My wife asked me the other day what I considered the time in my life when I felt most spiritually rich. She knew the answer, because I’ve talked about it many times: senior year in high school. But she wanted to deepen an ongoing discussion we’ve been having about the lackluster state of our spiritual lives. So what if my spiritual life reached its zenith 22 years ago, and what if I’ve gone from fighting the decline of time devoted to such things as prayer, service and Eucharist to accepting it?
Daily I nag myself with questions like What am I doing? Where am I headed? To what degree will I ever be a successful man? On some level everyone wonders these things, just as everyone’s life has unforeseen peaks and valleys and takes unexpected turns. But my wife’s recent question jolted me into realizing that the way I typically address these questions is to focus on the dichotomy of career versus family, being a professional versus being a father and the contrast between the stuff of my daily life and that of my successful contemporaries. What I seem to have neglected is the habit of evaluating my life against the spiritual foundation set those many years ago as a teenager—core values I still hold dear.
My struggle with these questions and my own shortcomings has remained a largely intellectual exercise—and thus, if I’m honest with myself, a disingenuous “struggle.” But the other day something brought them into sharper focus. I was waiting to see my specialist at the orthopedic clinic, mentally bemoaning my unresolved knee issues, my interrupted training routine and canceled hiking treks and reflecting on how depressing and all-consuming this glitch in my physical health had become during the past six months. Somehow a sentence uttered behind me managed to pierce the gloom: “I ain’t never read a book before, unless you count tractor manuals. But I can sure give it a try if it’ll help me get another job.” Judging from what I overheard in the next 15 minutes, a man in his 40’s who had known nothing but farming his entire life had sustained some major injury, which virtually incapacitated his shoulders and thus his arms. A social worker was working closely with him to find some other suitable career track. His situation appeared and sounded devastating, but his attitude was gently self-mocking, yet positive and determined. His name called, he got up and walked past, his arms all but limp at his sides, smiling as he talked with his caseworker.
I felt pangs, not of guilt or pity, but because what I saw of that man’s inner resources reminded me that I seemed to have so few—or at least that I was unwilling or unused to summon them in recent times. What I felt lacking in me was a virtue I had always respected and at times thought I possessed: the ability to remake oneself, to integrate unexpected or unwanted conditions with longstanding values. This capacity is the essence of a life of reflection and action, particularly insofar as it is the enemy of self-absorption and self-pity. For the follower of Jesus, I had always believed, making the most of one’s circumstances means seeing God in all things and bringing the spirit within myself into direct contact with the world around me. It was this belief, I suppose, that made me embrace the goal of being a man for others in high school. But what have I done for others lately?
Instead of entering the fray day after day, I begin to wonder if my life is a retreat from it—into my children, my household gods, my shortcomings. But surely such things cannot be dismissed as distractions from What Really Matters. Perhaps the question is: Why have I fallen into the habit of separating “my spiritual life” from the rest of my life? Just maybe it’s wrong to see my spiritual life as having been in freefall since my high school heyday. Maybe life’s spiritual texture changes, and we have to recalibrate and reimagine our expectations. And so the notion of a high or low point is the wrong metaphor for understanding the spiritual life. Perhaps the spiritual text of our lives, like a palimpsest, consists of layers half-concealed and obscurely revealed when we least expect it. That’s why the life of the spirit can be at once so elemental and opaque for me: that text is being continually rewritten and reread at the same time.
In a way, this seems utterly obvious. There is nothing linear about the human journey; it is in the nature of our psychological make-up that past and present coexist. The older I get the more I find value in reframing the question: Who am I and where am I going? Into what is the journey and why am I on it? The teleological is not more important than the ontological, just more helpful in extracting me from navel-gazing. It tends to contextualize the personal and idiosyncratic struggle, to help situate the self where it belongs—neither at the center nor in the background, but on a continuum. The passing years can bring clarity and heft to a confused and oversimplified adolescent perspective. But they can also mire us in complications—some important, some not—of our own making.
For the spiritual life is not a graph but a story, a nonlinear, unfinished and conflict-ridden narrative in which each of us is the protagonist but none of us is the main character.