While in most aspects today is not that different from yesterday or tomorrow, it does mark the end of my 30th voyage around the sun, that cosmic roller coaster ride which seems to paint the trees a little redder and my hair a little whiter each time around. I suppose it calls for a little extra reflection.
Several years ago, I wrote the following declaration:
I teach because a long time ago I decided that I wanted to lead a life of purpose, that I had been given talents for which I was to one day be held accountable and that I was expected to use these talents to improve lives around me. I teach because I believe that there are a precious few ways to spend your time without wasting it: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, comforting the lonely, liberating the captive, spreading truth and beauty, and that teaching— in its own unique way—encompasses each of these. I teach because I believe that there are two things you CAN take with you after this life—knowledge and relationships—and I intend on working for things that last.
It’s illuminating to look back on statements like this one, to see what has held true and what has changed (and hopefully some things have changed—progress is marked by change over time and flat-lining usually means only one thing. I trust that five or ten years from now an improved version of me will pause to reflect on what Russ 30.0 had to say today). One thing that jumps out at me is that while I am still pursuing those same “precious few ways,” I am no longer teaching professionally. That’s an obvious change. But maybe the most fundamental shift has been in the way I view change itself.
Old Me (my younger version…that’s confusing!) used to think that almost nothing lasts, that knowledge and relationships constitute the entirety of the eternal short list. I have come to believe the opposite: almost everything lasts. God is not a god of dissolution. He is eternal, and makes durable things.
In observing the world around us, scientists have long grasped this concept: from the water cycle to the conservation of matter to Mufasa’s great circle of life, science teaches us the immutability of God’s creations. Just as things were not created ex nihilo, neither do they dissolve into nothing. We are, so to speak, in a closed system.
And so our sojourn on this planet is perhaps a mission of taking matter unorganized and using it to shape a better world, of sticking it to the 2nd law of thermodynamics by expending our allotted energy in the creation of something greater than ourselves. I once read a philosopher who stated that the bulk of a person’s life ought to be spent in building two towers: a family and an institution. These form the legacy that he will bequeath to the world when he is gone. While not exactly a bequest, I would add a third tower to the list: our own character.
As a boy, my forester father taught me about tree rings. Looking at a tree’s rings can tell you not only how old it was, but also all about the floods and droughts and fires and seasons of plenty. I think our characters are like that too, keeping an internal record of the high times and dry times of our lives. We may not remember everything we’ve read or done or all the people we’ve met or interacted with, but it all leaves an impression on us, and we are at some level a sum total of all of these seemingly insignificant moments. As the closing narration from one of my favorite movies, Stranger than Fiction, says it:
“As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives.”
In days of personal flood or drought or fire, we may sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. Robert Frost, asking that Question, wrote:
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
Indeed, they were not. Happy birthday, future me.