I’m 45, which, in my mind, puts me right smack in the middle of my life. Statistically, that is probably way off. Most likely I left the halfway point back in the dust a few years ago. But reality aside, this year has been a good one for me in reflecting on where I’ve come from and what lies ahead. The realization that the memories bucket is heavier than the future possibilities bucket is a bit sobering. But I’m slowly understanding that the feeling of sobriety is a gift. There is a freedom in it.
I’m writing a book. I’ve already told some of you that. I’ve always wanted to, and now it has gone from mere intention to a firm deadline. It isn’t just a possibility, it is a responsibility. In other words, I’ve sold the unfinished product, and I’ve got to make good on the deal. That isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is how I work best. This is why I’ve loved education so much. Fixed deadlines are just what this procrastinator needs to get the job done.
But I’ve always looked at writing a book as a sort of arrival. It is an achievement that gives life its weight or meaning. You’ve left a contribution behind to be remembered by. Your life has produced a treasure that will remain after you’re gone. After the years of your life have expired, a part of you remains.
But at 45, with this book becoming a reality, I’m realizing that this whole premise will, once again, let me down. There is no lasting satisfaction in a master’s degree, or a doctorate, or a senior pastor position, or…gulp…a book. All we do is push the bar just a little further beyond our reach. This is a good thing, in a way, because it keeps us moving, growing, pushing for more. As long as we don’t make the mistake of thinking that this life offers us any sort of arrival. If the book does well, then what about the next one?
I just read a letter from C.S. Lewis to his friend, Warfield Firor, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. In it he shares the fact that he is being compulsorily ‘retired’ from Oxford and would not be receiving the chair position he’d always dreamed of attaining. In this heartbreaking moment, he realizes that this disappointment, in a way, is a mercy.
He writes, “I am therefore trying to profit by this new realization of my mortality. To begin to die, to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on one.”
In the letter he imagines a world here without aging and death. What if we lived forever in this world without true fulfillment? How many of us would have the courage to choose our real destiny elsewhere? Aging then becomes our companion in unhitching our dreams from this life where ultimate fulfillment eludes us, to our next where our deep appetites are ultimately satisfied.
And therefore, aging is a gift, a mercy. Even in the sorrows of leaving behind our unrealized dreams, or saying goodbye to friends we love, or parting from a life we’ve found beautiful and dear. By embracing aging, we free ourselves from, as Lewis puts it, the tentacles, that seek to wring out of life more than it can give. To turn the momentary pleasures into possessions that ultimately break our hearts.
But as the tentacles come loose, as we let go of this world, we receive it back for what it truly is. The momentary pleasures can be savored and then released. The sunset can be enjoyed without having to possess the view.
Lewis writes, “One ought not to need the gloomy moments of life for beginning detachment, nor be re-entangled by the bright ones. One ought to be able to enjoy the bright ones to the full and at the very moment have the perfect readiness to leave them, confident that what calls one away is better…”
I’m writing a book. Not to cling to some notion of ultimate meaning, nor to exist in this world beyond death, nor to give my kids something to fight over when I die. I’m writing a book, at the midpoint of my life, to celebrate what a gift this life has been. Beyond that, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.