Monday, November 24, 2008

If Love is the Answer, What's the Question?

There's no wind this morning, and the sun peeks out from behind a white cloud as my breath fogs the air. Down the street, smoke rises from one of the chimneys against the blue sky. Everything is quiet and still. It reminds me of the street I grew up on, with the big maples and evergreens growing side by side, shadowing the road. It is a wonder to think about those times as a child, to think about what life was like then and what it is now. About what I believed then, and what I believe now.

As a kid -- and later as a young adult -- I knew exactly what I believed and why. These days, I'm not as certain. But how can I be sure about things when the evidence of life inevitably points to the contrary, especially when I consider some of the goofy stuff I believed as a child?

Just Trying To Fit In

The coffee warms my hands, and I bring my face close to sip it. A few houses over, a father is playing hockey on the driveway with his dad. I smile, remembering the time with my own dad as a kid.

When I was twelve, my Christmas gift was goalie equipment. Real pads and a real blocker and trapper. My dad set up a net in the basement, and we'd play down there for hours. He'd pretend to pass it, wheeling around in front of me, "Ketchup over to Mustard, back to Ketchup, in the corner to Relish - shoots!" at which point he'd whip the tennis ball at the net. I was never sure why his top line consisted of condiments, but I thought it was pretty funny as a kid. Still do.

"Challenge the shot. C'mon out of the net. Challenge the shot. Yeah!"

The father's voice echoes along the quiet street. When you're a kid, you don't worry about your beliefs too much. You worry about your parents. Your family. Your friends. You don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what you believe or why you're different. You spend most of your time just trying to fit in. As we get older however, we need an increasing amount of assurances that outline just how different we are from those around us. And yet, for the most part, we lock ourselves into patterns of thought that do the opposite, and prevent us from the life we really want; a life of freedom.

"Don't go down so easily! Stay up, and wait for me to make my move."

I look over in time to see the boy nod to his dad's instructions. Freedom sounds great, and people of faith talk about it enough -- but the truth is that most days I don't feel the freedom to simply "do" as I did when I was young? Instead, I end up with 'reasonable' answers to the questions about what I should and shouldn't do. About what I can and cannot be. In fact, sometimes I think that adulthood is primarily an education in being reasonable.

Stop Being 'Reasonable'

As humans, we are always trying to influence one another. Most of us try to do it with language. Speeches. Pamphlets. Books. Television. And talking. Lots of talking. Somewhere in the midst of this never-ending "war of influences", we are taught to moderate our thinking, to make it reasonable -- aka palatable -- for those around us.

To not do this makes us arrogant and impossible, but to fall into this trap of 'reasonable thinking' costs us in other ways. It becomes a form of self-teaching, so when we see things that we could do to make a difference -- speak to the homeless person, start a charity, volunteer at a kids club, help at a Seniors center -- we "reason" ourselves into a life that is oddly reminiscent of every life around us. And so the uniqueness we all seek is lost in the tangles and squabbles of language, the buttressing of this doctrine and this creed, the "here-to-fores" and "thou shalt nots" that we believe separate us, but in fact, do nothing but reinforce the fact not only are we all sheep, but we're all sleeping in the same pen.

It is one thing to say that you are pursuing your dreams, quite another to pro-actively go for it. It is one thing to say that you are humble, quite another to admit someone with less money and no home is just as important as you. And it is one thing to say you believe we should love everyone, when it is clear that we do not.

Maybe we hold up these religious phrases, like "loving our enemies," simply to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we do it because we know what we're supposed to believe, and because we know that no one expects it from us. We're too "reasonable" for that. And so this outrageous idea of love, this true act of separation, becomes something quite different. And while we pretend to absorb this idea that a Creator who loves us must somehow make us unique, we reject the absurdity of the actual message. Instead of doing "love," we promote it.

Selling "Love," Don Draper style
We talk about it. We write about it. We defend our words and our songs. We defend our ideas about God and our ideas about holidays. Our ideas about prayer times and prayer cloths. We examine gender roles and gender issues, issues about sex and sexuality. We look at diet plans and dietary constraints until we have so shredded and stapled and cut and reordered the "gospel" to fit into our lives that it really isn't good news anymore. We cut down whole forests to promote an endless file on the way to love people "reasonably", and yet we remain haunted by this idea that no matter what we believe, we're no different from the people around us.

Whadda-ya Got?

So what do we believe? And why do we believe it? What does any of it mean, if we are merely the stewards of yet another religious diversion?

To think like a child makes us children, but to act like one is what it means to be free. Perhaps then, the idea is to worry less about the question, and more about the answer. To pursue less the science of influence, and more the struggle of love.

"Nice save, Sammy! Atta-boy!"

"Shoot it again, dad!"

I glance over at my neighbours and smile. There is something quite profound in being what we believe. Putting our creed down on paper may make us feel better, and delineating exactly why our beliefs are different -- better -- may make us feel more secure, but in the end, it takes us farther from the extraordinary life we all seek.

My hope this week is that you will lay down your paper barriers, that you will see through the walls you have constructed to separate yourself from those around you, and find in God the freedom of a life lived, and not simply believed.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Treadmill and the Trampoline

Two Lives - One Life


Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like something is going to happen, something important, but you don't know what it is? Or why? The story I want to tell you happened on that kind of day, and looking back, I suppose it wouldn't have mattered if I had known what was going to happen. Sometimes the person we trust the least is ourselves, I guess. Before I tell you what happened though, I should tell you something about me. I used to think that I could control things in my life by the decisions I made, that I was the master of my own universe. I suppose I still believe that, but what that means to me now, and what it used to mean, are very, very different. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's important you understand what I used to believe, and how things have changed since that day.

I worked in a church for many years, and I have worked with people my entire life. I can't tell you how many times I heard people asking me to pray for them, that they needed a miracle in this situation or that situation. I generally like people, but I sometimes found myself wondering why they needed a miracle at all.

You live in North America. You own a beautiful house and two cars. You have a nice family. Sure, you have struggles, but isn't that part of life. Things can't be great all the time. You don't expect THAT, do you?

Just the same, I would agree to pray for them and offer what counsel I could. This went on for many years and I still didn't understand why so many people were looking for a miracle until the hedges of discipline and duty broke down in my life, when I began to realize the rhythms of life too often had little to do with my choices. I still believed in God, but this sense of powerlessness rattled me to the core. What if our choices didn't matter? What if I wasn't actually choosing? This went against everything I'd been taught in the church, and I didn't know how to handle it, so I just kind of sucked up and hoped for the best.

Until the day I got my own miracle. I didn't ask for it, not consciously at least, but it happened nonetheless, and things have never been the same.


It was warmer than I expected when I finally left the gym, the crowds thick along the street as I headed towards the subway and home. It was an uneventful ride and within a short time I was headed towards my car, my traveler's mug in one hand, my gym bag shifted well over my right shoulder. Another long week had ended, but I wasn't tired. I was oddly fresh, enjoying the bright sun and cloudless sky as I ambled along the sidewalk. The trees had lost their leaves, but even without their vibrant colours, today they seemed to glow and reach towards the heavens in the quiet stillness of the bright afternoon sun.

When I finally reached my car, an older woman with fiery red hair was sticking a piece of paper in my windshield. I shuffled forward quickly, my bag bouncing against my leg.

"Hey, I'm allowed to park here!"

I'd been forced to park further and further away (yup... parking tickets) from the subway until I was a full ten-minute walk away.

She saw me and smiled, and then removed the note.

"Oh good. You're here. I was wondering if you'd ever get back."

"I scheduled another client late..." My voice trailed off as I realized what I was saying. "Is there something I can do for you?"

She was a heavyset woman, wearing a purple scarf over a bright pink coat that was tattered along the edges, her lips painted a garish red that matched her hair. I instantly felt sorry for her, although I wasn't sure why.

"Can you give me a ride?"

I looked at her for a long minute. I don't always give rides to strangers, especially to the ones who hang around my car, but like I said, I felt sorry for her.

I opened the door and she slid in beside me, laboriously adjusting her thick coat and scarf. The musky scent of old perfume and sweat momentarily engulfed me, and I tried not to be obvious as I rolled down my window a crack to get some air.

"Where to?" I asked.

"Take me anywhere. Somewhere far away from here."

It was a ridiculous answer, but instead of questioning her further, I put the car in gear and pulled out. I glanced over at her while I was driving. Her face was craggy and lined. Other than the lipstick, she wore no other makeup else that I could tell.

"Do you have a place to stay?" I asked, my voice gentle.

"Yes. It's the same place it always was. It changes but never does, you know what I mean?"

I tried to check her pupils, but couldn't keep my gaze off the road long enough to see if they were dilated.


'What do you mean 'sure'?" She barked, her voice suddenly strong and narrow. "That's the first dishonest thing you've said to me."

I swallowed and didn't respond, suddenly wondering what I'd done. Had I picked up a total psychopath? Maybe it was my mood, but I decided to play along.

"You're right. I don't know what you mean."

She smiled, her face suddenly soft.

"Yes you do. But I appreciate your honesty."

"No, I mean it. I'm not a fan of so-called 'cryptic' statements because usually they don't mean anything. People say things just to say things, or say that they believe something and don't even understand why they believe it in the first place."

"It's not very helpful, is it?" She said.

"It's destructive."

She looked at me, and I could feel her gaze, which had somehow become stronger.

"So what do you believe?"

A blue Civic swerved in front of me, and I grimaced but didn't say anything for a minute.

"I'm Steve, by the way."

She smiled again, and when she didn't say anything, I began to worry.

"Seriously, where can I take you? There has to be someplace-"

"There is."

She pointed, and I sighed when I realized where we were. I pulled into my driveway.
I bent my head over the steering wheel. I knew that I was having a hallucination of some sort, that the woman beside me wasn't real. At least, I was almost positive that she wasn't real.

"I don't understand."

"Good. And you never will. That's the point."

"See, that's exactly the type of BS I hate!" I said, my voice rising. "The point is ALWAYS to understand! That's what it means to be human!"

She looked at me, her scent suddenly overpowering.

"Is it? Your problem, Steve, is the same one most people have. You have never accepted that you are human. You are not God."

"What? I know that!" My voice began to break. "Better than most, I think."

She reached out and patted my knee. Her hand was warm, and at her touch, I felt a surge of emotion.

"Thinking little of yourself is no different than thinking too highly of yourself. Both are a matter of pride. It is discouraging though, when some people use God as a tool to keep others unaware of their humanity, and keep them reaching towards divinity. God sees, but in this, he asks us to stumble and reach toward him. To see God is to accept who you are. How can we say that we believe God became human if we can't even acknowledge our own humanity?"

"I don't know if it's that." I said, my voice steadying a little. "It's just that life never really turns out the way we want it to, I think." I said. "I don't think people are always greedy, I think they're just being... human."

I looked at her, but when she didn't say anything, I turned my gaze back towards my house.

"Why don't we get what we want? I think that's what most of us struggle with. And even when we get what we want, we don't really want it. Or something."

"What do you want, Steve? What do you REALLY want?"

Her question lingered as I lifted my head and stared at the house. I thought about Bethany. About my family. About Mark and Jackie and Mireille and Ernie and all my friends. I thought about Szymon and Nads and all my housemates. And I thought about those who were struggling and broken, the ones who saw no way out and that not only wanted a miracle, but also truly needed one, the ones that touched my heart more than any other.

She shifted her shawl.

"I have a question for you, Steve."


"Do you like working out?" She asked.

I wasn't sure what her question had to do with people getting what they wanted, but then, I was having a conversation with either a highly delusional woman or hallucinating, so I wasn't sure it mattered.

"Sure. I've been working out for a long time."

"Do you like running on the treadmill?"

"Well, no, it's boring. Unless there's a TV it's okay-"

"Have you ever been on a trampoline?"


I saw where she was going and gave her a rueful smile.

"Life is both a treadmill and a trampoline, Steve. As a trainer and someone who likes to workout, you know that you can't always choose your gym, given the circumstances, but most of the time you can choose how you're going to exercise."

"I've heard this before, you know." I said. "This isn't exactly a new idea."

She laughed.

"No, it isn't a new idea. The difference is that you heard it, but didn't believe it. Didn't accept it. Knowing and understanding are very different things."

I paused.

"Are you an angel?"

She smiled and opened the passenger door. A fresh blast of air rushed into the car. She leaned in and glanced at my notebook on the back seat.

"Keep writing, Steve. It matters. Keep loving people. And tell your readers that even if they can't understand why life makes no sense at times that they should pursue the better. Our lives are a reflection we see only dimly even in the best of times. Tell them not be afraid to ask for God's help, and when they get the choice, to choose the trampoline."

I nodded, unable to speak.

I watched her walk away, her scarf lifting in the breeze, until she disappeared from sight.


I know you probably don't believe my story. Heck, I don't believe it and it happened to me. Well, I think it happened. Maybe it was a dream. Still, things haven't been the same for me since that day.

The change hasn't come all at once, of course. Some companies and religions like to promote "instant makeover" or a "new life today", but anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute understands the ridiculous (and dangerous) premise to that notion. And in the movies, you only have a couple of hours for lives to be changed forever. But in life, the changes that last forever take just as long. Some days I still forget that, and I feel lost and unsure, but when I think back to that day, I remember her words. Treadmill or trampoline? It helps that I work at a gym, but maybe that's why she chose that example in the first place.

Every day I go to the gym. I like it most days, but it's still work, and I have to be there. In that sense, I guess I'm not choosing. And when it's time to work out, there are days I find myself wanting the treadmill, not because it's fun, but because it's functional. Because I don't have to smile. You can't force happiness, I don't think, but when I bounce on that trampoline, its hard not to laugh a little. I'm not sure what this all means, if anything, but my angel (or whoever she was) told me to tell you, and it really has made a difference in my life.

To embrace God is to accept our humanity. And when we can accept ourselves, in all of our foibles and brokenness and selfish nature, we are not only more likely to ask God for help (especially when it comes to loving other people) but there's a better chance of us finding the trampolines in our life. At least, I think that's what she meant.

So there it is. Another to story to dwell on or brush aside. My only hope is that you will at least think about it, and if it helps in some small way, well, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else. I haven't met many of you, but someday we may meet, and when that happens, maybe you'll have a story for me too. Maybe we can get a coffee and talk about it, after spending a bit of time on the trampoline together.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Words, One Phrase, and the End of Hope

Saturday Night, 2:30am

I didn't see it the first time I walked outside that evening. I didn't see it when I came back in or later that night when I went outside to spend some time with my housemates on the stoop. By the time I finally said goodnight to Bethany and walked her to the car, I still hadn't noticed the plain manila envelope with my name and address on it. It wasn't until my night was over, when my Friday smile seemed complete, that I chanced to glance upon it, tucked beneath a book at the front door where one of my housemates had left the Friday morning mail. In a very short time, that envelope would turn my Friday happiness to abject discouragement. Its contents would hold up to me a simple question, a phrase that had haunted me for most of my life, and despite the implications, would compel me once more to reflect on them.

But that was still to come.

Friday Evening, 5:20 pm

I'm standing under the awning outside the subway entrance, away from the drizzling rain as the traffic snarls around the corner, horns honking, the cars stuck halfway through the intersection. I love Fridays. No work, some time to write, and the week's wait to see my girl is finally over. Daylight has already started to fade, and the crowds jostle past me along the sidewalk as everyone hurries home for the weekend. A group of teenagers, excited and slightly blind to the people around them, sweep past me. Two construction workers amble along behind them, arguing about the Leafs. Mostly though, I notice the professionals. The suits and sharply clicking heels. There seems an endless stream of them. They stride with good posture as they chat on their cell phones, impervious to the people around them. I glance down at my workout pants and running shoes. Soon enough I'll be heading home, to the tiny room I call home and the house I share with my nine roommates. I watch a man in a dark suit, who looks to be about five years younger than me, stroll by, laughing into his cell phone even as he glances at the shiny silver watch on his wrist. I nod to myself, determined to not give away my Friday happiness or think about what might have been as I head down the stairs to the subway.

When I was a kid, I tended to flit from dream to dream. One year I wanted to be a boxer. No coincidence, it was the year I saw Rocky III. The next year I chanced upon the movie Breakin', while on vacation with my parents, and for a whole summer I wanted to be a professional break-dancer. (Not ideal for the chubby, white suburban kid.) And so it went. From sportscaster to wildlife biologist, I finally 'settled' on professional ministry, believing it was what God wanted from me, and believing my abilities matched that which was required to work in the church.

At first, I was right. I loved the ministry. I loved the people. The purpose. The ideals. The surety of it all. Somewhere along the way however, it started getting messy. I asked too many questions, witnessed too many things being ignored, and could no longer find the willingness to work in a world that seemed so largely composed and ruled by the Western tendency towards commoditization and moral religiosity. Somehow, we'd taken the gospel, and all the hope it contained, and buried it in post-Enlightenment Rationalism, this idea that we have all the answers. That we must have all the answers. That God is a neat package to be delivered by us. That we are Jesus.

I never really adjusted after leaving the cozy world of ministry. No matter what job I took, the world forever seemed strange to me. I bounced from job to job, and as I grew older, watched quietly as my friends grew into homes and families and promotions, even as I would begin yet another 'career.'

I felt like a traveler walking the long roads between towns, stopping to rest for a while, but forever pushing forward. A part of me longed to settle down, but my feet had their own ideas. Perhaps it was the memory of my time in the church, and how it'd felt when I left. This crashing of life and hope when the world I believed in proved itself to be nothing more than a simple human creation that often had little to do with God.

Friday Evening, 5:43 pm

The train is packed, and I'm forced to stand near the doors. The woman beside me, a tall, thick blonde wearing an expensive looking skirt suit, is typing away on her blackberry. She notices me briefly, and with a look of disdain, turns her gaze back to the blackberry. A part of me wants to tell her not to be so egocentric. That she's not that special and that she merely happened to be in my line of sight. Who is she to look at me like that? I can feel my indignation rising, my jaws tightening.

I may wear workout clothes, but just wait until my books are published. Wait until it's my turn to look at you like that.

Leaving the ministry had the lasting effect of this feeling like I was a permanent stranger, but as my inability to feel as if I fit in somewhere deepened, I began to write more, and along the way discovered what would become my singular passion in life. Writing could be done anywhere if one had the discipline. It was writing that saw me through my divorce, writing that helped me move through my battles with depression, and writing that helped me work through the different questions in my life, not the least of which was this sense that I'd irrevocably messed up along the way, and that "normalcy" and "success" would forever be a stranger to me. In writing, I discovered that there was one dream to which I could always return. One place. One hope. One constant outside my faith that would help me navigate the seemingly transient nature of my personality. Year after year, I worked on my craft, occasionally publishing articles in magazines, but knowing that until a publisher said yes to one of my books, I would forever hold myself in doubt as "real" writer.

In some ways, I guess my hope was that the recognition would cement my credentials as someone who had done something, as someone who had accomplished something. It wasn't about the approval of others; so much as it was the approval of myself.

Friday Evening, 5:56 pm

I'm staring at the blonde now, waiting for her to look up so I can sniff and look away. Give her a taste of her own medicine. It's all contrived, I want to say. Sure, you have money and a career, and I might not look like much to you and your rich coterie, but you're just a shallow egg in a world of instant chicken. Just wait until I start publishing books.

My mind, as it often does these past two weeks, goes to my latest book proposal. Three months have passed since I sent it away. I am expecting to hear back from them some time in the next week.

I'd worked hard on my latest project. A year writing the book. Months editing. Another two months on the forty-page proposal. I had picked a publisher suited to my book. The only thing left was to wait.

My excitement builds the more I think about it, and by the time I get off the train I am no longer aware of the blonde or the two lawyers who bustle past me. Throughout the years, I have developed patience when it comes to the pursuit of my dreams. I know the publishing world is fickle. I know that there are tens of thousands with whom I am competing. Still, a part of me believes that perhaps finally, after so many years, my time has come.

Friday Night, 1:20am

I wave as Bethany drives away. As always, a piece of me sighs with sadness and then smiles at what I've been given. It is hard to pursue your dreams, hard to wait for success. For now, I am grateful for my new job, my family and friends. Soon, I tell myself, perhaps very soon, I'll finally realize my dream. I step inside and take off my shoes. As I slide them off to the side, I notice the manila envelope with my name on it.

My hands are shaking as I carry it up the stairs with me. I peel off my coat and gently set it aside. No longer able to wait, I slide my thumb underneath the flap and pry open the contents. The first page is a letter, and within seconds, I have my answer.

"Dear Stephen,
Thank you so much for the opportunity to review your proposal... unfortunately, we are unable to find a place in our publishing schedule for your manuscript, so we are returning your proposal..."

I let the letter slide from my fingers onto the table, and flip through my unmarked forty-page proposal before tossing it to the side. For the moment, I am numb. I've been rejected before, but somehow this one feels different. It feels... complete.

If only I'd stayed at one job. If only I'd accepted the truth about life. If only I'd made better decisions about my career. And about my writing. I'd still be unpublished, but at least I would have something to show for it. A house. A career. Some security. Because of my thoughtless and naive belief in pursuing my dreams, I'd made myself into a poor writer-wanna-be. A writer in name only. And a failure by any measure. I thought about the two lawyers in the subway. I knew that I was burying myself in self-pity, but I couldn't seem to escape it. If only I hadn't bothered to pursue my dream. If only I'd learned to appreciate more the simple things in life, and the rule by which most people lived. Why couldn't I be more normal? Why did I always have to be so...

I slipped my coat on and headed back outside, glancing only once at my carefully worked proposal now scattered across the kitchen table like yesterday's newspaper.

It was drizzling still as I ambled down the driveway. The streetlights reflected off the puddles like hazy film, the quiet of the early hour unusually oppressive. If only. Two words that had haunted me my entire life. I knew the words were dangerous, because they reflected on what could never be. They were hope thieves, words that created space for the not-possible. If only. Two words that could never be used in a positive way. Two words that spoke, not of the future, but of the irreversible past. Comparative in nature, to use the phrase "if only" was to reflect on what never would happen, and do so in the most disparaging nature. Unlike its distant cousin, "what if", that allowed and encouraged hope to endure, "if only" recognized one thing, and one thing alone:

"You failed. You failed and it was your fault. You failed, it was your fault, and you will regret it the rest of your life. Even worse, there is nothing you can do about it. You will never be able to change or alter what you have done."

In the distance, a car splashed down the road. I glanced up at the tree in my neighbour's yard, its leaves gone, glistening in the dim light of the street like a wet stick. I tried to remember how I'd felt moments before, to recall the gratitude, but it was a vague memory that suddenly seemed like another lifetime.

If only.

It was a long time before I finally headed in, and longer still before I fell into a rough sleep.

Sunday Afternoon, 1:30pm.

Another rainy day, only today is colder. I am outside, holding my coffee to warm my hands. I am still not sure how I feel. The weekend has given me time to process my rejection, but if I dwell on it for too long I can feel the emotions, tender and bruised, rising within me. I am hoping that to feel some encouragement. To be able to look forward again as I did just this past week. And most importantly, that I will be able to encourage people with my words and life. For now, however, I am lost in a cloud of sadness.

I know that I will bounce back, that I will once again press forward, hopeful and excited about the one passion around which I have carried for so long, and which has carried me on its shoulders for even longer. At least, I think I will bounce back. For the moment, I feel truly insignificant.

I feel like a failure.

Sunday Afternoon, 3:20pm.
I am in my room now, my papers and books scattered as always across my desk. My TV is off. The cursor blinks in front of me, and from my speakers comes the soothing sounds of Thomas Newman and Alan Silvestri. "If only" is more than a phrase. It is a statement of belief. It is a creed of the impossible and the destroyer of hope. It speaks the language of regret, and offers us coal in the place of diamonds. Perhaps the worst part is that it forces us to look at our past and give ourselves a failing grade. It doesn't allow for natural human weakness, for the rhythms of life, or for the possibility of chance. And most importantly, it does not allow a place for God. It speaks with surety about what was lost, and offers us nothing in return.

But life is surely more than that, isn't it? I am struck by the number of people, who like myself, wrestle with this idea of failure. This idea of a "progressive" life. What if life isn't supposed to be progressive? What if life is more than the next promotion, the bigger house, the better clothes? What if life is really not about the success we find, but the character we create along the way? The one that says "yes" to God, and "yes" to those around us.

Eliminating the phrase does not make things easy. Even now, I can feel the inner bruises, and the scars I know it will leave from this latest rejection. I wish I had a better answer about where God is in this process. I wish I knew why my friend, Ernie, who is the best artist I know, couldn't get his pieces into a gallery. I wish I knew why the relationship between talent and success made little sense, and why some people fulfilled their dreams and while others spent their lives in pursuit.

What I do know is that to find success and to fulfill your dreams are not necessarily the same thing. That to hope for the future is always better than to dwell on what never will be. And that the pain we feel when we experience failure is better than the emptiness of a life on the treadmill to nowhere. In that, this feeling, yes, of pain, is the feeling of a life hungry and hopeful. The rich and fabulous can have their cell phones and surety. Let them have their assured airs and marbled moments. Perhaps the life worth living is not the one we see on television or in the magazines, but the one carved out of the inevitable sorrow in the pursuit of our dreams.

"If only" may whisper that we are failures, and for a time, it may even convince us that it is true. My prayer then, this week, is that we would remember the most influential person who ever walked the planet never published a single book. Never traveled more than 35 miles from his hometown. And lived as a simple carpenter for most of his life.

To follow your dreams is to travel the road less traveled. And while there may be times you get lost, times when hope seems a distant memory, and times when the loneliness of the pursuit threatens to pull you under, remember that the only life worth living is the one you've been given, far beyond the shiny medals of self righteousness of those who would look down on you. Sadness will come, but only for a time. Pursue the life you were born to live, and hold fast to the passions of your heart. It will not be easy, but then, I don't think it is supposed to be. It is in our deepest sorrows that we discover who we truly are, and it is in those moments, more than any other, when we face up to the waves of doubt and discouragement, when we acknowledge what has happened and yet press forward, that we achieve something greater than our dreams.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Audacity of Hope-lessness

He's there again. Curled inside the subway entrance, his emaciated body prone, his hand clutched tightly around a bottle. The other arm is tucked under his head as a pillow, his faded sweater draped over his still form like a flag. I pause, as I always do, and then walk past. It makes me feel, but I can't identify the emotion. Pity. Compassion. Anger. Indifference. Every time it's different, and it worries me that a sad sight would make me feel something other then sad. Must our response to the world always emanate from our own selfish projections? Must it always be about me?

It's been a long day and I try not to think about it as I head down the long flight of stairs to get to the train. It will be good to sit down. This past week I received a few emails, but none that touched me so deeply as one from a dear friend, who had read my blog and, in her own way, echoed the comments of others. "How am I to find hope, as you say, when my life seems only to return to the same troubles and heartaches, time after time?"

The train arrives and it is surprisingly empty. I take a seat near the back and ease into it. Two women drape themselves into the seats across from me, carrying their conversation onboard. Their voices are loud and angry, but when I close my eyes, I am able, for a time, to ignore them.

I'm thinking about my friend, and about the many who have written me, not just this past week, but the past few years, telling me their story and asking the same question, if phrased differently, about hope. How do we find hope in a world that returns, as it were, to the same rotten pool, year after year, century after century, civilization after civilization? Despite our accrued knowledge, the human condition has changed little. Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it is that while the world changes, people do not. We all want joy. We all search for love. And we all need hope. And yet, no matter how rich our country, no matter how high our education, too often hope remains an ideal. Very rarely does it enter into our life as anything approaching reality.

"That bitch needs to be shot."

I open my eyes, no longer able to block out the conversation from the two women, who are cursing and complaining about their day at work at so loud a volume I find my hand groping for the remote. The train is two stops from home, but the force of their negativity is so stifling I nearly ask them to be quiet and complain somewhere else. Not everyone wants to share your anger. We all have problems. I take a deep breath and swallow my frustration. I've had days like that, too.

Two seats over is a copy of the morning newspaper. On the cover is a picture of Sarah Palin, but it isn't another Lenscrafter advertisement. She photographs well (with one exception), and she is always smiling. But listening to her is difficult. The words from the "pit-bull with lipstick" seem quite in contrast with her smiling pictures. Not particularly eloquent, she is forceful and direct and, beneath the looks and smiles, seems every bit as vicious as the dog in her now infamous "joke."

In the middle of the paper is another article about Obama, about the man "selling" hope. No doubt "Obama-mania" is, as one writer expressed, a "runaway train", with the finances and smooth workings of a machine-like campaign. And Obama himself, who uses the word "hope" perhaps more than any politician in recent memory, at times feels as abstract as the theme of his campaign. But is he real? Does he really believe in hope? Or is he merely a projection of that which we all long for?

The train squeals to a stop, and the two women leave, still complaining, their voices carrying until the doors hiss to a close and washes the subway in blessed silence.

If hope were easy, it would never hold the thematic weight of a presidential campaign. If hope were something endemic to the nature of humanity, it would not capture our imagination to the extent that it does. And it certainly would not hold us in its wake as such an integral, if mysterious and hidden, principle for a better life. That said, as difficult as it seems to find hope in our lives, the audacity of hopelessness seems equally shocking to me.

The train stops for the final time, and I wearily climb the three flights of stairs to the surface. The sky has begun to fall, and the tall glass buildings outside the subway seem almost liquid in their reflections. I pause at the hot dog stand just outside the exit. They remind me of times when I was young, when my friends would come over during the summer months, when we would play basketball in the driveway and the carport would be filled with the sounds and smells of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. I'm still deciding if I should have one when a man in his mid-forties wearing a gray suit and red power tie steps in front of a woman in line and orders before she has a chance. The look she gives him could scald a small planet, but he blithely ignores her and takes his time fixing his food. The look on his face is as empty as his actions. I shake my head, my decision made, and head toward my car.

Unlike many, I do not believe hopelessness to be merely a reflection of our education or circumstances. Hopelessness is a reflection of our attitude. It is true that often it is hard to find our way, when unmet expectations and disappointments crowd our life. People lose hope (especially as they age) because, like the woman at the hot dog stand, they realize that things will never really change. That people will be selfish. That people will disappoint us. That life will never be truly easy. And that the distractions so easily available in our culture are probably worth more of our time than the relationships around us, the ones that too often break our hearts. Hopelessness, I think, is a direct result of our loss of faith in humanity. The Enlightenment taught us that humanity was progressing, that we were becoming more civilized. More just. More humane. But any casual glance at history, and at the world around us, reveals otherwise.

The church has done it too. Religion has often taught that to follow a particular viewpoint, a particular creed, is what we need to keep us safe and give us hope. If not now, then certainly in the afterlife. We hold fast to these creeds, cling to them as if our lives depend on them, because, in so many ways, they do. It is the way, seemingly the only way, we can justify the extremely un-relational tendencies in our lives. We pass the broken woman on the street corner, ignore the news about the poor, and then hand out tracts and pamphlets and argue with strangers to promote "God's love." And yet, in those small, still moments, we wonder why the darkness still follows us, don't we?

The day has turned to twilight, and the heavens burn a bright orange as the sun sinks low for another day. I hunch forward, pulling up my hood, eager to be home. I remember what it is like to be without hope. I remember because I still wrestle with it at times. What I've learned however, is that often my lack of hope is a result of my own unwillingness to spend my life for those around me. It seems a paradox, but I've learned that the only way to find hope, is to give it away.

My car is alone on the street. I'm the last one to go home tonight, it seems. About ten feet from my car, an elderly couple is crossing the street. They walk slowly, holding hands. At the sidewalk, the man gently helps his wife up onto the curb. She smiles at him, and her smile says more than words could convey. I watch them shuffle past me, their hands gripped tightly, their bodies leaning together, until they pass from view. My stomach clenches, and I can feel the emotions rising inside me. I shake my head, breathing deep, happy to have witnessed such a tender moment.

Hopelessness asks one simple question: "Why bother?" A person of hope has only one answer: "I exist to love the people around me. It is who I am. More importantly, it is why I am."

To my knowledge, serving others is the only way to stay off the inevitable treadmill of self-perpetuating disappointments in the endless search to "have more" and "get more." And accepting God's help is the only way I know to keep us on the right path.

The truth is that we will never find the life we seek through our successes. Not through our accomplishments or even the recognition we receive in the moments we are unselfish. Hope, real hope, the kind that breathes into your life and fills your soul, exists only when we accept what it means to be human. So long as our lives serve to echo the love that God offers to us, so long as we do all we can to give encouragement and love and yes, hope, to the people around us, we will know what it means to walk as we were meant to walk, and to live as we were meant to live.

My car starts easily, and for a moment, I am still. I breathe a prayer of thanks for my job and my life, for those who have made my life possible.

There is an audacity to hopelessness that most of us do not like to admit. Some days I prefer to dwell on what isn't. On what I've lost and on the failures and disappointments in my life. It's easier then working on this thing called hope, and this other thing called humanity. People may never change, but we can.

You have much to offer the ones around you. Over the years I have no doubt that you have faced discouragement, that people have cut you down and cut you off, that loved ones have abused your love and taken advantage of you. I understand it because I've been there too. We all have.

My prayer then, this week, is that you will realize how much God loves you. Not one we so often create, the one we remember from our childhood, with all the petty rules and harsh vindictiveness of humanity, but the Creator who is so much greater than we could ask or imagine. The One who loved us so much that for a time, He joined our race to help lead us toward home. Toward a life of hope. More than any religion, precious is this understanding, this understanding of a God who longs to extend his love to us, and to those in our lives who need it most. I believe it is in those moments, when we are able to ignore the pressing urge to serve ourselves, when we see in others what we so desperately long for in our own lives, and when we push through our own struggles to offer just a bit of light to those around us, that we will find our path, and hope will come home to stay.