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?”
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.
Tonight is the night. Christmas will never be the same.
This is how a normal practice goes with a 2-4 year old cast for the Nativity scene. Once we get everybody quiet or at least a resemblance of silence, the story starts and the angel comes to see Mary, who is sweeping the floor with great vigor. The angel appears and Mary, in an effort to look startled according to the coaching of the teachers, stomps on her broom, trips over it, straddles it like a witch, and performs all sorts of un-Mary-like broom tricks. After the angel is finished, Mary is hustled off to another room and Joseph comes to dream, folds his blanket in fourths and proceeds to try to go to sleep on a tiny bit of blanket. While the angel speaks with him, Mary peeks out of the room with great giggles, as if pleased and embarrassed by the developments of Joseph’s dream. Once Mary and Joseph are supposed to go travel to Bethlehem, Mary is found chasing Joseph around with a broom, while Joseph fends her off with the blanket. The donkey takes them to Bethlehem while a pregnant Mary hangs on to his side and Joseph trudges way in the back as if reluctant to face what is going to happen next. When finally they reach the stable, Mary tumbles into her chair in a decidedly unpregnant fashion and dramatically pulls out from under her shirt, a sweater that has been knotted at the hood to represent a baby. While the angel appears to the shepherds (who are too busy talking and/or playing air guitar with the sash of their shepherd costume to notice that an angel has appeared at all) Mary is busy bopping the baby’s “head” against her own, and Joseph is out of his seat checking out what is under it. The Wise Men appear, following a star, and get distracted in their journey and begin waving to the rest of the children who are sitting not so quietly watching. After the Wise Men are coerced to kneel down at the side of the baby, and Mary yanks the gifts from their hands, Joseph decides now would be a good time to try out the flavor of the frankincense.
After this, everybody is put in a line in a haphazard fashion and we manage to sing, “It’s a Gift to You.” The first part is usually fairly quiet since most of them are busy poking their neighbor, or or are covering their eyes, or doing other mad sort of tricks. The last part of the song crescendos into a thundering roar, as each child tries to outsing outshout the others.
If we keep on at this rate, we will be vying for Oscars alongside The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Which is fine, too.