The Choice of Fools

Reflection nebulaThis may come as a shock to many of you — I hope you are sitting down — but I am no longer young.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.

At 55, my health is good, I stay reasonably fit and exercise regularly, and am losing the pounds which seem to cling to my running boards like mud on an off-road Range Rover.

But my back aches in the morning, my knees hurt and crackle when I stand, my hair is silvering, sobering furrows frown back at me from the mirror, and activities once taken in stride now leave me discouragingly weary.

Something else — far deeper — happens as you age: your losses mount. The dreams of youth — once passionate and optimistic — begin peeling away like aging paint, checkered by the weathering of time and the harsh sunlight of life and its limitations.

Some visions die with brutal abruptness: a passion for music shattered in the fraction of a second it takes board to blow off table saw. Some die slowly, almost imperceptibly: the acquired skills of endless hours of software development, crying out to be leveraged into a career of mapping intractable real-life problems to the rigid logic of data flow and control statements, recedes as larger purpose and renewed passion in medicine and reflective writing trumps longstanding obsession.

But something else happens with age, if you are fortunate: you begin to get a measure of perspective, as your once-treasured bangles fall away, revealed for the insubstantial veneer they always were. Your vision gets longer — events painful and pleasurable take on new meaning, often quite different from impressions gleaned at their occurrence. And time: time becomes more precious, as the endless reserves of youth grow leaner, the storehouse of minutes once unlimited begins to deplete. If your life has purpose, each moment is a jewel to be treasured as precious, used to good purpose; if not, the minutes drip endlessly and pointlessly from a cracked cistern too soon to be empty.

In days younger, intellectual sparring was competitive sport for me, exchanging my tit for your tat, lunge and parry, endless words exchanged in trench warfare, siege guns pounding at targets imagined but unseen. Such verbal warfare was a rough stone which sharpened the axe but left jagged wounds — on both sides. No minds were changed, few souls were touched, no hearts regenerated. It is a pursuit I long ago abandoned as fruitless, as time has become too precious to squander in empty warfare over barren ground. But the desire sometimes resurfaces, its siren call beckoning to one more glorious battle.

An earlier post, on surgical complications and their challenges, generated a rather lengthy comments section (surprisingly), largely engendered by my discussion of prayer. If you have read it in its entirety, you have too much time on your hands; if you have posted comments — while greatly appreciated — it may be time to get a life. And if you spend time you do not have writing such a blog — well, in the word of one commenter, you are fully qualified as “nuts” — to which I must confess. So cuff me and read me my rights.

Long discussions in weblog comment sections are decidedly “inside baseball” — engaging to the participants, meandering, often heated, unread by and uninteresting to anyone else. I rarely respond to comments — nothing personal, mind you, but I simply do not have the time, and prefer to focus on the parent posts. But on this one — foolishly perhaps — I dipped my toe in the water.

A bright and well-spoken commenter called LJ — a self-declared skeptic whose disdain for Christians and their faith is robust, albeit respectful — challenged the idea that prayer is anything more than self-deception, an unfalsifiable belief. This assertion led — not unexpectedly — to some counter-challenges (more by others than myself), and led to a reference to an earlier post by me on prayer. While complimenting my writing. LJ was unimpressed by its logic — about which analysis I invited him to detail its logical flaws. He graciously complied, which can be read in its detail in comment 34. I will not burden you with its repetition: I encourage you to read it in its entirety, and its provoking post for needed context.

And hence to my ambling discourse above about time, and aging, and my paltry wizened wisdom of aversion to verbal battles. Such a response strikes a word warrior such as me as challenge — though not intended to be, and indeed arriving by my own invitation. To avoid such challenge — like the duels of old — is to risk dishonor, to concede intellectual defeat, to cede the battlefield to one stronger. So be it, for I have no desire to contest. LJ’s analysis of logical flaws is thorough, and educational, and given the restrictive restraints of a skeptic’s worldview, valid — as far as they go. Which is not nearly far enough.

I thanked LJ for his comment, asserting that it had been helpful to me in ways he could not know — which it was, indeed, for it reminded me of where I am, and where I have been.

I am bemused, you see — bemused to be told at my age that I do not know what I clearly do know, that I cannot ascertain the knowledge — or more precisely, the power — that has transformed my life. Do you know my life story, LJ? Do you know how a man, filled with empty knowledge and the false assurances of gifts and youth, a loving family and a life undeservedly blessed, can squander it all for the pursuit of self-satisfying intellect, arrogance, self-sufficiency, and contempt of others? Have you been in that place of desperate emptiness, having pushed away your children and made your wife a living widow, driving forward with blind foolishness until your own hollow life is endangered? You say you have prayed and those prayers were not answered; I too have prayed — years on end — to a God I once served but who in mercy left me to suffer the consequences of a life driven by self-will and self-satisfaction. Hollow prayers, desperate prayers, prayers a fool’s cry for help to a now-empty universe. A God I once understood completely proved completely inscrutable, hopelessly distant, His ear — if He existed at all — turned elsewhere, His eye on more worthy subjects. Have you then seen — in an hour unimaginably dark — that same God you never knew reach down with gentle hands and unspeakable love, to scoop up this poor refuse and restore him to a life and hope he could never have imagined?

You say I pray from fear: I have known fear — the kind that tears up your gut like ground glass, eating at your soul like cancer. I have lived with such fear for weeks, months, years — where each dawning day is filled with dread, and death looks inviting — were it not so terrifying. I have no such fear today — it is gone, by virtue of grace and mercy. I pray out of gratitude; I pray out of trust; I pray out of joy at a life now meaningful and at peace. I pray for the burdens of others, I pray to be of service, to fulfill my purpose in life. But fear? Never fear, I’m afraid.

You say I mislead my readers — naive and sheep-like, all — promising them certainty where no such certainty exists. I have lived a life of deceit, LJ, where lies were my daily fare, where shame drove me to masquerade as someone I was not, juggling a web of lies until I could no longer distinguish truth from untruth. I lied to others — and most importantly, I lied to myself. Some habits die hard — I would tell you I no longer lie, but that would be untrue. But I have found transparency to be a far simpler life. What I write here are my thoughts, my passions, my struggles, my life. I strive to deceive no one any longer — what you see is what you get.

And this “illusion” I sustain is not mine alone. Have you watched men die, LJ? I have seen men die with God, and without; those in peace and acceptance, and those with empty eyes filled with dread and hopelessness at life’s defining moment. I have seen close friends transformed from cold, hard, arrogant bastards to men of compassion and grace, in mere days, by the power of prayer and faith. I have watched my own father-in-law — a hard and angry man who ferried men to their death at Normandy, and wreaked much havoc in the lives of those around him, embrace his own death with a peace I have rarely witnessed, himself ferried in calm anticipation to a waiting Savior. This is life in the trenches, far removed from the rarefied air of classroom and faculty lounge, where ideas float like paper planes unbuffeted by the storms of life. Such evidence in your world will never pass muster — but it is evidence indeed, and its power changes lives, not merely puffs up minds.

What if this is my epiphany, LJ, and I accept the path you offer, rejecting the claims to know what you assert to be mere magical fantasy and pure self-delusion? If I choose the life you offer — the life of “intellectual honesty” and contempt for those less wise, the life of mockery of men so foolish as to pray, the life of lofty intellect, of propositional knowledge devoid of positional experience — what’s in it for me? You see, I am a selfish man, and have no interest in accepting a gift horse without checking its teeth.

But, you see, I have looked in that nag’s mouth. The mane is glorious but the mouth is toothless — the horse will starve, slowly but surely. For I have already chosen the life you offer, and found it wanting, and empty, and joyless, and lonely.

Would I, in accepting your offer, forgo a life of joy and purpose, a life rescued from despair and aimless meandering, with everything money could buy and nothing that money cannot? Would I forgo the richness of deep relationships, of love unmerited, of surprise at life’s amazing turns and answered prayer — yes, answered prayer — the proof of which you would would not accept but the reality of which is transformational. Would I forgo a relationship with a God I now know far less well, but trust far more — not the heinous monster of your imagining, but a God who treasures me — and you — with unspeakable vastness and unbounded grace and mercy? No LJ, I will remain your fool, gladly and with no shame or remorse.

You will, no doubt, rejoin with tales of straw men and special pleading, equivocation and circumlocution. Bluster thusly if you must; I have had my say. I have lived the life of lifeless reason; I choose instead the life of fools. But know this: you have earned a place in my heart, and you shall be in my prayers. Daily, from this day forth. And this I know: your life will change. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week — but it will change. — in ways you will not anticipate, nor wish at the time, nor understand in your wisdom. But someday you will know, as I know — and we will be friends, not rivals.

Count on it, my friend — and Godspeed to you.