A myriad of unconnected instants
“It’s not gonna matter if you have a few scars. It will matter if you didn’t live.” – Rich Mullins
To make the long drive home from our vacation trip we opted for a different route. We would head south through the sandhills of northwest Nebraska until we arrived in Sidney, Nebraska, and then take I-80 east to home.
Sidney is the small town of 6,700 people that my wife and I lived in for the first two years of our marriage. Instead of a honeymoon, we loaded up the U-Haul truck and drove west, leaving friends and family behind in order to spend a few years alone together. It was an almost idyllic little town, perfect for us after the previous years of intense travel my old job in Omaha had required of me; and she was able to settle into her work as a physical therapist in a smaller hospital instead of the larger one she’d worked at for a year after graduate school. For two years we resided in a little rental house on Maple Street, becoming involved in our community through various service organizations and St. Patrick’s, our parish. I coached the high school legion teams for two years and spent many hours at the ball field coaching, but even more hours rehabilitating the field and its facilities.
After our first anniversary we got a six-week old shih tzu puppy, named him Fenway, and our family had its first addition. Each night found us going for a walk with Fenway on his red leash.
Driving back from vacation in 2013 I found myself musing how we have always told people we never took a honeymoon. Yet looking back at it now, twenty years later, I think we did take a honeymoon. One that extended for two wonderful years. We left Sidney in order to have our first child back in eastern Nebraska, near family, friends (and babysitters).
While back in town last week we drove through the downtown, making our first visit since making one in 2005. The town had changed a bit from 1995-2005, but from 2005 to the present it had really changed. Downtown had several new businesses in place of old ones. The interstate exchange had even more development and businesses than before.
The first visit we made was to my former place of employment to talk to a friend of mine, Tony, who was the accountant. He’s now the Chief Financial Officer. Tony recognized me and we talked for about fifteen minutes and he was able to meet the three children that came after we moved away. We are about the same age as one another and he has two sons: one in college and the other a senior this year.
“You haven’t aged a day,” I told him.
“You’ve turned gray,” he replied.
Which could be dramatized in this way:
We then drove by our tiny house on Maple Street to show the kids where we started. After that we stopped by the city offices because the City Manager is a good friend. Gary was out of the office on business, so after leaving a message with his office manager that we were in town we decided to head over to the baseball field that I manicured so often.
When I was coaching I had a list of 10-12 improvements I wanted to make to the facility. For each one of them I was given the same response: “No.” Or, “That’d be great but the city will never go for it.” Looking over the field last Friday I mentally checked off the improvements made to the list I still recalled in my head. Every one of them, plus a few more, were made. Another thing I started. Another thing I didn’t finish.
And so we left town, driving east for the final stretch home. Gary called about thirty minutes after we left, apologized for missing us (he’s never met the kids either), and we agreed to meet up the next time he’s in Lincoln for business or a Nebraska football game.
I spent the next five hours mulling over what I’d seen in Sidney, and I spent that time looking back on my life since leaving eighteen years ago.
I’m pretty unhappy with what I saw as I looked back over the two decades.
I do not regret settling down to be a husband and a father. I cannot imagine life without those closest to me in my life. No, this is not about regrets regarding the things I have. I have too much, really. Too much “stuff”. Stuff that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I’ve lived life like so many of us do, acquiring things in an attempt to fill “something”. This explains the purge bender I’ve been on lately and continued the days after arriving home from vacation. On Sunday I tossed out over 200 compact discs, many from my college days and time spent managing music stores before I was married. There are boxes of books, more compact discs, papers, things…I want it all out and gone as soon as possible and have continued the Great Purge this week.
Last night I began reading the first encyclical by Pope Francis Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). I read halfway through it and would have gone further but I paused to highlight and reread paragraph 13 several times. There is a lot of truth in this paragraph.
The history of Israel also shows us the temptation of unbelief to which the people yielded more than once. Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry. While Moses is speaking to God on Sinai, the people cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness, they cannot endure the time of waiting to see his face. Faith by its very nature demands renouncing the immediate possession which sight would appear to offer; it is an invitation to turn to the source of the light, while respecting the mystery of a countenance which will unveil itself personally in its own good time. Martin Buber once cited a definition of idolatry proposed by the rabbi of Kock: idolatry is “when a face addresses a face which is not a face”. In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols “have mouths, but they cannot speak” (Ps 115:5). Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: “Put your trust in me!” Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.
If you’re Catholic, this is a “must read” encyclical letter. If you’re not Catholic, it would still benefit you to read this brief, easy to read and easily accessible treatise on faith. It is available as a printable PDF file booklet here and as a long-form text here.
This despondency, for lack of a better term, is about things. Not people. There can never been enough people in our lives.
It is also about regretting the choices I’ve made, or more accurately, failed to commit to make these past twenty years. In To The Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest film, Fr. Quintana says this to his congregation:
We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.
This is a beautiful and challenging film (typical of Malick) that is about love and commitment.
The truth is I’ve buried my talent. Buried it in the soil of safety and security for me and my family. I took some chances when I was younger and first married, but with a child, then a mortgage, and then two more children, the odds of my taking chances where a salary was concerned dissipated. I feared to make a choice on my profession post-college, and let circumstances make the choices for me. It is a cowardly way to live. It is the way of no commitment. Of idolatry.
In one of my favorite books The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, the following excerpt appears in the first of ten “scrolls of success”:
Time teaches all things to he who lives forever but I have not the luxury of eternity. Yet, within my allotted time I must practice the art of patience for nature acts never in haste. To create the olive, king of all trees, a hundred years is required. An onion plant is old in nine weeks. I have lived as an onion plant. It has not pleased me.
It has not pleased me either.
Perhaps I require more patience.
Perhaps I need to dust off my copy of Mandino’s book once more.
I have many books to dust off. Even after thinning my book collection down I’ve over five seven-foot tall bookshelves overstuffed with books I wish to read. I realized during my drive that in order to focus on the things that really matter I need less “stuff” in my life.
Stuff like this blog. Seriously, what’s the point of blogging anymore? It’s just another vanity without direction or purpose and right now I’m just not seeing the point of it all.
But I also wish to read what I’ve acquired because what’s left are the books I bought for a reason. To satisfy a hunger. If I eliminate distractions and dedicate myself to getting through them I’ll finish in twenty to thirty years.
And so begins the Great Purge, and some stumbling about in the shadows.
Something’s about to give. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not as yet. For now I can see only a continuation of my wandering along this pilgrim’s journey and trail, narrowing my focus in order to stay on the path, the way, and not go off into the weeds of the “vast labyrinth”.
“Only the divine stands firm; the rest is smoke.” – T. S. Eliot