Swinging a Pickax

January 29, 2009

The last year of my life has been the most difficult. At the end of a ten-month long intentional community, I found unemployment, unrequited love, unhealthy loved ones:  a series of un-‘s, a necklace of lacks.

I suppose I went through textbook stages of emotional tumult, including sadness, grief, frustration, anger, and on occasion, peace.  I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why wasn’t I more resilient?  I must not be trying hard enough.  The problem is you can no more heal by force of will a wound in your heart than you can one in your body. Healing takes time–a truth that brings no comfort.

When I taught high school for a year after finishing my Bachelor’s, I would run into more experienced teachers in the hall and copy room.  They’d ask me how it was going, and I always tried to be honest.  I tried to be funny so as not to alarm them, but said in effect, “Not good. Not good at all.”  It seemed like half my time was spent babysitting high-schoolers who should know better.  I was teaching at my alma mater, and while I was there, I knew better than to ask my junior English teacher if I could take a long-distance call on my cell phone during the Beowulf unit test.  One of my students did that.  I felt like I was failing on all fronts.  In front of the mirror, I found white hairs mixed in with the brown.  Those kids were sucking out my color, my vitality.  As they ran off copies of assignments and hand-outs, my colleagues response to this was, “Well, the first year’s always the worst.”  With this platitude and a Sweet ‘n Low smile, they returned to their Edens of Learning.

Saying the first year is the worst did nothing to carry me through the difficulty of those class sessions.  Saying that time heals all wounds is a lie. It doesn’t. Time deepens some wounds. Even if it were true, such knowledge makes for a poor painkiller.  Show me the man or woman who can sit around feeling wretched and not ask unanswerable questions at the same time.  Job of the Hebrew scriptures certainly suffered more than I have, and when he asked why he must suffer, Yahweh said something along the lines of, “Where were you when I made the world? Who is the clay to question the potter?”  God’s answers weren’t exactly a salve for Job’s boils. As sick as he must have been, something tells me that Job could have mustered enough energy to thrash anyone who came along and said, “Time heals all.”  Yes, but what about how I’m feeling now?

I’ve been looking for ways to pick up the pieces, to gather up my disappointments and take small steps forward.  Most of my efforts felt like swinging a pickax at a rock wall.  I could see chips flying, but was making no dent, certainly not an escape route.  It took me months to realize I was imagining my ideal life, the life I should be living, somewhere on the other side of that wall.  If I could just break through, I’d be living the life I wanted.  The woman I loved would love me back.  The literary press would offer me my dream job. A very clean and respectful roommate would opt to take the smaller room in my duplex in an effort to simplify his life.

I was squandering all my energy dreaming of how my life should be.  My fantasies took me out of the present, out of reality. Then, in a moment of clarity like the first dazzling shaft of sunlight after a rain, I understood:  This is my life.  The only one I have.  There is no other.  If I broke through the stone wall, I would find more of the same.  Not only this realization but more. My life is full of small gifts. An unexpected visit in the hospital from a lifelong friend and his wife. A much-needed check from my grandparents. Lunch at one of my favorite restaurants paid for by a brother.

My failure has been not in finding a job but in practicing gratitude and deepening in trust. Jesus of Nazareth observed how the Father looks after the sparrows.  He will also look after us. However, centering myself in my life, however barren or broken it may seem from day to day, and learning to trust that my desert will become a fragrant garden is often painful work.  I won’t choose to trust if I can choose instead to look after my own prosperity.  Perhaps I can use the shoulder strength from swinging that pick to hold up my hands in praise.

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