I’m sick. I don’t like being sick: I don’t ‘do’ sick very well. I have a sore throat and, night or day, every time I swallow, it’s like razor blades slicing up and down the inside of my throat. It’s also the 4th of July weekend, we have house guests, and it’s the start of my first vacation since going to back work at an RJ (‘real job’) last March. Yes, as I’ve often observed, guys like me turn into real wusses (or worse) when we don’t feel well. And yet, I’m not alone and, for the sake of those around me, I know I have to buck up and stifle my whining and complaining (at least outside of my most private moments). One of the benefits (and drawbacks) of having a life partner is that you get to say (and, of course, to hear) how we really feel. The rest of the world — in as much as is possible — gets to see my more ‘public’ face. It’s what I believe we do when we have any sort of social awareness: recognizing that, no matter how badly we may feel, the rest of the universe doesn’t really have to join us.
I believe that is one of the great lessons that comes with the midlife transition: the gift of perspective and the recognition that it’s not ‘all about me.’ On the one hand, my fears of imaginary consequences are overblown. I can put my concerns in my back pocket and walk through situations that used to terrify me, knowing that I’ll either survive or not and, either way, it’s OK. On the other hand, the world is not responsible for living up to my expectations of it. I can be satisfied with “progress not perfection.” As I look at myself, starting to heal from several days of feeling (as my grandmother used to say) “lousy!” and look at the ongoing journey I’m engaged in post-midlife and, at the same time, consider the midlife trials that our country is going through on this, it’s official birthday, I see some parallels and some interesting take-aways.
My life (like that of those around me whom I know well) has not turned out as I had ever imagined it would. If it had, I’d be celebrating over thirty-four years of active ministry somewhere in Florida along with the 234th anniversary of the republic instead of nursing a bacterial throat infection in Rehoboth Beach, DE along with my partner of 15 years (next month) and getting ready for a dinner party and trip to see the fireworks this evening. Needless to say, there have been a lot of false starts, a lot of pain, and a lot of missteps between there and here. Yet, I’m confident that, as mundane and ordinary as my life has turned out, it’s exactly where my Higher Power wanted me to be (based on the choices that I made, for good or ill). It’s certainly not a perfect life, but it’s a pretty good one, all in all, and an excellent reminder of how “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” It’s a lesson I’ve needed to learn in life, and a lesson that we might all benefit from reviewing from time to time.
This country — like life itself — is going through turmoil. It’s never been any different (and will never be different) no matter how many patriotic stories we tell ourselves. There’s an exhibit currently showing at the Museum of American Art in DC of paintings by Normal Rockwell. The art critic in today’s Washington Post analyzed those works very wisely: they don’t depict our country the way it used to be so much as the way we wish it had been. We’ve never actually been “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” People are currently yelling very loudly (and sometimes violently) about “taking back” our country, without really considering what they might be taking it back to. Only an historic perspective will bring to light the political, social and economic sins that besmirched our political past, and continue to challenge our political future.
Our childhood was never the idyllic place we imagined it to be. Time scours away the experience of the pain we endured, leaving us to imagine, in most cases, that it wasn’t so bad. Yet, for nearly all of us, it was that bad. Growing pains hurt. And what we experience in the midlife transition — that ripping away of our cherished hopes and dreams to be replaced with a more realistic but sometimes starker reality — is hardly an illusion, either. Whether it’s facing an evening of social entertaining with a nasty and energy-sapping sore throat or walking through the fears and disappointments of midlife or dealing with a social and political system that falls far from any ideal, we’re always faced with the same dilemma: what to do when it hurts.
What I love most about my chosen Christian faith is the belief in the incarnation: that the God of my understanding is no deistic watchmaker who simply wound up the universe and disinterestedly set it to unwind on its own. Rather, the incarnation suggests to me that God chose from the outset to assume the for him/herself the limitations that the very act of creation imposes on reality. Faith brings with it the stark and unavoidable comprehension that God hurts. The lesson I take from this is that, as God did not shrink back from creation because it involved suffering, that neither should we. The only way to get beyond suffering is to go through it. We can’t solve any of the problems of our personal or political life by trying to go back to an imagined earlier, more ‘serene’ time. The only way forward is . . . well . . . forward!
Neither form of escapism will work for us as individuals or as a collective: neither hiding ourselves in an angry, fearful, self-interested protectionism, nor simply whining and complaining that things aren’t going our way. Like our Creator, the challenges of each day summon us to get our hands dirty with the work of creation: becoming involved with the process of progress, and never allowing ourselves to become complacent or discouraged by our lack of perfection. When it hurts, we take our medicine, share our pain with those who care about us, and do whatever we need to do to keep moving forward. It works when we’re sick; it works when we’re in personal transition; it works as a body politic. It’s called ‘courage‘, plain and simple: nothing grand, just bucking up, trusting God, and doing the next right thing.
And . . . have a glorious 4th of July!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
Copyright © 2010 H. Les Brown