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.

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19 thoughts on “The Choice of Fools

  1. I missed all the drama in the comment section (and I don’t have time to read it now), but I have to say this is the most powerful post I’ve read here. Thank you for it.

  2. I can’t tell you the ways this last post of yours has touched me – from the first paragraph to the last. Some parts … seemed to be answers to questions no one knows I’ve asked.

    It’s just wrong that all of those who need to read that post, but do not blog, will never have the chance to read it.

    Please consider making a collection of some of your posts, and offering them in book form for those who don’t blog, don’t have the internet, or don’t use computers.

    There are far more people who need access to some of your writings than those of us privileged enough to read them here.

    Thank you.

  3. Beautiful post.

    I’m 48 and beginning to understand what you speak of in terms of aging. I came to my understanding of God and His Son when I was 14. I’ll pray for LJ, too.

    I’ll be reading daily.

    And thanks, Moof, for the link!

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  5. Perhaps it’s because I have seven more years to get to your age, but, despite a lifelong Christian faith, loving church, and three children I love passionately, middle age for me has been all about loss and nothing gained. I tend to rather take for granted my Good Shepherd. Apart from Him and my kids, everything in my life is a disappointment, most especially myself.

    I went thru Ivy League schools, served as a hospital chaplain, worked with troubled kids. Then had my family. Today support my chronically unemployed husband and the kids, one of whom has a developmental disability, another who has been treated for a year for suicidal depression. I took care of two beloved grandmothers in their final years, and went thru a nightmarish two years caring for a mother in law with Alzheimers.

    I have suffered all my life from dysthymia but counted myself fortunate to be, with my father, constantly functional, good at work, stable relationships, good at helping others. With a bipolar mother, brother and sister I grew up taking care of the household. I felt healthy because the “only” thing wrong with me was that every year or two I become suicidal. These days, taking enough meds to choke a horse, the front of the oncoming Mack Truck no longer looks so attractive. It doesn’t however seem such a small price to pay that the pills have killed my love life and made me gain 30 pounds.

    In close to twenty years of marriage I have never had a vacation or gone away for even a night alone with my husband. We do not go out, and stay married out of our our belief that divorce is a sin because of what it does to the kids. He is not a believer.

    A recovered alcoholic I attend but am not nourished by AA. What began as a Christian inspired movement is now taken over by New Age. My husband has not even seen me receive one of my anniversary coins because he is so scared that someone will see him going into the church and think that he is one of “those degenerates.”

    My failing parents live abroad and I cannot go help them or I would lose the job that is supporting my family of five. My mother is a cripple, brain damaged from a suicide attempt years ago, currently fighting breast cancer. My father has just been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. My sister has gone off to find herself somewhere in the Third WOrld–the emails we get sound manic. My brother is stable these days, but out of work and living on the equity in a house they are trying to sell for about twice as much as it is worth.

    The point is, as they say in AA, none of us are unique. My life has not been as bad as some people’s. After all, I have a loving relationship with my kids, a gorgeous and affectionate golden retriever, and a church where I can be useful and people are so kind it helps me keep putting one foot ahead of one another.

    But honestly, life just keeps getting worse and I do not believe it will ever improve. Don’t tell me to find a good therapist–my insurance limits visits. I love the remark supposedly attributed to Mother Theresa about how “I know GOd won’t send me anything I can’t handle–sometimes I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.”

    All I can conclude is that God distributed more of the goodies to some people than others. That there is something He wants me to learn from being under constant stress and miserable all the time. Damned if I know what it is tho…

    Easy for a man in the prime of life with a settled career to feel good about life. What’s a few wrinkles, grey hair, etc. The fact is old white men rule the universe these days–nobody ever had it so good!

  6. Wow, Ratty I need to say you do have a tough life and I admire you for staying in it as I am sure I would have thrown in the towel by now. So it may seem you have nothing and gained nothing form your life but clearly there are those who have gained a great deal. Perhaps living is all about the ‘others’ as sad and harsh as that may seem to you. But I am patting you on the back right now and I don’t even know you. As for Dr. Bob, I give him credit for writing as well as he does and for providing this forum. So Ratty, I will keep you in my prayers. Keep the faith!

  7. In the past week, Dr. Bob, I have come to essentially the same place as you, with regard to becoming engaged in the rhetoric, the arguments, the intellectual exercise; as to the latter, I am a highly intelligent woman of 60 years, but I cannot match someone like LJ for argumentation. And I have remembered, finally, a lesson that was given to me by a very wise, knowledgeable and deeply spiritual man, almost 45 years ago: I don’t have to have all the answers. I can’t, and don’t need to, out-logic all the logic, and there’s no point in my trying. As George Burns’s character said to John Denver’s character in the original “Oh, God” movie, I have the strength of knowing. I also have a passion for a work that has strong, eternal ramifications, and I have spent far too much time on doing exactly what I am doing this minute.

    Therefore, with deep gratitude for this latest post, I will check back often to read your deep and well-written insights, but with greater exercise of self-discipline, you may not hear from me, much. Blessings, grace and mercy to you and your readers.

  8. To Ratty:

    It sounds that you have indeed been honored with a gifting, a calling… that you have been given great favor by God. To be entrusted with more lives than yours alone… what a great honor you have been bestowed.

    The life that you live; a witness to others; forever faithful to those you love… an encouragement to us all.

    I applaud you and praise you at the same time.

    You are weary and have grown tired. Maybe you have lost your vision, your direction, and your purpose and can’t see the joy that is yours as a direct blessing from your labors.

    You need refreshing… and you’ll receive it.

    “…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29 (NIV)

  9. Awesome blog! I can totally relate–I’m almost that age now….the best thing about it is the change in perspective–one definitely mellows with age…I don’t stress the small stuff anymore. I thank God that He has given me perspective also. I tell my friends that I don’t want to serve a God that my little pea-brain can understand! I want the all-awesome God of the Universe–BEYOND KNOWING until we meet Him face to face–until then I love Him for the breath I breathe and that’s it! The comments on this blog are awesome also!

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