(Below is a video of my friends Symon Hajjar and John Paul Pope, members of Dear Saint Isaac, performing the song “What if I die.” The following was written as a reaction to the song. It’s my hope that both the article and the song together take the reader to places he or she hasn’t visited, or at least hasn’t visited in a long time. Thanks for reading and thanks for listening.)
I’ll never forget the conversation I overheard one day between two elderly gentlemen. One of them, in his early 90’s, got quickly heated talking about a conflict with his mother going back to when he was 5 years old. I knew this man pretty well; he was exceptionally intelligent and generally cheery. I had never seen him upset before.
I have no idea what the conflict was about, I only caught a few seconds of it and it wasn’t my place to pry, but whatever it was is beside the point—here sat an elderly man still pounding the table over some relationship issue that happened nearly a century ago.
A century ago!
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself afterwards, “this could be me one day: 90 and still captive to pains I experienced in childhood.” What a nightmare. I get upset with myself when I can’t get over something said or done to me 10 minutes ago let alone years ago… let alone 90 years ago! Up to that point I fantasized that old age would naturally lead me to the art of living well.
I like to think that I can get over anything someone does or says to me. It’s my little emotional Medal of Honor; my proof that I rule me, not someone else—I get to decide whether or not I live in peace. And it is true, ultimately I am responsible for whether or not I live a happy life, whether or not I live in peace, whether or not I learn to love and forgive and walk humbly with others, et cetera.
But, responsibility aside, is there any guarantee that any of us will really learn to live before our time is up?
Science is no guide. Faith in oneself alone is a fool’s playground. Even faith in Christ is no guarantee. I believe those who have Christ are better suited for the task than anyone, but that doesn’t erase the subjective variable of the individual and his or her willingness to work it out. One can be a Christian his whole life and never work it out.
And isn’t the need for a guarantee already a guarantee that one is on the wrong track?
Oddly there’s something about the bewilderment of it all that I’ve grown to love, something about the inaccessibility of life for the objectively inclined thinker, something about the mystery of the total story that makes flipping the pages of life exhilarating. What could be duller than a predetermined existence where the ending is assured and life reduced to a long and tiring interlude of triviality before the “real” show? Or what could be more antithetical to life than objective certitude?
I don’t think anybody “learns to live” in the sense that the learning is at some point finished. Living is too dynamic a process to ever be settled psychologically. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, everything has its season; and every season teaches us something new about the whole of life and the part we have to play in it all.
After much thought on the subject since overhearing the two gentlemen, my thinking has changed. I hope that when I’m 90 there are still events and memories in my life that cause me to get fired up—both joy and anger. I want to be at peace with others, so far as is possible, but I don’t want to ever become comfortable with the ‘money changers’ in my head (Matt 21:12). For me, the best way to get to the pain and sort it out is to go looking for it. The worst way is to let the pain find you on its own terms, often when you least expect it.
Will I ever get sorted out? I don’t know. For me the epitome of a life well lived is to attain true humility and love for God, but its attainment is moment by moment, never once-and-for-all.
Everything I try holding up keeps on bringing me down
I wanna have it all together but I’m freaking out
I’m living in a world where everybody’s running like hell
While heaven is standing still
But when I close my eyes
I see a different side
What if I love till my heart gets broken
What if I’m old but I never get sorted out
What if I try and it’s still not working
What if I die without ever learning how to live
Every time I try to do right it ends up proving me wrong
I’m starring at my good intentions like a prison wall
I’m living in a world where everybody’s buying what sells
Like lambs being fed by wolves
Like lambs being led by fools
But when I close my eyes
I see a different side
(Listen here for the music only studio version)