My Story No. 1
Life: The Genesis of A Fresh Translation
I’m stuck. Not that I’ve stopped moving. My life is filled with daily “to-do” lists that keep me busy. But, rather than getting somewhere, I have an increasing feeling that my post-Covid life is actually an endless loop. I go round and round, again and again, reproducing situations that brought me satisfaction in the past. But now I’m caught up in a law of diminishing returns. Each day takes the same amount of energy but brings weaker results. I’m tired. I’m unfulfilled. I’m running on empty.
I know there are other people who experience life very differently than I do. They went through Covid, just like I did. They have difficulties just like I do. Some of them have suffered far more than I ever will. But they make their negative experiences turn into gold. I wish I could learn to see life the same way they do.
Bill Bryson’s introduction to “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about:
“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize… you have been extremely - make that miraculously - fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from… (perpetuating) the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly - in you.”
This is the attitude I want to have toward life. Bryson courageously confronts the very real challenges of being a human on this planet, while continuing to acknowledge the wonder of being alive at all. The result is a wonderful playfulness that many of us begin to lose when we hit puberty. Most mornings I wake up in a funk. I have to work really hard to find a more joyful tone for the day. I’d like that to change. But how?
If I’m honest with myself, I know what to do. Right at the center of the well-worn, circular path of my life, carefully swept out of the way and covered with a dusty old rug, is a pile of unexplored emotions. I ignore them by focusing on day-to-day tasks. When my mind begins to wander, I can always fall back on social media and video streaming to keep me focused elsewhere. But the memories hidden under that carpet are insistent. They find all sorts of ways to invite me to focus on them, to break out of my routine, and to find a path to a new and more vibrant way of life. I should listen to them, but I don’t have the courage.
One day, in my Los Angeles home, I was watching old family films on the living room wall. My mother was going to celebrate her 88th birthday in a few weeks and I was searching through 8mm Kodachrome reels to find the ones that would bring her the most joy. Two silent movies from the late 1930s were very promising. They had been shot by her father when she was less than 5 years old.
I smiled as the youthful form of my mother danced and played while her grandmother, parents, aunts, and uncles looked on. But my happiness was joined by grief when it dawned on me that she was the only person in the movie who was still alive. Everyone else, even her younger brother, had passed away. The nostalgia deepened when I contrasted the child-like prancing onscreen to the only dance her arthritis allows her today; slow and intentional steps, while holding tightly to her walker. But her indomitable spirit continues the “waltz” captured on screen unabated. She delights in teasing the people who visit her. She is ever ready to play a game of cards. Whether she wins or loses there’s sure to be laughter.
The joy, sorrow, and nostalgia I felt while watching these films were welcome as appropriate to the images that had been passing before me.
But then I watched some films from 1962. These home movies had been taken by my father a few years before my birth. At first, I was excited to see the familiar cast of characters, all at a much younger age. My sisters, my grandparents, and even my father, in a few quick cameos, whenever he passed the camera to someone else. I was fascinated by this prehistoric world that unfolded before me, a world that existed before my personal history had even begun.
But then my father’s first wife appeared and the prehistoric world transformed into a parallel universe. The camera panned across the 1960s decor of the room to focus on her, then her parents, and then her brother and her sister. They looked so happy to be a family. I should have shared their joy. But I didn’t. An uneasiness that I didn’t want or understand appeared out of nowhere. It just sat there, like an uninvited visitor taking a seat on my living room sofa. If this story continued as everyone in the movie expected it to, I would never have been born.
Did I have the courage to follow the lead of these emotions or would I add them to the pile swept under the rug?
The film came to an abrupt end. The washed-out images vanished and were replaced by a harsh spotlight on my living room wall. I just sat there until the dangling film end on the reel began to slap harshly against the projector. It was impatiently telling me that I had to make a choice. Did I have the courage to follow the lead of these emotions or would I add them to the pile swept under the rug?
I loaded another film from 1962 into the projector. It transported me back to Christmas Eve of that year. The camera focused on the Christmas tree, standing proudly above dozens of presents placed lovingly beneath it. A joyful sight to be sure. But all I felt was those unwanted emotions. This time, however, I decided I would face them. I stopped the projector and imagined the scene in more detail.
I pictured my father with my sisters’ mother, preparing for Christmas day. They were carefully placing their neatly wrapped gifts around the tree. I looked more closely at the gift tags on a few of the presents. One read, “To Jeannie with love. From Mom and Dad.” Another said: “To Marianne with love.” After they put the last gift under the branches of the tree, my father’s wife straightened the tray of milk and cookies my sisters had set out before going to bed. She picked up one of the cookies, and took a gentle bite, allowing a few crumbs to fall on the tray before placing it back with the others. This was incontrovertible evidence, at least to two young girls, that Santa really had visited their home. Now that they had completed their work the couple flopped down on the couch with a contented sigh. Life was good. They had a home, a family, a consistent income, and their entire lives ahead of them, or so they imagined.
My mind shifted across town, to a starter home where my mother and her husband were decorating their Christmas tree. As I watched from the sidewalk, their attentions were on each other. They hoped to have children together one day but on this Christmas Eve, their gifts were dedicated to each other. My mother gave her husband a gift that read: “To My husband, with love.” He smiled and reciprocated with a gift of his own, “To my wife, with affection.” They placed their gifts under the tree, waiting to open them until Christmas morning. Then they sat closely together on their sofa and shared some Christmas cheer. Life together had started well. So far so good.
But neither family's plans would progress as they expected. They ended in tragedy. The only way I ever get to experience life is by both of these stories ending that way. This is what feels so strange. I came really close to completely missing the chance to exist. On top of that, the only way I get to exist at all is through the dashed hopes and dreams of people that I love. I don’t know what that should make me feel.
It feels something like guilt. But it isn’t exactly guilt. I know what guilt feels like. It feels like the time I accidentally shot a junior high friend in the leg with a BB gun. The pellet stopped moving near a major artery in his leg and couldn’t be removed. Even thinking about the story makes me feel guilty. Why did I decide to over-pump the air rifle? Why did I think it would be a neat idea to shoot into a concrete slab near his leg? I wish I hadn’t done it. But I did it and my friend suffered the consequences. That’s guilt. But that isn’t really the feeling I have when I watch these movies from 1962. For one thing, I didn’t have any control over the situation. Their tragedies didn’t happen because of some dumb decision I made. But they did happen and I did benefit greatly from them.
Underneath the “sort-of-guilt” feeling is another emotion. I know what this one is, but I feel embarrassed to admit it I have it at all. I actually feel gratitude. Just three years after these home movies, I celebrated my first Christmas with my father, my mother, and my two sisters. Like Bill Bryson said, I have to be thankful for the chance to exist at all.
At the same time, it seems wrong for me to be thankful for something that came about through the tragic end of two families. It’s really confusing. Sweeping it away would be a lot easier. I know because I’ve done it before. But I have already decided not to do that anymore. These emotions are affecting my life examined or not. At least if I have the courage to go deeper with them there’s a chance that they’ll actually lead me to a better place.
I once had the honor of celebrating the opening of a new church in a city called Tete in Southern Africa. The Mozambican congregation was made up of survivors of a violent civil war that had destroyed local villages and much of their country’s infrastructure. They had every reason to be gloomy and depressed. But somehow their tragedy gave birth to an amazing ability to celebrate. Presbyterians in the United States have been called “the frozen chosen” for their lack of emotion in worship. The Mozambican Presbyterians in that church defrosted that stereotype with singing, dancing, and laughter. They were fully alive.
Maybe the tragedy of my beginnings could result in more gratitude in my life just like it did in theirs. I think I’ve made the mistake of believing that positive emotions and negative emotions are polar opposites. What if the two are actually related? What if holding both of them together at the same time could increase my sense of thankfulness?
This would be life-changing. We’re all caught up in the tangled web of human life. We know the tragedy of relationships cut short. But at the same time, we’re all alive and that’s incredible. Somebody worked out that the statistical probability of any of one of us existing is something like 1 in 4 trillion. The odds of winning the US Megamillions lottery is 1 in 176 million. By being alive we’ve already won the biggest lottery of all.
Here is the lesson I think I am learning. Suffering can nurture gratitude. I’m actually thankful that my father, mother, and two sisters came together in their woundedness to form a new family that made my existence possible. I am grateful to them for providing a solid home for the first 18 years of my life.
The courage to confront my genesis has broken me out of my endless loop. I have momentum now. But I have to keep moving forward. There are other emotions hidden under the rug that have to be confronted; beginning with what happened to my family during my senior year in high school. It isn’t going to be easy. But I have to do it.