A few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, I tapped the brakes slightly on my motorbike, and as a result, went sliding down a rain-washed mountain curve, leaving a 15 foot long scar on the pavement and a barely noticeable bruise on my leg. Shaken, but not hurt, I righted my bike and continued down the mountain in a proper fashion.
A few days before that, I finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital waiting for a health certificate in order to renew my driver’s license. Finishing the book at the hospital seemed fitting, even when I had no reason to be there other than to get a piece of paper.
Kalanithi writes poignantly of his battle with cancer and even more poignantly of his search to find purpose and meaning in life. Somehow when you read a book in which you know the author dies in the end, you read it with an expectancy of being on the brink of learning a great secret of life. It’s like leaning breathlessly over a death bed trying to catch the last words of someone who is ready to cross over to the other side of that blurred glass. You feel that someone that close to death must have a key to the purpose of life.
Perhaps that is because death and life really are not that much different.
The gist of Kalanithi’s story kept echoing in my soul several days after I put the book down. Kalanithi’s words, the fact that I slid down the mountain, the fact that I am close to adding another full year onto my life, and various other factors turned my mind to take a deeper look into my own life. One afternoon as I was patting one of my K1 students to sleep, a thought exploded in my brain.
If I live till fifty, I am over half finished with my life. If I live to 75, I am a third finished with my life.
I hated that thought and wished it away. It scared me. It made me panic.
You see, I’ve been living life in the same manner that I’ve been using crayons at work. In a classroom of 21 children, crayons are expendable. Once one of them becomes a little stub, it ends up in the trashcan without much thought and is easily replaced.
Life is not like that. But I’ve been living it like that. And suddenly with the realization that I’ve been alive for 27 years and at best have 60 more years left, comes the realization that I can’t afford to live life carelessly. I could die tomorrow. I could die in two weeks. I could die in 20 years. And the brutal fact remains– I’m not getting any younger.
My young students remind me of this daily. One day while playing “doctor” (I was the patient; they were the doctors) one of them discovered the white hairs in my head, exclaimed over them and made it her self-appointed duty to pick them out immediately. Just a few days ago, I leaned over a table, talking to a three year old, while raising my eyebrows. At the end of whatever I was saying, he didn’t respond, only wonderingly lifted his finger up and traced the wrinkles on my forehead. No, I’m not getting younger.
What does it mean to really, truly be alive in this world? This is the question that comes back to me over and over again.
There are lots of good quotes and words out there about what it means to really live, what a life well lived looks like. Cliché. Well meant. Good stuff. But somehow I’ve reached a point in my life where I myself need to come to a conclusion about what it really means to live.
As I was trying to form a conclusion for this post, I only was able to come up with a hundred more, disjointed random questions and thoughts.
Does truly living mean pouring yourself out trying to meet the needs and demands of the people around you until you are totally exhausted in the evening and lack the energy to even make your own supper?
Or is it the opposite, saying no to the needs around you so you can live your private life, follow the desires of your heart and stop and smell the roses and drink all the coffee you want?
I don’t think it means either of them. For the last few years, the former has been the story of my life. On some days I drag myself home at the end of the day, thinking, “Is this really what a fulfilling life looks like?”
But the fight within me continues. I have a hundred things that I would love to do before I die. I want to gallop across the Sahara desert on an Arabian horse with my hair down. I want explore Southeast Asia and visit the deserts of Mongolia and find my way into North Korea. I want to live in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. I want to write another book, a really really good one. I want to read books. I want to live at home and appreciate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of my own culture. I want to live in a Karen or Akha village in the mountains of Thailand. I want to learn another language. I want to live in Tibet. I want to get married and have children of my own.
But I only have one life. And it’s not my own.
Can I justify doing things to satisfy my own wanderlust and desires?
What do the words mean, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?” Am I not in tune enough with the Father’s heart to have my desires be his yet?
What does it mean to enjoy the gift of life that God has given us to the fullest, and yet being in tune to the needs of millions in this world who lack the privileges of money and freedom I have been given? Can I justify using my time and money in following my own desires while others are struggling to simply live?
What does it mean to be a Mary who serves?
Is it wrong to spend time reading literature just for the fact that it is well written, even if its spiritual benefit is low?
When is it right to spend money on your own comforts when it is something you could live without?
How do you decide where to pour out your life when there are so many things you love to do and would love to learn?
Paul was an apostle who poured out his life so others could hear the gospel. But did he ever stop on a mountain peak and drink in the glory of the natural world? Did he rejoice inwardly in the beauty of each culture he visited and delight in the different stripes and colors of each country?
This life is beautiful. The people and the world around me are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and gloried in. There are hundreds of amazing accomplishments of humanity that should be celebrated, not because of the human ability behind it, but because of the gift of talented brains and gifted hands that God has given us. There are hundreds of beautiful cultures and customs that express the image of God.
To sum it up, the question that remains is, “How do I live and taste this beautiful life to the fullest, without getting wrapped up in things that take away from the purpose God has given me?”
Suddenly I plunged into it. Up and upward I climbed, deeper into the heart of the mist. The echo of the Chinese tourists’ jabber faded and nothing remained but the winding road, the forest and the fog. I was alone in the world. Curve after curve we went, the fickle fog wisping in the hollows and around the mossy tree trunks, now fleeing in fear, now advancing recklessly, reaching around my hands, my neck, my arms, chilling me with welcome numbness. We climbed up and then bounced down, my motorbike and I, through rutted tracks and mud, deeper and deeper into this alien world. When I stopped at the lookout to pull my camera from my backpack and turned off my bike, the silence hit me with a shout. Only the wind spoke its emptiness in the treetops, like a December breeze in a muffled midnight snow. Beneath me the fog rolled out in an fathomless ocean. I thrilled. I was alone in a world of fog. Alone.
I was very young, perhaps 4, when I first learned what it meant to cry for someone else.
Oh, I was an expert when it came to crying. Even up to the age of about 7, I considered it a day of victory if I got through the day without the inevitable tear. But I remember distinctly the day I learned what it meant to feel someone else’s pain.
It was also on that day that I came to the realization that people don’t just hurt on the outside. They can also hurt on the inside.
The knowledge I gained that day shaped my life forever.
According to dictionary.com, the definition of ambivalence is this:
1.uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.
When I read the definition, I thought to myself, “It feels so good that at least the dictionary understands the story of my life.”
There are times when I know exactly what I want. If I would sit down and count them, I could probably count them on one hand.
Whether it’s ordering off a menu, or deciding on a career, I feel like Philippa Gordon in Anne of the Island, who was struck with such indecisiveness that when faced with the decision of which hat to wear, she would put them on the bed, close her eyes and jab them with a hatpin.
Sometimes I do it too. I can’t decide what to wear so I go “eenie meenie minie moe.” And sometimes I have to do it several times before I get to the point where I can be happy with the results. I know, it’s weird.
But what do ambivalence and hatpins have to do with hope?
Because hope is such a strange thing. It’s what keeps us alive, yet it’s also what keeps us in pain. It’s such an enigma, oxymoron, puzzle, whatever you want to call it. We love it, we call it, we lure it, but when we have it, it hurts. So we shelve it, we box it, we draw boundaries around it, we sit on it, we smother it, we numb its beauty with the narcotic of fantasy. And yet, we live on it. We can’t live without it. An old, old book says, “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” Yet, wouldn’t it be better not to hope at all, rather than to hope and have it deferred? A Thai friend of mine has this saying on his Line (a popular messaging app in Asia)profile picture. “Mai wang, mai pit wang.” Meaning, “If you don’t hope, you won’t be disappointed.”
I know that’s a lie. But the ambivalence inside of me rages. If I hope, I will be disappointed. If I don’t hope, I will die. Hope is what keeps me alive, yet sometimes that life feels like death.
To hope or not to hope?
This ambivalence is what keeps us standing on the edge of the river, dipping only a toe into the water when we could jump in. It keeps us wavering at the counter of McDonalds, keeps us paralyzed and unable to make long term commitments because of all the “what if’s”, and it keeps us jabbing hatpins at hats on the bed.
I wish I had some kind of profound way to end this post. Some deep, wise thought that seals it up and leaves a good, satisfying taste in my mouth and lets me finally go to bed, feeling like I’ve got it figured out and that I’ve left a wise impression on my readers. But that’s not what hope is like. This elusive, ethereal, yet powerful thing. It’s an emotion, yet not an emotion.
Perhaps, perhaps there’s something that lies in the choice. The act of choosing. Not the jabbing of the hatpin, but the deliberate choice to hope. And maybe it has something to do with faith.
I reach for them to stand them in their proper place
But they slide from my hands like elusive lizards,
Leaving me stupidly holding the tail in my hands.
They refuse to stand still, climbing all over the page
Jumping like those quintuplet monkeys on the bed
Mocking me, laughing at my efforts to pin them into thoughts
Climbing out the window, taking any scrap of created thought with them.
I fight with them, wrestle with them,
Cajole, whisper, and shout.
But it all ends in a mess, and I find myself standing confused and distracted, words in chaotic heaps all over the room, furniture overturned in the madcap chase for the right verb, while the proper nouns huddle crying and hurt in the corner, the adverbs swing by their tails from the chandelier, and the adjectives string themselves out across the floor like spaghetti on steroids. And it is right, for how can words say what you want to say when your heart does not even understand what it wants to say?