success because, after all, that’s what we’re supposed to do during our one brief foray through the land of the living.

But by January 1, 2013, I was tired. I couldn’t keep running. I decided to admit defeat and be done with it. I sat on the boxes of books in the laundry room and cried.

After a time, Brenda, my father’s part-time caretaker, called to me from upstairs. Dad had lived with us for more than two years, and now he was bedridden and dying. “Ann, your dad wants to see you!”

“All right,” I hollered back. “I’m coming!”

I dried my tears, left my books behind, and climbed the two staircases up to my father’s room. He lay in his hospital bed, his face turned toward the window and the mountains beyond.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, “I’m here.”

He rolled over and started to smile, but then his eyes grew wide with concern. He raised a frail hand and brushed at the air beside my head. And then he whispered the words that would eventually change my life: “Take the knife out of your hair.” I frowned and leaned in closer to make sure I was hearing him right. He said it again, quietly but firmly. “Take the knife out of your hair.”

And with that, he withdrew his hand, rolled toward the window, and went back to sleep.

…And How They are Changing My Life

Some might say that my father’s words were the senseless rambling of a dying brain. And they may be right. But they may be wrong. A friend of mine, a hospice nurse, says that in the last two weeks of life, those who are dying begin to see the spiritual world. In other words, they begin to see the things that are really there. Two weeks after his final words to me, Dad died.

In the weeks and months following my father’s death, as I thought about his words, I came to understand two things. First, that the knife to my head was undoubtedly an accumulation of lies perpetrated by the one who works to destroy our lives, and that I ought to tell those lies to go back to the hell from which they came.

The second revelation rose up as a memory. When I was 20, a friend and I went to Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop. Neither of us being native New Yorkers, we emerged from the subway into the festive crowd and realized we were lost. We were in the right place but we didn’t know which way to turn to see the famous lighted ball. We asked a man beside us for help, and he pointed upward and said, “Keep your eye on that building.” And so we did, and at 12:00 everyone cheered and hugged and kissed and by 12:05 the crowd was already breaking up, and my friend and I looked at each other with the realization that the ball had dropped somewhere and we hadn’t seen it. Either our erstwhile tour guide had himself been misled or perhaps he had thrown back one too many drinks and was a little lost himself, but in the end he had us looking in the wrong direction. True, we’d been in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and had enjoyed the celebration, but even so we had missed the main event.

And that, God told me, was how I had been living my life. If there is something called a great salvation party, a celebration of eternal grace among believers, I have been right there in the midst of it all my life, having joined the festivities as a child. But at the same time, some worldly hand—our entire culture, I suppose, spearheaded by a powerful and powerfully misguided media—had me looking in the wrong direction and away from the main event, because the finger was pointing toward some glittering but ultimately inconsequential place called Success.

It took me a good long while to change the way I think, and in fact almost six years later I’m still working on it. It’s hard to think one way when every day you’re inundated by messages from the world around you that you should be thinking another way. Because the world says, “Live your life as a success story!” But that’s not what God says.

Through my father’s final words, God told me, “Forget success. That’s not why I created you. I want you to live your life as a love story with me.”

And that’s it. Loving God is the main event. Loving him is the whole point of our existence. And so I’m changing out the success-story fable for a true love story. As lies fall away, love flows in. I’m spending my time loving the One who created me to love him because, wonder of wonders, he first loved me.