Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sit back and watch the show

An article I wrote about a year and a half ago, which appeared in Relevant magazine online. Read it below or on Relevant's site.

I pop a very familiar videotape into the VCR and collapse on the couch. About once a year, while curled up under a pile of blankets in an attempt to recover from a bad cold or the latest bug that’s going around, I watch The Princess Bride. When the gray lines of overuse began to creep up the screen, I considered upgrading to a DVD copy, complete with special features, but at this point, it would feel like throwing out my favorite teddy bear when his stuffing began to leak out. No matter how many times I watch it, the corny lines, “No more rhymes now; I mean it … Anybody want a peanut?” still make me chuckle. But these days, I don’t always watch the whole film all at once. When I’m aching for a healthy dose of laughter, I’ve been known to simply fast-forward to my favorite scenes (such as the duel atop the Cliffs of Insanity). It’s not that I don’t like the rest of the movie; I’m just anxious to watch the next high point of this familiar comedy.

Movies aren’t the only things through which I like to fast-forward. In my life, the grass has always been greener in the future. I spent much of my childhood practicing to be a teenager and most of my teen years longing for my driver’s license. But, of course, when my 16th birthday rolled around, the keys to the car were only a fleeting source of happiness, as my gaze was now fixed on another milestone in the future. College, I thought, was where I could truly come alive as an intellectual and as an adult (na├»ve, I know). Milestone after milestone was reached and forgotten, as I grasped further into the future, in search of a fully satisfied life. My longing for the future became much like a cycle of consumerism—no accomplishment was ever enough to satisfy me; I always wanted something more. When I graduate, everything will be fine, I thought. Life’s hard now, but things will be easier when I get married.

Marriage and college graduation are two of my proudest accomplishments in the past few years. But as I look back, I realize that my gaze has been so fixed on each goal that much of the months and days in between have become a blur. I was living life in fast-forward, just getting by until I reached the next summit. By focusing so intently on the future, I was not allowing God to use me in the here and now. I viewed the present as nothing but a path to the future that must be endured, thereby cutting myself off from any joy that could be found along the way.

There’s little enjoyment to be found in fast-forwarding through a movie you’ve never seen before. You don’t know where the best scenes are, so you can’t tell when to press “play.” And even if you were to come across one of the film’s best scenes, it wouldn’t make much sense if you hadn’t invested time getting to know each character and situation. Taken out of its context, the most moving or knee-slapping cinematic moment can be absolutely meaningless.

Graduating from college is not inherently significant. It is only in light of the long hours I spent reading one page of Derrida’s philosophy and the tears that were shed over a Medieval-Renaissance research paper that my diploma means anything to me. My wedding day was only a joyous occasion because of the man I had grown to love—and such a deep, committed relationship does not spring up overnight. It takes time, effort and even some pain, but it is only through these things that we experience pure joy.

After decades of insulating himself from the pain of loss, C.S. Lewis’ character in the 1993 film Shadowlands comes to a similar conclusion. When he finally opens himself up to give and receive love, he does it with the knowledge that he is eventually going to lose his wife to cancer. Whether their time together on earth will last weeks or years, he doesn’t know—but he realizes that he will ultimately experience the deepest sorrow he has ever known. After his wife, Joy, dies, he finally allows himself to live with his grief, acknowledging that “the pain now is part of the happiness then [in Heaven].”

This is not to say, however, that we should wallow in our misery, never allowing ourselves to long for the future. We are a homesick people, waiting to be taken to our Father’s house! And though we grow weary of all the pain and toil we experience here on earth, we cannot fast-forward through the difficult moments of life. We ought to challenge ourselves to be like Paul, who said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

How I would love to say that I, too, have learned the “secret” Paul speaks of! But I think that one component of this secret is found in his next sentence: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). Because Paul has a profound trust that God will strengthen him to withstand any kind of trial, he can face each day with joy.

Trusting God isn’t one my strong points (just ask my husband; he is constantly reminding me to do so!), but He is the only one who is completely worthy of my trust. I may not always enjoy each step along the journey, but with God in control, I can be confident that He is using each experience to make me holy. So, I’ll shakily hand Him the remote, sit back and watch the show.

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