There is something about the winter light this afternoon that gives me perspective. The lack of visibility sort of points out that life is not an endless journey. Basically what I’ve got is right in front of me: today is the day I have to live in.
And most important, that what lies ahead is not entirely within my control. Not even close.
Deep hiking thoughts. You know, those idle truths that pop up when you’re clomping your boots up the muddy trail.
I just finished reading Kate Bowler’s new book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved and it is full of insights that up-end the assumptions most of us make about our own mortality. Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at 35 while she was writing a book. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment that sees her through 3 months at a time. Pretty bad visibility towards her future.
A religious researcher and professor at Duke, Bowler’s primary focus of study is on the Prosperity Gospel. That is, the theology that we are rewarded by our faith through good actions. Doing good keeps us safe and we can avoid bad things if we only have enough faith in God. Abundant material riches will be ours if we choose to believe that we are worthy.
It sounds okay until you really think about it. There is a pernicious underside to this formula that implies that if only we believed enough then we might be free of illness or terminal conditions or depression and struggle. How does that work in real life?
It all seems a bit egocentric to me. Like we somehow deserve all of the riches if we’re strong and good, more optimistic or happier. Like we are the centers of the universe and our small decisions sway God into making good things come our way.
We live in a culture that encourages this type of mantra. Go to any gym and check out the can-do platitudes all around. They insist it is solely on us to make things happen – get in shape, lose weight, take control of our bodies.
Read any self help book, it’s one of the major myths about mental illness.
Mind over matter, prayer over despair. Somehow if we only had more faith then everything would turn out okay.
I don’t think life works like that. I’d like to believe that the world is richer, more complex than just a direct response to our own little plucky attitudes.
But it’s easy to fall prey to the seductive voices that urge me to pull myself up, to just do it for god’s sake. To believe that whatever happens is some kind of divine reward or punishment for my own singular efforts.
But bad shit happens. We get diagnosed with terminal illness, we lose children, we go through divorce, we fall to addiction, we go through all kinds of serious shit, just because. Because life is that way, just because.
We are human.
And on days like today I look to the horizon and want to see an alpine peak with the sun glancing off of it illuminating everything in my view for miles and miles. I anticipate good things to come – hey, I even expect them.
But instead there is just this gray fog. It’s a reality check – what makes me think I deserve only good things?
But we wouldn’t want the certainty that every day held only sunshine, not really. We take the ugly days because they are the texture and weave of this human life. We exist in this imperfect, in-between time because it is the only real place that exists.
Suffering is not an anomaly, it’s stamped on this passport that is our life. We have to see that life and death are intertwined, they are part and parcel of one another.
It’s when we’re scared that we are desperate to interpret things as all sunshine or all rain.
But I think we need a new way to talk about the weather. We shouldn’t have to deny the hard things or see them as personal failure. They are the truths of authentic life.
Kate Bowler talks about the “burden of optimism” that we are up against in our society. By insisting on only seeing the opportunities, we attempt to negate our human frailty. We live in a death – denying numbness.
But, she says, good things are not always available to us at all times. Every day is a combination of possibilities and inevitabilities. And what is surely inevitable is that each of us is broken and we each must trek through the muddy shadow of loss and death.
On my hike today it feels obvious that we’re still stuck in the soul-sucking season of winter, where it feels like such an uphill struggle to keep the positive energy going for any kind of rebirth. One day the sun promises and the next the ice and cold stake yet another claim. But it’s the way it must be.
And we keep walking the path in search of the thin sunshine, grateful for the tiny warmth while still fully aware that this brutal season is fickle – they all are – and that there will always be things, good and bad, easy and hard, on the horizon.
It’s all right there in front of us if we look up.