wasting life

Life and Death: You know, the little things

My great aunt passed away this past Sunday. I know for many people a great aunt is a more distant relative, someone they only see a few times during their life, but my great aunt was like a second grandmother to me. She never married and didn’t have children of her own. She was handicapped her whole life and my grandmother took care of her, so she was a part of all of our family events and gatherings.  When my grandparents moved from New Orleans to live next door to my family after Hurricane Katrina she moved with them into a retirement community right around the corner from my grandparents’ new home. And when she was no longer able to manage her own apartment, she moved across the street into the nursing home.

My great aunt, Eva Marie Hubert. Isn't she lovely?

She was 80 years old, but she was mentally sharp as a tack, remembered everything, and didn’t even need reading glasses to see things perfectly. She was born in 1931 and contracted polio when she was only 10 months old. For her entire life she wore braces on her legs. She used a walker, and later a wheelchair when she lost the strength in her arms required to use the walker. My husband and I went with my family to visit her on Christmas Day. She was sitting up in her chair, looking very frail and incredibly thin, but talking about how she didn’t want to miss the Saints game on Monday night and her friend who was bringing her a pecan pie later on. She loved to give gifts. As a child I remember that every time we saw her she’d have picked out a few little things for us and have them wrapped up nicely, even after she was retired and had very little money to live on. Even in the nursing home, she would take candy or little things that people brought to her and tie them up in little plastic bags and hand them out to others in the nursing home who she thought looked sad. This Christmas she decided to give each of her grand-nieces a piece of jewelry from her own jewelry box.

Here she is opening her Christmas present when we went to see her on Christmas Day

A few days after Christmas she went into the hospital with pneumonia and didn’t recover. It’s always sad to lose someone, but I genuinely know that she was ready to go. She had lived a very full life and she wasn’t afraid to leave it. I think my grandmother will be affected the most by her loss as she has been caring for her sister since she was a little girl, but we are all thankful that she isn’t suffering and that she lived such a long, full life.

While this post is partly meant to remember and to celebrate my great aunt, it’s also about those of us still here. Even though my aunt has been steadily declining over the last few years, the finality of her death has really impacted me. It may not be as jarring or as tragic as a sudden death or the death of someone very young, but it’s still strange to me that she was here and we were talking with her just two weeks ago and now she’s not anymore. It’s made me realize how attached I am to this life, in spite of all the little things I find to complain about.

I was talking to Jonathan a few nights ago about how there’s a sense in which I feel that I, as a Christian, am not supposed to fear death. I’m not supposed to long for more of life. I’m supposed to embrace the time I’m given, but rest knowing that when this life is over I move on to something greater. But if I’m honest, I do fear it to some extent. I like this world. I love doing life with my husband and having a home together. I want to have babies and to see all of the amazing places in the world. I want to experience cultures, learn languages, adopt a child, write a book.

Here is a secret about me that is going to sound terribly morbid. For some reason I could never identify, I have always believed I would die young. I have no reason to think this –no medical conditions, no family history of sudden, early death, no impulse to engage in dangerous activities. It’s just something I’ve always believed somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until my relationship with Jonathan got really serious that I was able for the first time to even imagine myself growing old –because I can imagine him growing old and I can’t imagine ever being without him. And I think maybe it is this underlying belief, however unfounded, that subconsciously drives my overwhelming desires to travel and see and go and do and be and not waste time doing things I don’t care about.

I know that as a Christian I am supposed to feel that death only ushers me in to something greater than I can ever imagine – the presence of God.  And I do believe that. But there’s something even about heaven that I’ve always found frightening. Jonathan says it is because we cannot wrap our minds around something as large as eternity and it’s unsettling to think about the unknown and the unknowable. We are always somewhat afraid of what we don’t know and can’t anticipate. Sort of like how I (and I think many people) felt right before I got married—you know it’s going to be the most wonderful thing and you are excited for it, but at the same time, you are sort of anxious because it’s something you personally have never experienced and can’t quite imagine. You don’t have a mental framework for it. It is unlike anything you’ve done before.

I am not one of those people who can just pretend to have the “right” perspective on everything. I believe that there are people who genuinely feel more excited about heaven than earth, who have a more eternal perspective on life and death. But I admit that I am not there yet. And while this distresses me because I have always wanted to give the “right” answer, to have the “right” attitude, to say the “right” thing, I also think there’s something to learn from my own frailty.

If I recognize that I love life and say that I’m so grateful for the minutes and the hours and the days that I’ve had and that I hope to have, why do I still spend so much of that precious time just trying to get through it? Why do I sit at work and wish the time away?  Why do I spend the week just trying to push through so that I can get to the weekend? If I make the goal of each day to get to the end of it so I can once again crawl into my lovely bed, will those days add up to a life whose goal was just to reach the end of it? And isn’t that the exact opposite of that driving force that (sometimes unhealthily, I admit) beats with my heart Go everywhere. See everything. Don’t waste your days.

Conclusion: it’s ok that I can’t grasp eternity and that in my frailty, I even find it somewhat frightening. There is grace for that. It’s ok that I love life. It is a gift. I can’t place all of my value on things I will gain or experience in this life, but I can take these feelings and allow the Holy Spirit to use them. To say to my wandering heart, focus yourself. Live with intention. Stop running through your days just trying to make it to the end. Be attentive and be present, even when all you want to do is go home. Be mindful that the life you want to live is made up of what you do with your individual days, not just a handful of special moments.

So…Aunt Nan, I hope you’re dancing for the first time in your life with no braces on your legs. I have no way of knowing how many days I have left, if there is any validity to my feeling that I will lead a short life. But I trust that whenever my time here is over, there will be grace to bring me home. Without fear. And I sincerely hope, without regret.

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The Dilemma of My Generation: When “You Can Do Anything!” Means, “You’d Better Make it Good!”

Not many people know this, but for the past several months I have been diligently pursuing applying to PhD programs in cultural anthropology.  Travel, different cultures, and many of the issues of applied anthropology have continued to fascinate me and as I’ve thought about what to do in life I’ve started to lean more towards further study of anthropology. I was thinking of pursuing the PhD because I wasn’t aware of much that could be done with just the master’s and because I thought having the PhD would give me the option of working in the non-profit sector or teaching in a university. I’m all set to take the GRE on Tuesday and over the past few weeks I have started contacting programs and asking more specific questions. Most programs require you to go into them with a very specific research question in mind and many recommend that you’ve already dialogued with a professor who would be willing to serve as your advisor. It’s a lot more work than simply filling out an application.

As I’ve started to get responses from people I’ve contacted I’ve become more and more discouraged. Not only has no one so much as said, “thanks for looking at our program” but they have by and large responded with an attitude like, “Why do you want to this? “ or “Why are you bothering me?” Yesterday I got in touch with a Wheaton grad who recently earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He basically told me that if I get a PhD I will lose my faith, change all of my political views, and be completely unemployable because I’ll be overqualified to work with non-profits and I will be in a very, very competitive pool for the few available university positions that don’t even pay enough to support a family on.

I’ve become overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I am not pursuing this because it’s really the passion of my life and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather that I’m pursuing it because I am so tired of not having goals or something to pursue and if I got into a PhD program that would give me something to spend the next 6-7 years working towards. Which probably is not a good enough reason.

I have a theory about people in my generation. Particularly people who have been blessed with a lot of opportunities. People who have good, supportive families and went to schools like Wheaton and have been told all of their lives that they are exceptional. The theory is this: being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life. Believing that I am extremely gifted and talented and that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I have been given privileges in order to do something amazing makes every ordinary, mundane day seem like a failure. I feel like I am not living up to my potential or to the expectations of all of these people who believe in me. I can see and agree that I have been given opportunities that not everyone gets and despite pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life, I can’t help feeling that I’m squandering the gift of those opportunities. I feel that I have to (and want to) do something cool and significant and amazing with my life, but I have no earthly idea what it is and the feeling is beyond frustrating. Sometimes I feel like God is teasing me. Like he is saying, “I gave you all of these opportunities for a reason, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. But if you don’t figure it out on your own, you will be held accountable.” I know God’s not really like that, but sometimes it definitely feels that way.

It is the moral gem we learned from Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I genuinely feel that if I don’t do something amazing with my life, I will have wasted it. Thank you, John Piper. And so today, as I sit in my cube and design flyers to sell properties and maintain databases, I feel that I am indeed wasting my precious life. Watching it slip past me day after day and week after week as I plod along doing the same thing with very few highs or lows to break the monotony.  I am striving to make the most of my days. To be a good friend, employee, co-worker, and wife. But mostly, this doesn’t feel like enough. Beyond the expectations of others, I’m disappointed in myself. And I am so afraid of life always being this way.  I am afraid I will finish life having seen and done so little. This is not at all a critique of those who do feel fulfilled by staying in one place or working a corporate job or just raising a family. But it is true that I have an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I literally stay awake at night longing to see the canals in Venice and the Greek islands and the Great Barrier Reef and being afraid that I never will. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s true.

Every so often I strike out and choose a course of action from my list of possibilities (writing, non-profit work, academia, kindergarten teacher, pastry chef) and every time I am advised, “You shouldn’t pursue this unless you are 100% certain that this all you want to do in life ever, ever, ever.” And  between the “you can’t” s and the “you shouldn’t” s I’m advised to “wait” until I know. And I feel like I’m never going to just “know.” It’s completely unhelpful and infuriating, particularly when so many of my friends are in grad school or are already teachers or nurses or photographers, pursuing their chosen profession. Meanwhile I actually feel  hindered by all of my options. When you are led to believe that you can be anything you want and do anything you want and you are already an indecisive person (me!), it is a tremendous burden rather than a freedom to be asked to decide or to discern. Ultimately, all I want is to honor God with my life. To do what he has gifted me and called me to do. But I am so tired and so discouraged by doing nothing while I wait for him to tell me. And I’m tired of him not telling me. And I’m tired of feeling that any direction I try to move in is blocked.

This isn’t uplifting, but this is true. I know God has a purpose for my life, but I sure wish he’d share that information. And I know I’m not the only one.