Mortality

I turned 60 last March, and since then something important has changed in my thinking. Until then I spent much of my seeking out for new information, new knowledge, new explanations of how things are, and why. But suddenly all that stopped. Not that I had finally found The Answer—quite the opposite. But at 60 it occurred to me that there aren’t all that many years left to me, and all the work I’ve done won’t be worth much if I don’t manage to piece it all together into something coherent. So lately I’ve restricted myself to pondering what I’ve learned, the ideas that I’ve rejected and the ones that resonate, looking for threads, hoping for structure.

For a long time I’ve strived to develop a sense of my own mortality. Jesus tells us not to fear death, and though I take Him at His word I’m quite aware that my affection for this earthly life can easily overpower a truth that I know but haven’t yet fully experienced—or, maybe better, don’t understand that I’ve experienced. So I’ve worked hard to put my life and its duration in proper perspective, and to keep it there. Only so much can be accomplished in the time allotted to us.  We overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in twenty. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

In the early years, those aphorisms were reminders of the need to build solid foundations, to expect a long haul, to understand my strengths and limitations thoroughly in order to choose my goals carefully and commit myself to them fully. Now they tell me something else—the time for new projects has passed, because there is not enough time left to complete them. Now it is time to review the work done, lessons learned, things accomplished and things not, paths walked successfully or unsuccessfully or simply abandoned.

If this change in approach were simply a decision based on circumstances—oops, fifteen years or so left, time to start wrapping things up!—I wouldn’t be writing about it now. One thing I’ve become very tired of over the years is people selling me Good Ideas that they themselves haven’t tested in practice. One of my favorite journalists, Mickey Kaus, talks about news stories that are Too Good to Check—the event described is so delicious that it gets disseminated by folks who avoid investigating whether it’s actually true, for fear of being disappointed. Much of what passes for Christian teaching falls under this heading. I’m talking about marriage tips from young marrieds, parenting advice from new parents, discipleship advice from folks who don’t appear all that disciplined, schooling techniques promoted by those who have barely taught, courtship advice from parents who have yet to see their children marry, intentional communities, back to the land, diets … I treasure my list, a depressingly short one, of books by folks who took a long journey sketched out by some Big Idea or other, then wrote honestly about their successes and failures (so many failures!) along the way. So, no, if my decision to switch over to summing things up were based only on impulse, I’d wait until I’d actually done a fair amount of it before inflicting it on you.

But my reading (and re-reading) experience over the past few years has changed in a way that gives me confidence that summing up is the right thing for me to do at this point, enough so that I’m tentatively willing to do it publicly. Between ages 35 and 55 I encountered several thinkers who taught me important truths that I hadn’t yet experienced, and as a result set out to experience in my life. In 1990 I read Neil Postman, and actually turned off the television—imperfectly and incompletely, but from that point TV no longer played an important role in my family’s life. In 1991 I read C.S. Lewis, and shortly thereafter became a Christian. In 1999 (August, according to my Amazon order history) I read Jacques Ellul, and changed my approach to living a faithful life. In 2005 I read Joel Salatin, and a few months later moved to a farm. In 2006 I read one chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and purged myself of goodly amounts of unhealthy attitude towards other Christians. In all these encounters, my reaction was “I’ve never heard this before, this sounds great, I’m going to try it out!” (I only mention thinkers whose ideas proved to be vaild—there have been several others whose thinking I embraced, only to find out in practice that it was flawed or flat-out wrong—those experiences were blessings as well, indirectly, but charity prevents me from naming the thinkers involved.)

These days, though, I am much more likely to read (or re-read) something good and react with “Yes, that resonates with my own experience.” That is, I am largely on the other side of the chasm now—the ideas I respond to, positively or negatively, are ideas I’ve lived out in some way. The clearest (and oddest) example comes from a writer who maybe should be on the above list—but maybe not—namely, Dallas Willard. I first encountered Willard in the mid-90s while studying Richard Foster, a good writer and thinker but one who never quite entered my personal pantheon. Willard wasn’t yet popular, and it was hard to find his two books, Spirit of the Disciplines and In Search of Guidance—the latter only available as a horribly expensive Wipf & Stock reprint. I read them, and found them both exciting and puzzling. Willard spoke of ways to experience God that were far outside my own experience at that time, attractive ideas—yet there were also hints here and there that he couldn’t be trusted. When Willard published The Divine Conspiracy, I read it closely, got very excited about much of what he claimed, encountered several shibboleths (e.g. favorable mentions of Charles Finney) that led me to mistrust it all, and set it aside. A year later I went through the exact same experience a second time—close study, excitement, suspicion, dismissal. I moved on.

A few months ago I ran across a mention of Willard’s Spirit of The Disciplines, recommended as a book the writer had found highly profitable. I hadn’t thought of Willard at all for 10-12 years, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to properly form a Christian character, and so I made a note to go back and look through the book, since spiritual disciplines are surely a useful tool for that.

Soon after I ran across a very short ebook—a conference paper, really—by Willard called Getting Love RIght (only $1 in the Kindle Store). I bought it, started reading, and every few sentences had to stop and exclaim (silently) “That’s exactly right!”  It was an odd feeling. Until not too long ago, when I got excited about something I was reading it was because the ideas were new, having the ring of (possible) truth but things I hadn’t yet experienced. Now the ideas I was reading rang true to my own experience.

I proceeded to read through Willard’s writings—in reverse chronological order, an interesting path—and had that aforementioned feeling over and over again. I had somehow made it to the other side of the chasm, and could confirm seeing the guideposts that Willard said I would see. I can’t say how much of my guidance for the journey came directly from Willard—if it did, it had to be due to ideas that were deeply internalized as I first read him, I certainly didn’t reflect consciously on what he taught me. And given how much of Willard’s wisdom proved out in practice, I sort of wish I had adopted him as a hero/mentor back then—but then again, maybe not, Maybe it was important to encounter those truths as a practical response to actual life experience.

In any case, I continue to reread Willard, not to learn new things but to help pull together what I know into some simpler, more coherent form. I have been dipping back into other writers whose work has impressed me, hoping to benefit in the same way. And I’ve been much more cautious in picking new works to read, trying to restrict myself to material that will either fill in the obvious remaining gaps in areas where I know something, or perhaps deepen that knowledge. But no new ideas, please—time is now too short for that.

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