The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life
God gave us free will to chart our own destiny.
By Lincoln Swain
It’s a crazy thing to be alive. Who hasn’t slept next to the room of a crying baby? What does she want, you ask yourself, glancing at the clock that screams 4 AM. Is she hungry? Thirsty? In need of relief from a soiled diaper? Or just coming to grips, on a very primal level, with the fact that she’s out of the womb and into the world and there’s no going back.
Christ’s conception may have been immaculate but his birth surely must not have. The manger was hardly the best venue for delivery. No bay window or Jacuzzi in the birthing suite. No anesthetic for Mary. No crack team of highly trained medical professionals with a battery of high-tech gizmos at the ready. No camcorder for Joseph. Primitive conditions, indeed. I love this fact. It shows us just how human Christ was, that he too endured that great and beautiful trauma of coming alive in very humble conditions that persist to this day in many parts of the world.
You didn’t ask to be born but here you are, breathing, moving, living. You’re holding onto a rising balloon that you can’t let go of because by the time you realize you’re holding onto the thing, you’re already too far off the ground. But you know one day it will pop. In the meantime, you have to find something to do. Quite a predicament.
The fear of life can be overpowering. Much of the fear of life comes from fear of the unknown, of not knowing what to expect. The photographer Diane Arbus, famous for portraits of the retarded, the poor, and the forgotten in America, remarked, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks are born with their trauma. They’re aristocrats.”
As a child, you are so vulnerable to the influences of other people. A quirky uncle addicted to collecting lunchboxes. A rabidly bigoted teacher. A distant cousin whose mother grew up in a cult. An unsavory menagerie of peers in elementary and secondary school. You are very often at their mercy, for good or for ill. Some people are blessed with loving parents and siblings in a cocoon of comfort and privilege. There are legions of suburban youth in this country who have much different stories to tell. Eminem and Green Day sell millions of records for a reason.
Puberty is madness. A primal chemistry set lodged in your loins starts bubbling to life. As childhood, with all its simple pleasures, recedes into memory, adulthood looms on the horizon with all its nameless terrors, and part of being an adult—perhaps the most important part—is making the best of the hand you’ve been dealt.
Circumstances are only that: circumstances. For a man to proclaim, at the age of 40, that he is an unemployable bastard from a broken home reveals much about his character. Or lack thereof. We are not born with any concrete essence. God wants us to create ourselves as we live, to create our own purpose for existence. This is our test. Experience is who we become. To be born illegitimate or adopted, to be raised in a home filled with discord and abuse, to be subjected to relentless and unsettling messages from advertising and the mass media about who you should be and how you don’t quite measure up—those things are unfortunate, yes, but not insurmountable.
Once you’re alive, you’re alive and at an elemental level, you’re on equal footing with every other human being, regardless of wealth or pedigree. Everybody’s meter starts at 000000 when it comes to figuring out how to be alive. Circumstances only define you if you choose to let them define you. The longer one uses previous circumstances as a crutch or a beard for stasis, the more remote the possibility of authentic existence.
The past is buried in cement. You can try to expunge unfortunate facts from your biography when you tell it to other people—celebrities and their publicists do it all the time—but those facts are still there. Conversely, the future is liquid, waiting to be created. If you retreat into the past, with its previous defeats or triumphs, you are escaping from the future and thus from your freedom. Many people live in the past solely so they don’t have to think about their next move. Or even worse, to justify why their next move will be exactly like past moves. Nowhere in the Bible do we see Christ going on about his glory days on a dusty soccer pitch or lamenting a schoolyard slight that has haunted him into adulthood. Christ is alive in the moment.
Life is hardly easy and the human animal is a mysterious creature, restless and easily wounded. Our current conditions are not the best either. The social safety net of America is frayed, the public education system is inferior, youth are exposed to all kinds of mass media rubbish with few mentors to shepherd them through the electronic wilderness, parents are working longer and harder at less rewarding jobs for less rewarding pay. Yet people still find other people to love, even outside the bounds of what is “accepted.” They try, they fail, and they try again. Some never win. Many end up broken. The great Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, "Domestic Violence," is a must-see for anyone who doubts that the search for love can be a heavy ticket.
We all seek love. We all fear going without it. How strange then that love often finds us when we least expect it perhaps because we are busy giving love rather than looking for it. This was the message of Christ: you will not be alone when you give love. Jesus understood the burden of our freedom. He also understood its beauty. We know God and glorify God through our commitment to community.
There’s something else. Being alive means being alone. And being alone means you get lonesome. In the film, “Midnight Cowboy,” an aging holy roller, swaddled in a grimy bathrobe, offers a sage piece of advice to a libidinal Texas hayseed trying to fashion himself as a cowboy stud to bored Park Avenue dames. “I’m lonesome. I’m lonesome so I’m a drunk. I’m lonesome so I’m a dope fiend. I’m lonesome so I’m a thief, a fornicator, a whoremonger. Poop, I say, poop! I’ve heard it all and I’m sick of it, sick to death… Lonesomeness is something you take. You hear? Dammit, you take it and go about your business, that’s all.”
I’m not much for sports metaphors especially for something as complex as existence. But if forced to choose, surfing seems most suitable, with boxing a close second.
The fear of living is not unlike the fear of an opponent with a ferocious reputation. Mike Tyson loved to intimidate opponents by charging out of his corner the first few rounds and hammering away. This was his mystique, his mojo. The fight was often won even before he stepped into the ring. But if you managed to survive four or five rounds, then you had a fighting chance because Tyson was spent.
“Mangled in the whirring claws of a mad and feverish machine” was how one writer described Max Schmeling after the pummeling Joe Louis gave him in their legendary rematch bout. But the writer could have just as well been describing life.
I do not believe in predestination. Free will is a gift from God that He expects us to embrace. God wants us in the ring, dukes up, ready to improvise and capitalize on life. To see God as a celestial puppet master, benevolent or malevolent, sells the Lord very short. Some people prefer the idea of predestination because it offers the comfort of a self-aggrandizing innocence—God providing cradle-to-grave supervision of a life plan tailor-made for you. You just wait for the plot twists and then accept them as “the will of God.”
In life, there are no guarantees of happiness nor is there is any immunity from suffering. The rich and famous get cancer like the rest of us. Good people have heart attacks. During the tsunami of Christmas 2004, moneyed foreign guests lolling in the posh resorts of Thailand and Sri Lanka perished along with humble villagers. When a boxer is hit, should he or she ask “Why me?” and mope and cower in fear. No. The proper response is “Why not me?” and keep swinging.
Lincoln Swain is the pseudonym of an Episcopal priest and theologian living in the Detroit area.
Excerpted from Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith, by Lincoln Swain. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Atomic Quill Press.
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