The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

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Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

Memento Mori: My Signposts of Mortality

In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

– Gregory Zilboorg, “Fear of Death”

I think most people understand there’s a difference between intellectual assent and genuinely believing something. It’s the difference between mentally affirming that something is true, and experiencing it existentially so that it is felt and understood from the heart – as Mark Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and actually lightning. We all know, as a factual matter, as head knowledge, that we are mortal. Everyone dies. One day we will too, and yet, as Zilboorg says, we suppress that knowledge, we fill our lives and our thoughts with other things to escape contemplating the fate that awaits us – that one day we will cease to exist in this world.

As a 25-year-old, in the peak of vitality and strength, this is especially true for me and my age demographic. I know I’ll die, but I can type that sentence without a shudder. Death is likely still decades off, after all, why should I be so preoccupied with it? Statistically I still have a good 50 years or so, and sure, maybe I’ll suffer a premature death, but the odds are slim, and I don’t want to be controlled by the minuscule odds and irrational fears of plane crashes and shark attacks.

But the years are starting to go by faster, and still I suppress the thought of death. Well, perhaps not so much the thought as the belief in my own mortality. I can be a pretty cynical person. The news reports make me aware of death – again, as a matter of head knowledge. As a Christian, almost every Sunday when I step into church I’m driven to consider the ancient wisdom of the Psalmist: “Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” But still, odds are I am relatively distant from the Reaper, and so I remain emotionally estranged from that most obvious, grim, and terrify fact.

Sometimes, however, reality breaks through, terrifying and exhilarating, and we confront our mortality head on. In these experiences, the tenuous nature of existence comes into sharp focus: I could die tomorrow, tonight, so soon; my God, it’ll happen so soon.

As best I can remember, I have had three of these moments over the past three years. Each only lasted a few minutes, perhaps just seconds. They were outside of my control, impossible to generate, unpredictable, but awfully real.

The first occurred in my apartment in Santa Clarita, CA about three years ago. I was home alone at night reading the Bible. I don’t remember which passage exactly, but it was somewhere in Job or Ecclesiastes, when suddenly I felt the sharp, stabbing sense of my own morality. The temporal concerns of my first job, unrequited romance, food, chores, what-have-you – those all vanished. I felt the nearness of judgment day and the immanent prospect of heaven. The spiritual waverings that kept me in a state of lukewarmness steadied and became grave. The stakes beamed bright and clear and eternally high. I shuddered, resolved to continue seeking God, sat in place, fearful.

The second happened in Washington, DC, in 2013. I was going for a walk at dusk on a warm summer day around the parking lot at RFK stadium. I had earbuds in and was listening to a song called “The Setting Sun” by Switchfoot. The vibrant hope of the music and the poetry triggered an eternal rush: “It won’t be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun. Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong.”

shutterstock_329406311It’s a great song; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. Many of them were during sunset, in more idyllic settings, but only once has it struck me quite this deeply. Something lifted the fog of digital distractions and musical escape and city noise. I’ve never had an actual vision, but the sky looked ripe for one, like a conduit of final redemption and restoration. The Savior and Judge is coming back in the skies. Good Lord they could rip open any moment. And soon I’ll be past them, past this world with its burning-out sun and universe of entropy and chaos. I’m so close, I thought, so close. If my hope is true, paradise is but a sky away. The sun of my years will set, and I’ll awaken to a dawn that makes the first 25 years of sunrises look like a tiny lantern in the dark. I’ll run with no pain in my side, glorified, invigorated, and whole.

The third was probably the least intense of the three, and the most perplexing given the context. It took place just a few months ago – again in DC. I was at a friend’s house watching the film District Nine for the first time. It is full of action and swearing, nothing too atypical for Hollywood fare, but it has a realism that few alien films achieve. The story is dark and hectic, but designed to evoke pity and empathy. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, contracts alien genetics somehow and begins to turn into an alien. He is taken into a secretive lab, forced to fire guns and blast aliens to jelly, and soon doomed to be harvested so that human researchers can unlock the genetic secrets of the alien race they are oppressing (I promise I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me). The South African setting makes the apartheid undertones of the film clear. Wikus is a rather unassuming chap, just trying to do a little humanitarian field work (except not, technically, humans; “alienatarian”?), and suddenly he finds himself about to be harvested – doomed to a lab death behind closed doors. I don’t know why but that sense of “that could be me” enveloped me – a tiny taste of the fear and shock experienced by those who lose loved ones in freak car crashes, a microcosm of the soldier whose buddy is shot, inches away, while he lives unscathed. It’s that sense that we really do live on a precipice of comfort and normalcy, and the next moment could snatch it all away and drop you in some secret, merciless underground lab. That poor guy with the alien hand, friendly little Wikus, he’s going to die right after celebrating his birthday. That’s horrifying, I thought. Because I will too.

I had a fourth episode just a few months ago that didn’t quite reach the intensity of the prior three, but I want to point it out because while all of aforementioned experiences drove me to hope, this one ended on a much darker note. That’s what’s scary about these moments; they push the soul to the extremes – either a radical, desperate leap of faith, or the deepest despair on the brink of the abyss. I was reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the metro on the way home from work. It’s a long, meandering philosophical reflection woven into a motorcycle road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The narrator is a father traveling with his young son. As he tries to piece together his past as a philosopher, looking back at all the havoc and angst it wracked in him as he sparred mentally with human history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all the way down to today’s academics, he looks into the future and sees the same relentless, endless drive for truth in his son:

“(He’s) being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. The questions… the same questions… He’s got to know everything. And if he doesn’t get the answer he just drives and drives until he gets one and that leads to another question and he drives and drives for the answer to that… endlessly pursing questions, never seeing, never understanding that the questions will never end. Something is missing and he knows it and will kill himself trying to find it.”

At that moment on the yellow line train to Fort Totten, I saw my life splay out before me as an endless string of questions, with answers I have no choice to embrace but cannot help but doubt. I saw myself driving on, floundering, in an endless sea of knowledge, data, ideas, and theories for the rest of my earthly days. It was nauseating.

The late anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker uses that opening quote from Zilboorg in the opening for a chapter in his book, The Denial of Death. In that book Becker says: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”

I’m inclined to agree.

It’s a funny exercise, writing about these moments. I can’t re-experience them, and even if I could I couldn’t find the words to do them justice. But they’re worth remembering and treasuring. They remind me of the truth of my condition. They prove that the ruminations of philosophers like Becker, bands like Switchfoot, filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, and Moses aren’t some dry intellectual exercise. Rather, they cut to the core of who I am and the fate I am destined for, which is death: to perish, to cease to exist in the face I look at in the mirror every morning. These moments are markers, mementos mori left by the Teacher to teach me to number my days. They remind me that I’m too weak to handle the ultimate reality of death; that I must suppress it and go about my business of eating, sleeping, talking, walking, and all the passing things that make up my life, or else go insane. By causing my awareness of my suppression, however, they affirm and ultimately validate my hope that in the end I will escape the black of the void. And not only the black of the void, but the much more terrifying and disturbing prospect of the horrors of damnation.

From whence comes that hope? It comes from a Man who came from beyond the setting sun, a place of true freedom and eternal strength, somewhere back where I belong.

Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

In the back country: A meditation on man’s relationship to nature

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The seething earth, it opens up and spits us out.

This vicious child, nature never wanted us

This vicious child, a cancer burning black into its heart.

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia (pictured above and below), near Quantico, where the Marine base is. Two mornings in a row, I walked into the “back country.” At least that’s what the park rangers called it. It’s an area that, if not miles, is at least many hundreds of yards away from the nearest road or any people. I realized this is not remarkable isolated, but for an urban DC-dweller, it was enough to feel profoundly alone.

There’s something remarkably cathartic about nature, especially experienced in contrast to the city or suburbia. It evokes a sort of primeval Edenic memory. I saw beauty at all levels and from all viewpoints, from the small grey moths sent aflutter from disturbed grass underfoot and the carpet-y moss and tiny flowers, all the way to the vast expanse of the reservoir separating us from Marine territory, lined with hills of deciduous trees and brush, sky, clouds, and green glittering in the water in a landscape I’d like to paint. A crane flew by, no higher than the treetops, adding the perfect touch of disruption to the ambiance of twittering and chirping and water lapping and wind dimpling the lake.

It feels welcoming, like a big collective embrace of life, warm and calming, soul-stilling. Ah yes, “be still and know,” it says. Come weary one, and find solace, be at home. The colors are bright and lively at the beginning of summer. The cleansed air speaks to how life was meant to be. It whispers that the world should be better than the urban jungle or cookie-cutter suburbia or the dilapidated cabin I’m staying in. It echoes of a home that I have yet to find. Not where I grew up, and not where I live now, but Somewhere Else. . . ideal.

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I’ve always felt it, right in front of me but always just behind the next river bend in the river or beach peninsula or mountainside boulder. Camping at Hume Lake in California’s Sequoias every summer, day trips to the beach in Santa Barbara, even driving through the Mojave Desert at dusk – it tapped into some deep-set sense of beauty and belonging. I never put my finger on what it was about hiking in the Sequoias or walking along Ventura beach in the surf that made me want to adventure like the explorers of old and drink more deeply of its beauty. I still can’t, but against the backdrop of city life and my digital workplace I sense it with more volume and clarity now.

Here on the east coast, in Prince William Forest Park, the world teems with life. It slinks between the plants as insects and fungi, every square inch of the forest, it seems, is a picture of vitality. Every puddle and fallen trunk is an active ecosystem in its own right, in balance, dancing the symbiotic steps of life together. Bugs creep and buzz; occasionally I see hints of larger, warm-blooded creatures like squirrels and deer; and beneath the lakes fish glide like shadows and sometimes burst into the world in a flash of droplets to seize some hovering insect that lingered too near the water.

Yes, nature is more vibrant than even the most densely packed, active city ever could be. It is beautiful and delicate.

But it’s also vicious and vile, and I recoil from the wood’s summer awakening. For all my embrace of beauty I feel unease and alienation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth,” goes the fabled curse – and also needles and fangs and stingers. A mosquito comes near my ear, and I slap at the whine. I keep a lookout for snakes – the ranger warned they had been active this year. Flip flops were a bad choice. Near stale pools of warmed rain water, mud puddles on the trail, the whining grows. I forgot bug repellent; also a bad choice. At the reservoir I lay down a towel, clearing sticks that poke into my back and scattering tiny spiders and ants in the untouched grass.

I try to read – philosophy, longform journalism, the Old Testament – but every itch and twitch and buggy sound jerks me away. Sometimes a tick really has jumped on me, the bastards. Sometimes it’s nothing. But the point is that I’m not at ease, not all the way. The spiders don’t want me. The mosquitos only want my blood. This isn’t my home.

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Our relationship has issues. Nature draws me, or perhaps a better way to put it is that I am drawn to nature – the freedom of the woods calls. But nature doesn’t want me. It flees from me. It does violence against me. So many of these creatures are designed to bite, paralyze, kill. The bugs are tormentors. I curse them here just like I curse them when they are in my house. And they’re just the beginning. I need not digress into lake water, leeches, copperheads, poison ivy.

And so here in Prince William Forest Park I find a tension in my desire for beauty. In the woods I hear whispers of home yet feel profoundly misfit – on edge, discomforted. I even fear sleep in my dilapidated cabin because there’s a mouse running around and moths bumping against the shoddy screen windows. There are urban myths about spiders crawling in your mouth as you sleep. Here they seems plausible.

Those lyrics at the beginning are from a song called “Above and Below” by The Bravery. I like what it has to say about man’s relationship to nature. The seething earth opens up and spits us out. Disease saps our lives away. If nature is our Mother, she has cast us out of the cradle. But we keep venturing in to the forest, looking for new life.

Why?

Nature doesn’t want us, but that doesn’t mean she never did. The Edenic memory is in us all. It testifies that we did belong – once upon a time. There used to be harmony. The world used to be good.

I hope to God it will be good once again.

A word on air travel

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I like flying – in large part because air travel is one of the few environments these days in which I get uninterrupted blocks of time. Flying somewhere means a solid couple hours where I’m left to my own thoughts (I rarely talk to people on airplanes). It’s a good time to think, to pray, to read and write. On my last trip – from Washington, DC, to Texas, and back – I couldn’t even listen to music because I stream everything on my phone. And so silence; the dull, roaring white noise of engines and pressurized cabins and snoring – cruising along the jet streams at hundreds of miles an hour.

The takeoff and landing create a healthy bracket of perspective for the time alone because they remind me of my smallness and relative insignificance in the world. Even just looking down at a single city or neighborhood, I can feel it – thousands of homes and cars and stores and people splayed out below. That’s the world, and oh, what a tiny niche I have; what a meek little slice.

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And yet on the other hand, flying compresses our sense of space and time. It shrinks the world down to our palm-sized GPS’s. In five hours I can go from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles and barely see the 2,300 miles in between. I can traverse an entire content in the comfort of air conditioning and padded seats with orange juice served to me. That’s a remarkable feat of innovation and communication and engineering, and I’m thankful for it because I can see my family after just a few hours of travel time and for the cost of just a few hundred dollars.

But all the same it strikes me as a profoundly unnatural phenomena. As I take off and look down, I try to remind myself not to forget the bigness, not to grow bored with this world, and not to despair when it feels like I’ll never make much of a difference in the city below.

C.S. Lewis on the agony of coming to God

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Lately I’ve been stewing on what it means, as a Christian, to repent from sin and actually be transformed by God into His image. I have a heck of a time casting off certain vices, but I’ve found condolence in reading The Visionary Christian, a collection of excerpts from the more fantastical writings of C.S. Lewis. Three parallel scenes struck me for how they showcase what it is like to approach God as a flawed, finite creature. I’ve added italics for emphasis.

From The Silver Chair:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answer this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion…
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion…and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted.”

From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

Context: The boy Eustace has been turned into a dragon. The lion Aslan leads him to a pool that can help his injured leg, but first, the lion says, he must undress – take off his dragon skin. Eustace scratches off one layer of skin, but underneath it he is still a dragon. So he does it again, only to find another layer. After a third time, he is still a dragon.

“Then the Lion said—I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…”
“Well, he peeled the beastly tuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeling switch and smaller than I had been.”

great divorce lizardFrom The Great Divorce:

Context: The ghost is a deceased soul somewhere in between heaven and hell in the afterlife. He has a lizard attached to him that acts much like a devil on his shoulder. An Angel approaches him and asks if he can kill it.

“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

The common thread in all of these stories is that any authentic approach to God is an utterly agonizing process. Casting off the sin that encumbers us (or rather, allowing God to cast it off) is the hardest, most painful thing that we can ever do. It will feel like a part of our essential self is being destroyed because our depravity is so ingrained in us that we cannot distinguish our actual self from it, much less separate ourselves from it.

But in the fact the opposite of death will happen – that is, death in any ultimately meaningful sense. The deep transformation that Lewis has in mind here purges the heart of evil and frees us to be our true selves as God intended us to be. And in the process – as the dragon scales are coming off or as the lizard is writhing in the throes of death or as we take those first tentative steps toward the Living Water that quenches all thirst – we experience even deeper within us a release, new breath, cleansing. And of course on the other side, once our thirst is quenched and the ugly skin is cast off and the reptile ripped off our backs, oh what joy await on the other side.

We see this idea echoed in the Bible. Jesus calls those who would follow him to deny themselves and take up their crosses – implements of torture and execution – and the writer of Hebrews notes that He suffered while being tempted. Paul describes a similar death-to-self experience in his letter to the Galatians, writing that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And Peter connects suffering to the purging of evil when he writes that “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

If you would know your Maker in spirit and truth, you must be willing to suffer whatever it takes – any agony and any price. That means allowing God to carve out parts of you that seem integral to your identity, parts that may feel second-nature to you – those parts that you feel you can’t live without even though they keep you bogged down in a wretched mediocrity. There’s no other way to find true, unspoiled, unblemished life.