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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The Wonder of Reading

While reading through Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death again as I teach on media literacy, I was struck by his description of what is required of an individual in order to read a book. The entire book is worth reading, as it compares a print-based culture to a television-centered one, but the following selection, at least, should awaken within us a thanksgiving to God for the gift of simply being literate.

Although the general character of print-intelligence would be known to anyone who would be reading this book, you may arrive at a reasonably detailed definition of it by simply considering what is demanded of you as you read this book. You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. This includes your bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence,” meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, or charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images. (pages 25-26)

Given all that is required to read such forms of literature, it should come as no surprise that Postman goes on to say: “I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist” (27).

Unrestrained Moderation

In Book Four section 26 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he states:

You’ve seen that. Now look at this.

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.

Someone has done wrong… to himself.

Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.

Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present–thoughtfully, justly.

Unrestrained moderation.

Aurelius was, of course, the famous philosopher-emperor of the Roman Empire. He adhered to the philosophy of Stoicism, meaning (to butcher with over-simplification) that he held to a deterministic view of the world being governed by nature or by the logos.

As such, he repeatedly emphasized that we cannot change the people or circumstances around us, so why waste time worrying and trying to do so. Instead, we can only control ourselves; let us, therefore, do just that. From this reasoning, Stoics placed a tremendous weight upon the need for self-control and discipline.

As Christians, we can applaud (and even learn from) Stoicism’s thoughts on discipline and self-control, while Aurelius’ certainty that life will unfold as nature intended causes me to consider how much more I ought to trust the One who authored the laws of nature.

Christians will find many of Aurelius’ insights to be in line with wisdom, while disagreeing adamantly about others. He was, after all, not a Christian by any means.

Yet I could not help pausing at the phrasing of Aurelius’ thought above, “unrestrained moderation.” These seems to perfectly capture the aim of Stoic philosophy, and (because nearly everything believed has, at least, an element of truth to it), I think this also reflects well the Christian’s view of worldly, yet God-given, pleasures.

For us, the problem with pleasures is not about the pleasures themselves. Food and sex, for example, are natural gifts, designed by the Creator for our enjoyment. Food and sex only become sinful whenever we treat them as ultimate, whenever we abuse them. The reactionary tendency then becomes two extremes, either to forbid abused pleasures entirely (i.e. religious dietary restrictions or clerical celibacy) or to indulge ever more (trusting the grace of God to cover a multitude of our continuous sins or a simple denial that the body is of any importance whatsoever). Both of these responses are wicked, legalism and antinomianism alike.

The proper response for the Christian, who is no longer under the burden of the law in Christ, is certainly one of unrestrained moderation. We freely and gladly delight in the full array of flavors that God brought into existence for the benefit of our taste buds, but we will not be mastered by those delights. We rejoice in the marital bliss of intimacy between husband and wife, yet we guard and honor the marriage bed, refusing to let such a gift exceed its proper boundaries.

Or as Paul said to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 6:12 | “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

In Christ, we are unrestrained to enjoy the gifts of God, but we do so in moderation, knowing how easily they might become gods instead.