In a recent post about my plans to leave my current life and help my parents, I quoted Simone Weil as follows: “We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do.”  On first impression, Weil seems to be justifying avoidance of desirable activities we find distasteful.  (The term ‘righteous’ in the quote I take to mean not so much abiding by some absolute standard of morality but fostering right relationships—with others, oneself, or God.)  I manage to avoid many such activities without qualms.  At my church recently, someone was signing up participants for a walk to reduce hunger, with each walker pledging first to solicit sponsors.  It is a tragedy that so many in America and worldwide are hungry, and it would be good to raise money for the cause.  What I thought of when asked to participate, though, were other commitments I have and the hassle of trying to get sponsors.  I walked away from the table.  This was a commendable action that was easy to stop myself from doing.

Weil herself didn’t shirk from acting righteously, though (see her life story here), so it’s doubtful she was looking for excuses.  The sentence quoted above concludes as follows:  “but, through well directed attention, we should always keep on increasing the number of those which we are unable not to do.”  The idea, then, isn’t to passively wait for irresistible impulses to perform good deeds, but to direct one’s attention in such a way that such impulses come more and more often.

Most of the things I’ve done that might  be thought to have some element of righteousness in the above sense came about initially because my attention was captured by a need, and I then reflected on it until I felt I had to respond.  Thus, I’ve supported and helped some students not because I sought them out but because they walked in my office despondent or anxious or confused.  I participate in Kairos prison ministry because I was asked to do so and, after first trying to get out of it, had an inner sense that I had to say yes.  I’m informally co-teaching a Sunday School class because I attended a few times, saw they were floundering, and I couldn’t stand to let that happen.   Not every problem or need I attend to results in an impulse to respond with some form of help, but enough do that it’s become clear that paying attention to human need is dangerous to my complacency.  The events described above that prompted a sense of necessity weren’t needs I sought out but ones I thought about after they were brought to my awareness, seemingly by chance.  How many more events would prompt action if I were to be more intentional about attending to people and places lacking in shalom?

Besides people and places, there are other things we can attend to that might prompt action.  Many faith practices direct attention in some way: prayer, worship, and meditation all refocus attention from the mundane to the sacred.  I write this after returning from a Good Friday service, the culmination of Lent, that season of the year when attention is given to Christ’s passion.  Constantly attending to Christ’s suffering and death is like camping in a firing range: round after round may explode with no apparent effect, but finally a round lands near at hand, surrounding the person with fire and thunder.  The worshiper enveloped by the blast of Christ’s passion goes from that place changed. As often as not, something has become necessity that wasn’t necessity before.

I recently wrote about The Descendants, a movie that portrays a family responding to multiple crises after the wife and mother sustains a serious injury that leaves her brain-dead.  I was particularly struck by a brief interaction between two characters.  Matt, husband of the dying woman, confronts Brian, with whom she was having an affair.   Matt wants answers.  Why was Brian sleeping with his wife?

“It just happened,” sputters Brian.

“Nothing just happens,” retorts Matt.

“Everything just happens,” Brian replies, exasperated.

The last two lines seem to me to be a dialectic that encompasses much of what happens to us.  On the one hand, none of the events of our lives are truly orphans; they are all connected in some sort of causal chain that we can trace backwards in time.  On the other hand, so many things that have an impact on us are unplanned and unforeseen; they just happen, or happen as a result of forces beyond our control and comprehension.

Thus, it didn’t just happen that I found myself in a marriage that was difficult and draining, or that we ended up divorced.  I knew going in that there might be struggles, and both of us contributed significantly to the problems we had.  Yet it did just happen; both of us worked hard on the relationship, and truly believed for years that we would be able to make things work.

It didn’t just happen that I’ve lived in southeastern North Carolina for 30 years, far from my native Michigan; I intentionally took a job in this area, then another, then another.  Yet it did just happen.  My children knew this place as home and were happy here, I formed many connections to the community, and developed a professional reputation that would be hard to duplicate elsewhere.  I should have anticipated all these things occurring, but didn’t give thought to how powerfully they would bind me to this place.

It also didn’t just happen that I moved from clinical practice to teaching about 10 years ago; I had wanted to make the change for about two years.  Yet it did just happen: having had no success in looking for teaching positions, I gave up, but there was an unexpected opening shortly before the school year started and the opportunity was suddenly available.

And now, it’s not just happening that I’m resigning my position and moving to Michigan.  Yet it is just happening; as I wrote earlier, I’m compelled to make the move because of my parents’ needs.

John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  Those plans usually accomplish something: Nothing just happens.  Yet life (or fate, or destiny, or providence, or God) has a way of remaking our plans into something not intended: Everything just happens.

On January 17 of this year, I notified Methodist University, where I teach, that I won’t return for the fall semester.  I suppose this means I’m retiring, though I still do plan to work (details of that to be worked out later).  I planned to stay in my present position longer than this; I am sad that I’m in my last few months as a full-time professor.  My elderly parents really do need some assistance, though, and I can’t help them much living in North Carolina while they are in Michigan.

Several people have asked, “Why don’t you move them in with you?”  I answer that they don’t want to move from their home.  I could also say that to remove two elderly adults from the only town they’ve ever known and from the house they have lived in for fifty years would be a form of violence, an uprooting and transplanting that could destroy them.  That is not an option.

In November of last year, I wrote about “epiphanies of recruitment,” a term coined by Brian Mahan.  I explained the concept as follows: “An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity or of some deeper truth, so an epiphany of recruitment is such a manifestation that includes an invitation to do something in response to what has been revealed. “  In other words, a person has an experience in which some truth is manifest, and within it is a call to do something.  My call came last August.  It was near the end of a visit with my parents, and I was feeling good that I had helped them by getting some things done around their house.  My dad is suffering from dementia, and says relatively little.  Nonetheless, he took me aside and talked with a passion I hadn’t seen for some time.  He told of an elderly friend of theirs who is blind but has a daughter living with him, helping him.  He asked me to come and help him and my mom.  I stammered something—some excuse why I couldn’t come—but his words were like an arrow piercing my heart.  I knew that what I was doing for them fell far short of what they needed.

Friends tell me I’m a good son and am making a big sacrifice.  I’m really not so noble, though.  French philosopher Simone Weil wrote the following:  “We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do.”  I probably would not be going if I could find a way to talk myself out of it, but I can’t.  This is one of those things I’m unable not to do.

I’m still thinking quite a bit about what will change for me.  I’ve liked the life I’ve had; I’m not so sure I’ll like the one I’m headed for.  What though, am I giving up?  It mainly comes down to comfort, enjoyable work, and a sense of security.   Maybe I cling too tightly to those.  Weil also wrote, “We only possess what we renounce; what we do not renounce escapes from us.”  I think it’s time to see whether that’s true.

I have been thinking about humility after reading a brief article on the subject by Tim Keller (“The Advent of Humility,” in Christianity Today, December 2008).  Keller said the following:

“Humility is so shy.  If you begin talking about it, it leaves.  To even ask the question, ‘Am I humble?’ is to not be so.  Examining your own heart, even for pride, often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.”

Keller’s comment reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s attempt to cultivate virtues.  He had success with some of those on his list but found it particularly hard to acquire humility.  As he ruefully remarked in his Autobiography:

“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Keller and Franklin both imply that it’s virtually impossible to deliberately acquire humility.  Perhaps that’s true; I do know that I haven’t acquired it.  Francis of Assisi was by all accounts a humble man, so it is interesting to look at how he avoided pride.  Here’s how St. Bonaventure described his approach (in The Life of St. Francis, tr. Ewert Cousins):

St. Francis of Assisi in his Tomb, by Francisco de Zurbaran

“He preferred to hear himself blamed rather than praised, knowing that blame would lead him to amend his life, while praise would drive him to a fall.  And so when people extolled the merits of his holiness, he commanded one of the friars to the opposite and to impress upon his ears insulting words.”

I suspect that I would need to have been humble to begin with for this strategy to work, since, were I to arrange to receive such insults, I would probably be pleased with myself over having gone to such lengths to defeat pride.

Keller may have it right: as soon as we think about whether we are humble or not, we’ve already succumbed to pride.   C.S. Lewis said that, if we were to meet a humble man, “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”  That may be true, but it brings us no closer to humility, because we can’t stop thinking about ourselves.  At least I can’t.  I’m always thinking about what I’ve done or said, evaluating whether I handled a situation effectively.   Such self-evaluation seems to me a good thing:  it helps me not be rude, insensitive, or offensive.  Whenever I decide I’ve been effectual, though, I’m inclined to feel proud.  I’m not content with simply recognizing that I succeeded at something; I also decide that I’m a pretty great person for having done so well.

So I’m proud, but I’m probably not as proud as I once was.  Though I still think a lot about myself, at least some of the time I’m remembering that ultimately I’m not responsible for my successes.  If I’m capable in some area, there are so many factors outside myself—genes, parenting, the influences of others, God’s grace—that fostered the qualities I possess.  It has gradually dawned on me that I don’t really deserve the credit for anything I accomplish.  I sometimes still take the credit anyway, but not nearly as much as I used to.

I’ve also noticed that the thought of my eventual death tends to puncture my pride.  The Rule of St. Benedict (4:47) counsels each of us to “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.”  We are indeed dust, and to dust we’ll return.  The words “humility” and “humus” come from the same root; literally, when our bodies decompose, we’ll have reached a humble state.  In thinking about my future, it is obvious that my abilities will diminish, perhaps to the point that I can’t even care for myself any longer.  Then I’ll be gone and someone else will take my place.  Eventually, I’ll be forgotten.  So what reason is there for pride?  My ego halfheartedly tries to commend me for honestly facing my body’s eventual decay, but even it doesn’t puff up very much when standing in the shadow of death.  If I follow St. Benedict’s practice, there is some possibility that my soul will become humble before my body does.  Per Keller, Franklin, and Lewis, though, humility is such a delicate flower that grasping it will always crush it.

Many colleges and universities, including Methodist University, where I work, offer a class for first time college students to  aid their adjustment to the college environment and equip them with academically relevant skills.  I teach a section of that class to 17 freshmen.  One of the topics covered during our time together is career planning.  The advice given by the course textbook is fairly conventional—get to know your interests and abilities, then learn about careers that might be a good fit for you.  The text uses the term ‘vocation’ in a secular sense, neglecting its original meaning as a call or summons from God.  I made sure that my students knew the origin of the term and had the opportunity to consider whether they have received such a call.

Much of what I said about the subject came from Brian Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition; I wrote about that book  previouslyMahan notes that in our culture we are encouraged to be ambitious—to strive for well-paying careers, positions of power, and public renown.  Ambition makes the self into a commodity; the young are encouraged to sell themselves to prospective employers.  Doing so, though, reduces one’s worth to no more than what the marketplace is willing to pay.  Mahan encourages youthful seekers to take another route–to consider lives not of ambition but of vocation.

The life of vocation involves a call to something larger than oneself; Mahan calls it a “life increasingly given over to compassion for self, others, and world.” He suggests that many people experience the call to such a life in the form of “epiphanies of recruitment.”   These are encounters that beckon the person to a life in touch with human need.  An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity or of some deeper truth, so an epiphany of recruitment is such a manifestation that includes an invitation to do something in response to what has been revealed. One of Mahan’s examples is of a young lady named Martha, who went to visit an orphanage with some friends.  She was introduced to a young boy and spent several hours interacting with him.  The crucial moment for Martha came when the boy turned to her and asked, “Martha, do you have a daddy?”  Now Martha cries whenever she thinks about the boy and the orphanage.  She feels a need to respond in some way, though she doesn’t yet know how. 

 I told my class of the epiphanies of recruitment that called me to volunteer for prison ministry, and also of the epiphany that occurred while I served.  I worked in prisons from 1979 until 1984, but eventually left prison work to gain broader experience in the mental health field.  That may have been the result of ambition rather than vocation, though I don’t regret the direction my life has taken as a result of that choice.  In any event, while was driving from North Carolina to New Jersey in 1995, I had a strong sense that God was going to again use me to work with prisoners.  I didn’t know what to do with that feeling, but, in 2000, I heard about Kairos, a prison ministry based on the cursillo movement that builds Christian community among inmates.  I learned that a team of men just happened to be finishing preparations to serve on a Kairos weekend at Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, South Carolina.  I contacted the team leader, asked whether they could use another volunteer, and soon found myself at Evans welcoming guests (i.e. prisoners) to the weekend.

I experienced many epiphanies in the year I was involved at Evans, but when I took my job at Methodist, it no longer was feasible to continue volunteering there.  I thought occasionally about Kairos, but I never thought I had enough time to participate.  Last year, a group of volunteers was planning to introduce Kairos at Scotland Correctional Institute, quite a bit closer to my house than Evans.  Gus Brown, one of those volunteers, contacted me in mid-2010, asking if I was interested in serving.  “I’m too busy,” I replied.  This March, Gus contacted me again.  I still was awfully busy, and planned to say no, but decided that maybe I should pray about it first.  The next morning, I opened the devotional guide I was using and turned to the scripture for the day.  It was from Matthew 25 and described the last judgment.  In it, Christ turns to those on his right and says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Epiphany.   I was immediately certain that I was being called to volunteer in prisons, and called Gus to join the team that was being formed.

I described to my class one of the many marvelous experiences that occurred when I was on the Kairos weekend at Scotland CI.  I was sitting in the chapel area with the other team members.  The guests were on the other side of a partition; we were giving them privacy while they opened letters from members on the team.  Each team member had written to each guest.  We could hear the occasional ripping of an envelope, but mostly there was silence.  A deep sense came over me that what was being ripped was much more than envelopes.   Defenses and barriers that had been built over a lifetime, resentments and bitter feelings that had kept others out, were being shredded by the words of care that we volunteers had penned.  I felt a sense of God’s presence, and felt small, as if all that I could do or say was being dwarfed by what was taking place in the next room.  I started to cry.  As I told my class, “Either I was just a sentimental old guy tearing up over nothing, or what Jesus said is true and the kingdom of God was near.”  When we rejoined the guests a little later, it was evident that many of them had been deeply moved.  One of them commented, “If being a man means not crying, none of you are men, because I looked around and there wasn’t a dry eye.”  Some epiphanies have a way of spreading.  I hope my students will be prepared when the tide of divinity splashes into their lives as well.

I’ve always been fascinated by the tremendous effort that we put into constructing and defending what we take to be a flattering (or at least passable) image of ourselves. Previous posts (such as here and here) have alluded to this process. The process of self-construction begins when we are quite young, and it is interesting to observe children’s awkward and often amusing efforts to present themselves favorably.

A serviceable self requires the ability to give plausible accounts of one’s questionable actions. Here’s my 8-year-old grandson Calvin’s valiant effort to excuse his behavior, as reported a few months ago by his mother Jennifer:

Jennifer: “Calvin! Don’t punch Theo [his 4-year-old brother] in the stomach!”

Calvin: “Sorry, Theo, I was trying to hit you in the groin.”

Theo: “That’s OK, Calvin.”

A useful self should also be one that you can present as doing good and noble things. Here’s an attempt by Theo that occurred when I was visiting in July with my dog Zoe:

Theo: “I’m protecting Zoe.”

Me: “What are you protecting Zoe from?”

Theo: “The light saber.”

Me: “Who has the light saber?”

Theo: “Me.”

This exchange reminds me of a story told by philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. A man came to see the parish priest, obviously distraught. “Father, you’ve got to help,” the man blurted out. “There’s a family down the street that’s about to be evicted. It’s the dead of winter, and they’re only a few days late with the rent, but the landlord is about to take out eviction papers.”

“All right,” replied the priest, “I’ll make some phone calls and see what I can do to help. How did you find out about the situation, by the way?”

“Oh,” the man said, “I’m the landlord.”

With Calvin and Theo this summer.

I have traveled to see family this summer, and when home have been fairly busy with the course I am teaching as well as doing therapy.  My longest trip was to Michigan to see family; I got back two weeks ago.  One of the first things I did the morning after I returned was look at the fig tree in my back yard.  There have been tiny unripe figs studding the branch tips for a couple months; I got back just after the first few dozen of these swelled and darkened to ripeness.  Since then, I’ve been picking figs every day or two.  They are a delicious treat.  I’ve made several batches of fig jam, enough to last until next summer.

I am very much a creature of the modern world, and, as such, live in an artificial environment.  I’m writing this at night, under artificial lights; my house maintains an artificial climate; at least some of the food I ate today had been embalmed in artificial preservatives.  As I’ve discussed earlier, such isolation from the natural world leads to fragmentation and lack of wholeness.  In a very small way, my fig tree connects me to the world of nature once again.  I wait for the figs to ripen; their season can’t be hurried.  I scrutinize them carefully, examining each fig so I can pick it when it is ripe.  I wrestle the branches to bring ripe figs within reach, aware that some are beyond my grasp and will feed the birds rather than me.  My fingers handle each fig as I either eat it or cut it up for jam, feeling its distinct contours, for, like snowflakes, figs are alike but at the same time unique.  My interactions with figs make me more attentive and sensitive to natural rhythms.  I am content to wait for each day’s bounty of ripened figs; most have matured by now, but the harvest still has another four or five days to go.  In his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, Eugene Peterson says “Hurry is a form of violence practiced on time.”  The figs are free from such violence, and, when I am waiting on them, so am I.

During my recent trip to Wisconsin to visit my son and his family, we celebrated my grandson Calvin’s seventh birthday.  One of the things we did for his birthday was take him and his little brother Theo to Little Amerrika, a small amusement park near Madison.  James read the list of attractions to Calvin before we went, and Calvin compiled a list of things he wanted to do.  First on his list was to go to the haunted house.  He knew that haunted houses were scary, but was sure he could handle it.

Right after arriving, he and I found the haunted house and went inside.  It was a fairly conventional haunted house: we walked through a labyrinth of passageways, mostly in the dark, and every so often a skeleton or ghost would pop up or otherwise manifest itself, usually accompanied by a buzzer, bell, or some other loud noise.  Holding my hand, Calvin entered confidently, faltered at the first buzzer, and was very frightened by the time we got midway.  His grip on my hand tightened and he was desperate to get out, but, at that point, there was nothing we could do except hurry through the house until we finally exited. 

Why is it that we humans deliberately seek to be frightened?  Amusement parks cater to our fascination with fear not only via haunted houses but also with scary rides.  Horror movies remain popular.  Activities like skydiving and extreme sports have the potential for fear as part of their appeal.  I don’t think there is any other species that seeks fear-producing experiences so often and in so many ways. 

Perhaps we are preparing ourselves to deal with future dangers, but, in that case, why wouldn’t other species seek frightening experiences as much as we do?  It seemed that Calvin was interested in showing he could handle the haunted house without being afraid, and that sort of thinking may characterize many of us—we may seek frightening experiences not to become afraid but to demonstrate that we aren’t afraid.  A related possibility is that seeking scary experiences is a way of denying our mortality.  Ernst Becker, in Denial of Death, asserted that the discomfort we humans experience from knowing we will eventually die produces a variety of defenses against that prospect; one such defense certainly could be seeking frightening experiences, and, by surviving those experiences, symbolically defeating death.

Of course, we aren’t all equally likely to seek out scary things.  The audience for horror films is predominantly young and male, and that’s also the demographic that does the most risk-taking.  Personality also has something to do with one’s appetite for being scared.   Psychologist Frank Farley has proposed that there is a Type-T personality, where the “T” stands for thrill-seeking.  Type-Ts are supposedly adventuresome, risk-taking, and creative.  USA Today has published a test of Type-T, albeit one that is apparently not validated or normed; it can be taken  here.  

Calvin was crying by the time we got out of the haunted house.  Once he regained his composure, he started talking about it, and did so for the rest of the day.  After a few minutes, he denied he was afraid, then decided he was afraid, but not very much.  He asked whether I was afraid, and what scared me the most (I was only afraid that my grandson was being traumatized, but I didn’t tell him that).  He wanted to know how the mechanical elements of the house worked, why the various elements were included, how this house compared to other haunted houses, when had I first gone to a haunted house, and how had I reacted then.  He said he wanted to build a haunted house in his basement.  Back home that evening, while I was playing with Theo, Calvin came in Theo’s room and said he wanted to make a haunted house with Theo’s Duplo blocks.  He worked on the house for at least half an hour, making it open on the top so he could see the maze within.  Satisfied with his efforts, he explained to me and his mom what someone would encounter going through the house, using the phrase “freaked out” quite liberally in his description.  Then he was done.  He only mentioned haunted houses one more time, in passing, the next day.  He had done a beautiful job of working through his fear.  I hope I do as well the next time I’m afraid.     

Calvin and his haunted house.

We are a month into the season of Lent.  In much of the Christian tradition, Lent is the time in the church year when the believer prepares for the commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death.  It is a period of self-examination, repentance, and self-denial.  The site describes Lent as “a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him.”  Until I joined a Lutheran church a decade ago, I had never engaged in the practice of giving something up for Lent, but now I do so regularly.  This year what I’ve given up is speeding.

I am in the habit of driving five miles per hour above the speed limit; the 5 mph may become 10 when I’m in a hurry (and I’m often in a hurry).  I usually have more to do than time to get it done, so I cut things close, not leaving for my next destination until the last minute.  Not only do I drive above the speed limit, but I also have a sense of urgency behind the wheel, which translates easily into frustration with those whose pace is more leisurely.  It’s been said (the quote is attributed to Bill McGlashen) that “Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you, but not in one ahead.”   I seldom am appreciative of the patience manifest ahead of me in the left lane of Ramsey Street when I’m trying to rush to an afternoon counseling appointment.  I don’t like the annoyance that I experience in such situations; there’s too much self-importance to thinking that others should keep to a certain velocity just so that I can quickly get where I’m going.

Giving up speeding as I drive represents what I hope will be a broader surrender: a surrender of my habit of living life in a rush, always trying to cram more things in.  Whatever sense of accomplishment I get from living that way is outweighed by the tendency for such a life to sap me of contentment.  Living this way is also contrary to living reflectively and deliberately.  Always hurrying means living life on the surface, never confronting deeper meanings. The longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer analyzed the disadvantages of our American tendency to live life on the run as follows: “The superficiality of the American is the result of his hustling. . . .  People in a hurry cannot think, cannot grow, nor can they decay.  They are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.”

So, how have I been doing at driving within the limits?  The speed limit on Rosehill Road and Stacy Weaver Drive, both of which I traverse on my way to work, is 35 mph.   When the road ahead of me is empty and my mind is focused on the work that awaits me, driving 35 seems agonizingly slow.  For the first several days of Lent, I was tense as I drove this route; some days I still am.  I’ve gotten somewhat better at relaxing, though.  My speed easily creeps above the speed limit; in response, I’ve monitored how fast I’m driving much more closely.  Such attention reminds me constantly of the reason why I’m driving slowly, which in turn reminds me both of my Lenten commitment and of the disadvantages of always rushing.

Driving 35

For these few weeks, I have seldom found myself behind a vehicle that I think is going too slowly (I still am displeased by lengthy waits for school busses and garbage trucks).  My attention has largely shifted from those ahead of me on the road to those behind me.  I’ve been tailgated more in the last month than I can ever remember.  This hasn’t bothered me; I understand the frustration that other drivers must feel.  I don’t regret not speeding, but I try to be courteous by trying to keep my pace right at the speed limit, not dropping below it.  That’s much harder to do than I realized!

So, will my Lenten discipline result in a permanent change in my driving habits?  Time will tell.  Regardless of how fast I’ll be driving a month from now, I think I will be more aware when I ignore the speed limit—indeed, I’ll be more aware when I ignore any sort of limit.  I hope I’ll also be more cognizant of when I hurry.  Perhaps I’ll even remind myself of the benefits of going slow, and slacken my pace at least occasionally.

Ash Wednesday (image from

The season of Lent began this past week, and I attended an Ash Wednesday service. As is traditional, when the presiding minister made a cross of ashes on each congregant’s forehead, she told the person to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  That injunction is of course a reminder of our mortality, a reminder that I see as a corrective to the “despair of possibility” described by Kierkegaard that presents such a temptation for us Americans.  John Calvin thought we should meditate on our life after the resurrection (Institutes III.ix); doing so would seem to imply also thinking often of our mortality, something we’re not inclined to do.

A few years ago, a student of mine had to interview an older adult for a class project.  I suggested she interview Dr. John Mackey, the retired Director of Fayetteville Family Life Center, who was then in his early 70s.  When my student asked brightly, “And what do you see the future being like for you,” John replied matter-of-factly, “Well, I’m going to die.”  My student was speechless, but John wasn’t being either morbid or pessimistic.  He was just stating a reality that we usually scrub from our conversations.

In an earlier post, I indicated that I recently had read some of Wendell Berry’s essays.  Berry seems much more aware than I typically am of the enormity of time and the briefness of our appearance on the stage of life, which is to say that he is more aware than I am of death.  Here’s what he has to say about the topic in his essay “A Native Hill”:

“Every man is followed by a shadow which is his death—dark, featureless, and mute.  And for every man there is a place where his shadow is clarified and is made for his reflection, where his face is mirrored in the ground.  He sees his source and his destiny, and they are acceptable to him.  He becomes the follower of what pursued him.  What hounded his track becomes his companion.”

« Previous PageNext Page »