THE MEANING OF LIFE: AND OTHER QUESTIONS I DON’T HAVE THE ANSWER TO // A Father's Reflection
“What is the nature of the search?" you ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a cast away do? Why he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
I first read Percy’s existential quest in a college lit class – 20th Century Christian Classics. In a sense I’ve never stopped reading it, I’ve never stopped living it. That search for purpose, at times, feels pointless. I know in my head this is not so, but in my heart creeps doubt and the question: Why? The answers range from the cookie-cutter Sunday school templates, to the overly-peppy spiritualized do-goodery of something that feels more in the all-too-hokey line of the Hardy Boys, or simply to more questions and challenges. Normally you’d think this would lead further and further into doubt; but that’s the strange thing about the “search”, the more doggedly you pursue what it is you’re unsure of, the clearer the mark becomes, or in sacramental terms: the more tangible the mystery of God becomes.
I think for most of us the “everydayness of life” is inescapable until something shakes us from our perch, until something completely disrupts us from stagnancy. Even then we cling as tightly as we can, not wanting to let go of the familiarity, of the comfort, and of what we’ve accepted as a part of ourselves – even as it sinks, taking us along. So often we step away from the search because we’ve found an “ideal” to cling to – maybe it’s something noble like fighting starvation, maybe it’s the self-centeredness of vanity; regardless of what it is, it cannot replace God in our lives, or our search for Him.
For men it’s so easy to find “who we are” in what we do. It’s not a bad thing to take pride in, and enjoy your vocation, but it so easily becomes an all-consuming quest. I once heard, and had my mind blown in a Keanu Reeves Matrix sort of way, that sins are all good things with the slightest subtraction of where they come from and how they are meant to be… not used, or experienced, or even desired; but simply how they exist, as far away from our limited and temporal understanding of these blessings and transcending into a free-flowing part of God Himself. In many ways, however, we find it so easy to slip into that temporary gratification. We just struggle to stay on the heart fought path of perseverance to something eternal, something greater. Maybe it’s something about that Y chromosome driving men to conquest over all the obstacles set in front of them. But, instead of living a life for God we live a life for accomplishment, for recognition, for self-satisfaction (as if we could find it in autonomy).
I don’t have to look very far to see this. I look at my grandfather – a Christian man, but still one consumed with a restlessness that has driven him to do more work in retirement than during his career. In many ways I admire the fact that he is in his late 70’s and still splits wood with an ax, fixes old tractors, and builds attachments to his home. Sometimes I wonder what the source of this drive is. There is almost an inability to “be still and know that I am God.” I know this isn’t true. I know he takes time to study God’s word, to teach his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren, but there are moments you can see him wrestling with this himself. Two years ago he had rotator cuff surgery, the day he was released from the hospital he was splitting wood with an ax. In many ways I see my grandfather struggling with an inability to do, an inability to (at times) sit back and take time to understand the Sabbath, a day of rest.
My father is the same way. If he isn’t working he’s working on some new project – a new system to add to his ever-expanding garden, his chess game, a new idea for his medical practice. Or I look at myself: two years ago I lost a job. I felt like I was lost at sea, fighting the currents of fate, and fighting to stay above the crashing waves of despair. I lost sight of who I was because I was so caught up in the identity I thought I’d established via work and as a provider for my family. Once that was taken away I didn’t know who I was anymore. Looking back I can’t help but see God’s hand in this, shaking me loose from a thing that kept me from coming closer to Him.
One of the most powerful moments I’ve observed this was with an elderly couple I am close to. I met them a few years ago, and have been with them as they transitioned from their home to an assisted living center. I’ll never forget visiting them, and how dynamics had shifted so much. Jake had gone from a confident, always joking, roll with the punches sort of guy to a man who could barely hold back the tears at his helplessness, his inability to care for his wife or their home. He just seemed lost without that purpose.
As fathers, husbands, and “heads of the household” we find so much of who we are in that role of provider, protector, and conqueror. It makes sense – we are made in the image of the God who is all these things and more. It’s a fine line, however, between emulation and replacement, and when we cross it life becomes that much harder, that much more confusing and there is an emptiness in all we do. All of the sudden that yoke is not easy to bear, and the burden you carry is not so light.
I look at the men I’ve mentioned above, and it’s not that they are weak, or lacking in faith… in fact it’s quite the opposite – each of these men (although human and prone to stumble) walks admirably in their own way. How can Christian men seamlessly move from the search of God to finding ourselves defined by the work we do? We see this constantly with the apostles – bickering over who is the greatest among them, bragging about how they will stand up for Christ (violently if necessary). But, Jesus always replies by reminding them of their place – greatness is service, not accomplishment; we won’t always stand on our own strength besides Christ, that’s why we need him and not the other way around.
Look at the story of King Saul in the texts of Samuel I – he begins as God’s anointed one, and in the end rejects God’s path to forge his own identity as king, attempting to kill his replacement David, and eventually succumbing to despair and suicide. In the gospel we see Peter called out to meet Christ on the water – things go smoothly until he notices the torrent around him; still Christ’s hand is there for the taking, ever-extended to us as the world causes us to stumble, but will we refuse it as Saul did, or take it like Peter?
I’d like to sit here and say it’s an easy choice, but then the bills come, the kids need to be taken to various activities, groceries need to be picked up, the lawn mowed, you need to run errands for your wife, you need to spend time with your wife – not to mention work. And these are all good things in their own right, but who’s running the show; you or your schedule? I’m not saying to eliminate these things, or do less and spend more time connecting with God; but shouldn’t God be present in all of these things, big and small?
When I think of a man’s interaction with God, and what it ought to be I think of David. I read his psalms of praise, his psalms of near despair, and everything in between, and I see what it means to be, as Percy calls it, “aware of the search”, or constantly in pursuit of the face of God. Everything, from how David fathered his children to how he led as Israel’s king took place under that context. Everything was defined, not by David, but by God’s work in David. What more can we do for our Father – what more can we do as fathers – than pursue all things, not as our identity, but as God’s gift.
“Hi, I’m Brian. I live in New Berlin, WI with my wife, HHH writer Kristie, and our two children. I currently manage my dad’s medical practice, and have recently launched an indie publishing company with two of my English cohorts from Wisconsin Lutheran College.”