A six year old column that still every so often rings in my ears...
For many men of a certain age, the mid-life crisis is just that: a mid-life crisis, a time for despairing that youth, good looks and perhaps hair have gone, never to return. For me, however, the experience has been pretty positive so far: not only have I been able to hand on my old banger of car to my oldest son (thus making myself the greatest dad in the world), but I've also broken with my lifelong habit of driving pieces of junk until they disintegrate and purchased an inexpensive but decent sports car. Not quite sure how my wife let me get away with it; but the fact that my previous car leaked when it rained and the present Mrs T had told me that enough was enough and she was no longer prepared to `be dripped on' as we drove along in a storm one day, seemed to open up a great opportunity for sneaking a good car onto the driveway. As she rolled her eyes, she did say to me that a husband with a decent looking car is, from her perspective, better than one with a secret girlfriend and/or a not-so-secret toupee.
I had to agree: there are indeed much worse forms of the mid-life crisis out there. One other aspect of my MLC, and one that I have found extraordinarily helpful, is the death of ambition which, in my experience, it seems to have brought in its wake.
The realization that one cannot be the best at everything, or even those things at which one used to be the best, is presumably a factor in quite a few MLCs; and for me this was a welcome liberation. I woke up one day a few years ago at the age of forty, and realized that, if I was hit by a bus that night, whatever academic contribution I was ever going to make had already been made; I had done it; I need not worry about it any more. I could, of course, continue grinding the stuff out, like some intellectual sausage machine; but it would be more of the same, variations on a theme I had already played. No, an early Trueman death would not deprive the world of some great insight it might otherwise miss. I knew I would continue to write and even to do research, but I would do these for the pleasure I found in them, not because I believed it was my God-given task to enrich the waiting world with my pearls of wisdom.
This inner peace reminded me a little of the mental health statistics when I was at university. These indicated that good mental health was generally strongest among us intellectual middle-of-the-packers who were happy with whatever results we achieved: if we scored high, that was a bonus; if we crashed to earth, that was a bit of a blow but nothing too serious; we sailed on in our own, carefree way, not allowing work to interfere too much with trips to the pub, the odd game of darts or pool, and the general enjoyment of life. By contrast, breakdowns and suicides were most common among the intellectually brilliant high-fliers, those for whom nothing less than perfection was acceptable.
So it is with the MLC brigade. There are those for whom the diminution of their intellect, musculature, looks, and hair is a traumatic and desperate experience; and they find nothing which seems to compensate. You can point to the growth of hair in nostrils and ears as much as you like, but, trust me, these men will take no consolation from the fact that their overall number of active follicles remains relatively stable. For me, and I hope for others, being on the cusp of middle age has, contrary to the above, proved liberating. The key, I believe, is to match diminishing abilities and opportunities with diminishing ambition; balance the former with the latter, and you achieve a sort of zen consciousness where middle age does not seem so terrible after all.
Of course, the acquisition of such consciousness is really somewhat counter-cultural: not only does today's world consider ageing, and the inevitable physical weakening that comes with it, as sins; it also teaches us that everyone is special, has a particularly unique contribution to make, and must have a prize of some kind. Everyone needs to tell the world about their greatness, their uniqueness. It reminds me of the legendary football manager, Brian Clough who, when asked if he was the best manager in the world famously replied, `No, but I'm somewhere in the top one.' He was funny because he was one of a kind; but we are all Cloughs now, with the cultural term for those who lack confidence in their unique brilliance being, so I believe, `loser.'
This belief that we are each special is, by and large, complete tosh. Most of us are mediocre, make unique contributions only in the peculiar ways we screw things up, and could easily be replaced as husband, father or employee, by somebody better suited to the task. The mythology nevertheless helps to sell things and allows us feel good about ourselves; indeed, the older you get, the more things it sells, from gym memberships, to cosmetic surgery, to hair pieces, to botox injections; but it is just mythology - the whole of human history so far strongly suggests that, as you get old, you cease to be as cool, and that you inevitably find that life just isn't as sweet as it was when you were eighteen.
As I look round the church, it strikes me that this zen-like condition of a lack of ambition is much to be desired because far too many Christians have senses of destiny which verge on the messianic. The confidence that the Lord has a special plan and purpose just for them shapes the way they act and move.
Now, just for the record, I am a good Calvinist, and I certainly believe each individual has a destiny; what concerns me is the way in which our tendency to think of ourselves as special and unique (which we all are in some ways - D.N.A. etc.) bleeds over into a sense of special destiny whereby the future, or at least the future of myself, comes to be the priority and to trump all else. Put bluntly, when I read the Bible it seems to me that the church is the meaning of human history; but it is the church, a corporate body, not the distinct individuals who go to make up her membership. Of course, all of us individuals have our gifts and our roles to play: the Lord calls us each by name and numbers the very hairs of our heads; but, to borrow Paul's analogy of the body, we have no special destiny in ourselves taken as isolated units, any more than bits of our own bodies do in isolation from each other. When I act, I act as a whole person; my hand has no special role of its own; it acts only in the context of being part of my overall body. With the church, the destiny of the whole is greater than the sum of the destinies of individual Christians. This is an important insight which should profoundly shape our thinking and, indeed, our praying. My special destiny as a believer is to be part of the church; and it is the church that is the big player in God's wider plan, not me. That puts me, my uniqueness, my importance, my role, in definite perspective.
The problem today is that too many have the idea that God's primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance. They may not even realize they think that way but, like those involuntary `tells' at a poker game, so certain unconscious spiritual behaviours give the game away. Take, for example, prayer. Compare the prayers many of us have no doubt prayed, of the "O Lord, please use me for doing X' variety, with the priorities of the Lord's Prayer, where the petition is much more modest - 'lead me not into temptation, deliver me from evil, for the kingdom is yours etc.' One could paraphrase that prayer perhaps as follows: 'Lord, keep me out of trouble and don't let me get in the way of the growth of your kingdom.' No basis there for the typical `Lord, use me greatly to do this, that or the other thing I quite fancy doing' -- usually prayed, of course, before or after the pious throat-clearing phrase, `if it be your will.....' The Lord's Prayer, by contrast with many we cook up for ourselves, is a great example of words designed for the lips of believers who really understand the gospel, of those with, to coin a phrase, an unmessianic sense of non-destiny.
Then, think about church commitment. Many churches require members to take vows when they join, one of which usually requires submission to the authority of elders and a commitment to the local body. This is surely the church vow which is as casually taken as it is regularly broken. How many Christians move membership from one church to another as soon as their pet issue or problem is not addressed, or because they see a better option elsewhere? And I have not even mentioned the countless Christians who attend churches but never formally join. Once you shift membership from one church for no reason other than it doesn't scratch your itch, or stroke you as you would like, it becomes a whole lot easier to do it again -- and again, and again. But if you have an unmessianic sense of non-destiny, this is unlikely to be a problem: you won't consider yourself important enough to justify breaking a solemn, public vow. The West worships the individual; from the cradle to the grave it tells us all how special and unique each of us is, how vital we are to everything, how there is a prize out there just for us. Well, the world turned for thousands of years before any of us showed up; it will continue turning long after we've gone, short of the parousia; and even if you, me, or the Christian next door are tonight hit by an asteroid, kidnapped by aliens, or sucked down the bathroom plughole, very little will actually change; even our loved ones will somehow find a way to carry on without us.
We really are not that important. So let's drop the pious prayers which translate roughly as `Lord, how can a special guy/gal like myself help you out some?' and pray rather that the Lord will grow his kingdom despite our continual screw ups, that he will keep us from knocking over the furniture, and that, when all is said and done, somehow, by God's grace, we will finish well despite our best efforts to the contrary. Mid-life crises are dreaded by many men, but my advice is: gents, seize with both hands the opportunity to truly grasp that, whatever you thought at age eighteen, you are not actually the messiah and you have no special destiny which sets you apart from everybody else. The former is Christ alone; the latter is primarily reserved for his church. We all need to cultivate that certain unmessianic sense of non-destiny which will make us better citizens of the kingdom.
Much more recently, Sammy Rhodes and his wife went to see "Joy," the Jennifer Lawrence flick now being released online. His springboard thoughts on life and purpose, from January.....
The latest Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell joint, Joy...First, the parts worth saving. Jennifer Lawrence is amazing once the film settles down. It's easy to see why my wife can't decide whether she wants to be her or be friends with her. Lawrence seems more than comfortable in her own imperfect skin, and confident in her own flawed personality. She is like a more secular version of the Proverbs 31 woman. Take out the parts about wool and flax, add parts with wine and pour-over coffee. Actually you know what, keep the flax. Whole Foods sells flax seed, now that I think about it, so it must be good for you and cool too. In any case, the film is worth seeing for Jennifer Lawrence's performance alone.
The part of the film I couldn't shake, though, was the message that seemed at least implicit, if not the point of the entire film. Put simply, life doesn't begin until we accomplish that one, shining moment that justifies our entire existence; that one thing, one accomplishment, which perfectly showcases either our giftedness, or our unique and significant contribution to the world. For Joy that moment was achieved by persistently pursuing and realizing her dream of inventing a product that changed the world. And she did, (spoiler alert) a new mop that changed the way kitchens are cleaned and became a bestseller on QVC. The movie is based on Joy Mangano, a real woman who not only invented The Miracle Mop, but went on to invent many household game-changers and is a tour de force in the home shopping network world.
To be blunt, this is exactly the part that bothered me so much. What about those of us (most of us?) who never make anything close to a universally recognized unique and significant contribution to the world? What of those of us who spend our lives as nothing "more" than faithful employees who never rise to ownership level, parents whose children never make it to elite universities, church members whose Sunday School classes never grow beyond 15 people, friends who never become worthy of being name-dropped at a party?
If the old American dream was about reaching a certain social and material level, then the new American dream is something different. It's just that, a dream. Following your dreams, the "dream" of being something or doing something special. The dream of being recognized for your unique and significant contribution. Something that brings the blue check mark of validation next to your name on Twitter. It's much less tangible, yet much more pervasive than the old American dream. Remember when Adrian asked Rocky why he was fighting? He famously said, "To prove I'm not a bum." It's interesting in the latest Rocky spin-off, Creed, when Rocky asks Apollo Creed's son, Adonis, why he's fighting, he says, "To prove I'm not a mistake."
To prove I'm not a mistake. To prove that my life is worth something because I'm doing something the entire world can be in awe of, or at least cognizant of. Dean Martin sang, "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you." For millennials it's, "You're nobody 'til everybody loves you." Or at least respects you, notices you. So family is not enough. Community is not enough. A local place is not enough. There's an entire world waiting and within the reach of a couple of clicks.
This past November we went to Rockford, Michigan to celebrate my wife's grandmother's 100th birthday. Saying she's an amazing woman doesn't do her justice. She was playing golf well into her late 80's, volunteering at a local nursing home into her late 90's, and still has her driver's license if she cared to take a spin at 100. We spent the whole weekend partying with her, which involved a lot of intense sitting. Starting to think parties get better for introverts the older you get.
But the moment that stood out to me came on Sunday morning at her church where she has been a member for over 70yrs. For many of those years she taught swimming lessons to local school kids in the summer. As she was being interviewed, her pastor asked the congregation how many had been taught to swim by her. Over 50 people raised their hands in a crowd of 100. As I watched those hands go up, the thought that washed over me was a kind of prayer: Lord don't let my life be in vain. I'm looking for 50 retweets on Twitter. She was looking for a life well lived in the mundane.
I often play the short game. She's been playing the long game for a hundred years. No one outside of Rockford, MI even knows it...
Sammy Rhodes REF 21 http://www.reformation21.org/articles/meet-the-new-american-dream.php