N. D. Wilson on the Difficulty of Life

I’m reading through Death by Living by N. D. Wilson for the second time. It’s a powerful book that everyone should read. While it’s difficult to share any passage as my favorite since Wilson weaves the parts together into a greater whole, the section below never fails to bring a tear to my eyes.

May we embrace the beautiful and messy uphill-inclined difficulties of life.

There is a school of American thought that suggests we are supposed to live furiously and foolishly when young, slave away pointlessly when adults, and then coast into low-impact activity as soon as financially possible.

Isn’t that just a kiss on the lips (from a dog).

The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty.

As a little kid, I had a job: Obey my mother. Don’t lie. Play hard. Be kind to my sisters.

At the time, that job was actually difficult. My mom kept saying things like, “Come here.” And, “No jumping on the couch.” Or, “Don’t stand on the doorknob and swing on the door.” And, “No hitting.”

But my sisters were there, and so were my fists. The couch was bouncy. Doors are cool to swing on.

Man, I was bad at my job.

I remember the existential despair as I stood in the front yard of our duplex with my real yellow fiberglass bow with a real arrow on the string, but on that arrow’s tip . . . a tube sock with red stripes duct-taped on tight.

I still managed to shoot it over the fence.

I remember kneeling on my top bunk and pounding nails into my wall in a long, winding row that even crossed my Seattle Seahawks poster.

Throughout my childhood, the second most common (bad) sound effect was most likely glass shattering, only occurring slightly less frequently than the yelping of a sister.

But I was supposed to push the limits. That was my job at the time. I was supposed to live as fully as I could within the boundaries of the law. I transgressed often, but a balance between full-throttle living and obedience was found with much help from wooden kitchen spoons.

I learned how a raw egg reacts beneath a hammer and how far I could throw a hatchet. Sure, I mounded toilet paper up in the toilet bowl and then lit it on fire, but at least I flushed.

And just as I began to get good at my job, I got promoted. The law remained the same, but the number of ways in which it was possible to transgress radically increased. I was bigger. I was faster. I was at school.

It’s that way for all of us. But the promotions come regardless of whether or not we’ve actually improved. If you are bad at being two, you will be bad at being four. If you’re bad at being four, you will be bad at being six.

Temptations increase. Potential falls multiply. We look at a two-year-old attempting to overthrow righteousness and establish evil in all the land, and we snicker. Lazy parents tell themselves that the wee little he (or she) will outgrow this little tendency of theirs.

Yipes. Wong. Buzzer. Gong.

What they mean is that the child will grow into someone else’s problem. Once they are at day care, the struggle will be out of sight and will be dealt with by other struggling peers and/or unrelated adults. Or not.

The school years escalate in difficulty and multiply in temptation. Add sports and friends and hormones and petty power structures. You can now sit in huge chunks of hurtling metal, taking the lives of every one of your passengers and every passenger in every other passing chunk of metal and every passing pedestrian and every passing bicyclist into your irresponsible hands. You can now make mistakes that kill people (and you). Off to college and mustachioed professors will pour nonsense all over you. You are ready or you aren’t. Peers wallow in every kind of debauch. You are ready or you aren’t. And you can now (far more easily than in high school) ruin your life forever.

You are now on your own.

And then you aren’t. Other real live souls are now depending on you. You are the creator of their childhoods. You are the influencer of their dreams and tastes and fears. You are the emcee of all reality, the one to introduce those small people to the true personality of their Maker (as imaged by your life more than your words). The choices you now make have lives riding on them. Always. Their problems and struggles are yours to help them resolve. Their weaknesses yours to strengthen. Or not. (Maybe they’ll outgrow them.)

This X marks my spot. I am here. For good and ill, I am a molder of childhoods, an instiller of instincts, a feeder (or famisher) of souls, a sensei of humor. I am an image of God (stunted and vandalized but all the earthly father my kids can have). Thank God for faith and bulk-ordered grace.

As the next decades flicker past, my burden will change. I will begin to ride my bike with no hands, watching my children be what they will be. I will reap what has been sown. I will see the fruit of faith (and the fruit of failures). And I will see my children sow again, but on their own.

I will labor to live with the joyful fury of a child, but I will be exhausted. My body will decay and break. That part has already begun. I will grow weak, but with the memory of strength, reaching for strength that should be there and is now gone.

In the end, I will face the greatest enemy that any man has ever faced. And I will lose.

Our challenges always build. A ninety-five-year-old man sits in his chair with a wandering mind because a century cannot pass without many blows. That much life is heavy for the strongest shoulders. A young man might feel bold; he might feel courageous, gambling with life and death. And he might be courageous. But he trusts his strength; he feels as if he could fight, as if he could run, as if he has a chance. He may even choose his danger.

It takes a different kind of courage to face death when you cannot run, when you cannot fight, when you are pinned beneath heavy decades, beneath the weight of life—when your faith really must be in another.

I spoke with Lawrence Greensides—Granddad—often. But not often enough. He was a man with big shoulders and a strong back, carrying nearly a century before the weight finally dropped him to his knees.

He was my expert whenever some adventure story required knowledge of planes. He was a man who faced bullets and bombs and storms, who was willing to end his life story in the service of his country, his family, his men. And he came close. But even after two wars, the heaviest burden he ever carried was still at the end in a quiet house where his wife sat in a swing that he had hung for her, watching the birds. Because at the end, he carried all of it. Ninety-five years of fallen choices. Of mistakes. Of darkness. Of frustrations. Of regrets. Ninety-five years of life means ninety-five years of loss.

He felt that weight as he cared for his sweet and forgetful wife. He would try to pick up his faults, his memory wandering over old scars. It was crushing. And then relief would come and he would laugh as happily as the day I saw him baptized. He didn’t have to carry the weight. It wasn’t his anymore. It had all been taken and hung on a tree. It had been bound to a broken body with strips of cloth and buried, and it was still in that grave, left there on one bright Sunday morning long ago when Life, this story, turned.

I had called him not long before when my mother warned me that something was changing. He was having dizzy spells. Abdominal pain.

I made a mental note to call him again. But I didn’t. If I am blessed to live to his length, a day will come in 2073 when I am sitting beneath the burden of a century, and my mind’s finger will trace the scar of this regret. By then, it will be soon healed.

My grandmother was on her swing when my uncle found his father on his knees. He tried to help him up, but my grandfather was focused on his last fight.

“No,” he said. “I’m dying.”

And he did.

Someday I will face death. I’m building up to it. For now, I face carpool. And deadlines. And book tours. And some back pain. And the task of molding childhoods. And occasional vomit.



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