I have found nothing better than books and music to accurately articulate the nuances of human emotion. There is both power and comfort in words perfectly strung together.
Earlier this year I finished Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, which follows the fate of one family as they navigate a life that is far from what they planned. While it wasn’t my favorite read, Thomas’ precise use of language to convey his characters’ thoughts and emotions made an impression and I recommend the book for those gems he has tucked throughout the prose.
“She could buy used and save for the future, or she could make a statement about where she thought her life was heading, and shape the perceptions of others about that trajectory, and maybe sway the future by courting it.”
“Eileen Leary”, We Are Not Ourselves
As a Catholic, I know that a life of modesty – both personal and financial – leads to a righter relationship with God. When we shed all of life’s distractions, we can step closer to God’s plan for our life. But like Eileen Leary, the main character in the novel (who also is coincidently Catholic), I experience this tug between prudence and extravagance, heavenly pursuits and earthly desires.
We live in a society that affirms for us daily that image matters. Who we are as people, our brains and our hearts, is secondary to what is seen. We are evaluated on what we look like. Are we fat, thin, blond, brunette, greying, muscular, flabby, tanned, pale, wrinkled, smooth-skinned? People notice what we are wearing. Are our clothes ironed, matching, stained, formal, informal, designer, trendy, classic? Where do we live? An apartment, a condo, a house, a big house, a small house, an old house, a new house, in a good part of town? What car are we driving? Sedan, coupe, SUV, clunker, old, new, luxury, budget. Society affirms value in beauty, physical fitness and wealth. Just watch a movie or pick up a magazine. They are filled with rich, beautiful people.
Those of us who know Jesus understand that he loves us regardless of whether we sit at the top of the social ladder or barely cling to the bottom rung. I know I should not expend an ounce of my earthly time pursuing things that have no bearing on my life everlasting with God. But knowing and acting on that knowledge are two different animals.
Like Eileen Leary, I have a mental picture about where I think my life is headed. In exchange for years of hard work in a tough, corporate environment, I have plans and expectations. And like Eileen Leary, I find myself looking to material objects as affirmations that the plan is or is not on schedule.
I thought that by this point in our lives, we’d be able to redo our kitchen. Replace my husband’s clunker car. Go on regular vacations. Financially, we’re nowhere near where I planned to be (however, I must admit we are much farther in our spiritual formation than I ever imagined!). But instead of trusting God as the architect of my life, I see all the occasions where I have reached out to grab some material object – a piece of clothing, decoration for the house, pair of shoes – to try and convince myself that despite the deviation from where I thought we’d be, everything is OK. The relief is fleeting and in the end, I feel foolish, like I am play acting in a drama where everyone knows I’ve been horribly miscast and I flounder aimlessly in a role that is too big for my meager talent.
I cannot court the future. I cannot architect a life of ease, security, or a sensation of alignment with societal expectations. As God plainly states in the Book of Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you.” (Jer, 29:11) They are His plans and not mine. Society tells us one narrative. Christianity tells us another. I struggle as I fight the temptation to align my life with an image that contradicts the teachings of Christ. It is not easy - or glamorous, or popular, or fashionable - to live our faith in this world. Poverty, meekness, humility and service are at odds with wealth, egoism, ambition and ease.
The easy answer would be to renounce my existing life, quit my job and go live a life of quiet service. If I rubbed up less against society, then in theory I would be less tempted by its callings. The harder answer is to stay within my current life but live differently. This is what Jesus did. He came amongst the people, amidst those who believed very differently than he believed, and he lived focused on his Father’s purpose. He was greatly unpopular. He did not fit in. Yet he persevered until the moment of his death. I will never be like Jesus, but I want to cast aside my ties to things that do not promote my faith. With courage and God’s help, I too wish to persevere.