I turned 27 last week, and with that milestone, I’ve been experiencing a lot of clarity in my life. Some of it has to do with my career, as I spoke about in my last post, and with that very large piece of my life coming into perspective, it makes sense that other things might follow. And yet, as the days go on and Spring seems just around the corner, teasing us with her Winter-speckled dance, I can’t help but think that it might be the other way around. My career and my goals in life may be falling into place because of what I have recently realized about myself.
Every year on my birthday I write down a prayer. Not something of the moment, but rather a prayer that can be the theme of my year. It began, in infamy, on my 19th birthday when I asked the Lord not to “be gentle with my heart.” That was the year that, among many other things, I discovered that I have to be very careful what I pray for, because the Lord may just decide to answer my prayers.
Since then every year has been different. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years of prayers—prayers for pride, prayers for compassion, prayers for prayer, even. Every year when I open up my journal and look back on my entry from the previous year, it’s amazing to see what God has done in answering it. Some years it’s so clear how he answered it. Some years it’s more nuanced. But every year I can look back over the previous twelve months of my life and see that he’s been at work.
This year I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask for until the day before my birthday. There were a few prayers rattling around in my heart. I even considered praying again for the previous year’s prayer. But then I found something out about myself. Something that, I’m afraid, has been the root of many of my prayers over the years, though it hid in the background out of sight. Something that makes no sense, but has had a chokehold on me for a long time. I found out that I have allowed myself to become eaten up with self pity.
I wonder, in our current culture of fear-mongering and the looming threat of Trumpism (which seems like it should be a joke, but is in fact not at all a joke) how much we all wrestle with self pity. How much of the rhetoric is about what we deserve, and what we’re missing out on? How often do we look online and see the carefully curated online images of our friends and colleagues, and allow ourselves to slide right into what-if and why-not-me? I know in my own life it’s entered subtly into so much of my internal monologue. Well of course he’s not interested in me. Well of course they’re asking me to do this. Well of course I got another rejection.
Which is, on so many levels, total bullshit. If I take one clear, hard look at my life I can see—as can many of us—that what I have is abundant. The opportunities I’ve been given, the people who love me, the person I am. It is selfish beyond belief for me to demand more than what I have, when I have so much.
But the thing about humans is that as creative as they can be, they have an inability to fully understand something that they have not experienced. This Fall I learned what it means to be truly grateful for rest, only because I was working so hard during the week. Because of the way I’ve always lived my life, it’s really difficult for me to get to a place of mental thankfulness, and it’s getting harder the older I get and the farther the reach of social media extends. Plus, humans have terribly memories. Even if I can get there in one moment, in the next, I’m guaranteed to forget all about my gratefulness.
But the really amazing thing about all of this is that none of this even matters. Nothing I have makes any difference at all, if what I profess to believe is true. And that encapsulates both the absurd impossibility of Christianity and one of the reasons why it’s definitely true. Because nobody could make this stuff up. A religion that asks humans to make this impossible leap has to be divine. (And I do mean impossible. It is actually impossible to believe or act on the tenets of Christianity without the supernatural work of the Spirit. It doesn’t even compute.)
This is one of the things that has—praise the Lord—become so blindingly clear in the past few weeks. I have been conscientiously forcing myself to stop pitying myself when something doesn’t go as I have trained myself to believe it should, in the big things and the small, and as a result I am seeing just the tiniest corner of a beautiful world opening up. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get that job, or that I’m not dating anyone right now, or that I don’t live in that city. Because this is my story. This is the story that has—according to what I profess to believe—been written on the hands of the eternal God, and yes, I know how insane that sounds, praise the Lord, I know. I hope it never stops sounding insane to me that a being so large and incomprehensible could choose to create a world with something like electrical plugs and florescent lights. Who knows why the menial was created. Who cares. It all rolls into something so profoundly life changing that I am not sure why I don’t fall down on my knees every moment of the day.
It must be that horrifically short memory of human beings. Or perhaps it's the reinsertion of the menial; I think maybe the knowledge deep in our blood that we were meant for more gets warped into our inflated sense of self pity. We know we shouldn’t quite be doing whatever it is that we’re doing, and we were meant for more, but then we get distracted by looking around us for whatever that “more” might be, and we conclude that it must be whatever everyone else has. But even the biggest book deal or the largest English garden or whatever else I can imagine could never stem my flow of self pity, or my hunger for more. I know that, now. I know that I am a queen, and I have been treating myself as a pauper. I have twice as much to be thankful for, because even in this life that will fade away, I have been given much. But even if I had nothing—and I stretch my imagination to say this, because I have no conception of this—I would still be a queen.
I love the great hymn Before the Throne of God Above. It has several verses, and each is magnificent and has spoken to me at different moments in my life. I have been meditating on the first verse, as I’ve been pondering all of these things. It sums up in brilliantly simple terms the type of assurance we have:
Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea
A great high priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on his hands; my name is written on his heart
I know that while in heaven he stands no tongue can bid me thence depart.
No tongue. Not a single one—not even the high king of heaven himself. It’s hard, because we are tangible, moment-to-moment creatures, but why on earth do I care about how many likes my most recent post got or whether I was rejected from a job when I know that beyond this very good creation, there waits a heaven and earth that will smash my expectations into a million pieces and rebuild them anew. This life is beautiful, and I’m not trying to say that it means nothing. We have real concerns and real pain and real trouble. But we’ve got to put it in perspective, especially when so many of us in this country truly have nothing to complain about.
And I hope, if this climate of fear should actually spell changes to come, that it is not our self pity that will rule us, but our strong and joyful hope. We have not been promised happiness. We have not been promised wealth. But we have been promised life, and I want to live it fully, both in this life and the next.
If we are in Christ, we are kings and queens. Let us not live like paupers.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard