Monday, September 13, 2010

A Million Miles: Chapters 10-12

Welcome back! It's been a wild week, but everyone in the Baart household is happy, healthy, and loving our new home. Space! Oh, glorious space! We feel so incredibly, undeservedly blessed.

Anyway, I'm excited to jump right into the chapters for this week. So much in these pages spoke to me (especially the part about feeling like a loser in your own life), but I'm going to focus on one passage in particular. From Writing the World:

I've wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don't want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgement. We don't want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn't remarkable, then we don't have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.

To me this entire passage can be summed up in a sentence: We don't want to live a life that requires us to accept the bitter with the sweet. Because really living--really truly investing ourselves in our life, the people around us, our community, our story--requires sacrifice. And let's face it: sacrifice sucks. It makes us dive down deep into ourselves, to the places where we are insecure and vulnerable and capable of being wounded. It's a whole lot easier to live life on the surface.

But it's also a lot less beautiful. It's less fulfilling. More mundane. I think Shauna Niequist puts in perfectly in her book (aptly named) Bittersweet: "...we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the callouses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy." Amen. I choose a bittersweet life.

Which is easy to say right now when my life is sprinkled with sweet. And not some sort of light dusting of confectioners' sugar. We're talking a baking catastrophe--an industrial-sized bag of the good stuff spilling out all over me. It's not always like this... I've known loss and heartache, and even now amid all the good there are bitter pills to swallow. Feelings of isolation that creep in and cuddle up next to the contentedness. Distance from my husband as he puts in crazy-busy weeks at his new job. The knowledge that even though I do my best as a mother I fail and fail again. But even in the midst of this, I can see opportunities for growth and change... the possibility of a better me, a better life, a better story on the horizon.

What about you? Is your life more bitter or sweet right now? Are you afraid to accept the responsibility inherent in acknowledging that life is brilliant? Or do you accept the remarkable (and your role in it) with arms wide open? Anything else in these chapters you would like to discuss? I'd love to hear from you...


  1. As you can see, this is me playing catch up with Don's book. Anywho...I feel my life right now is neither bitter nor sweet, it almost seems tasteless. I function well enough, but it's surface functioning. Both my best friend and I go to class, go to work, go home, and do whatever we have to do before getting ready for bed. We go out occasionally, and while it's fun and a welcoming breather from the daily grind, something just still seems to be missing. I don't really kniw what it is, and I'm thinking I may find out by reading Don's book, but I just feel like I'm offered more everyday and either don't realize it or don't want it for some reason.

  2. I agree that we have to accept the bitter with the sweet. Although, I haven't had much bitter in my life so far - I've been immeasurably blessed.

    I don't know if I would agree that one needs conflict in order to have a beautiful or fulfilling life though. Perhaps when conflict is seen as a byproduct of a life filled with challenge and with always shining the light of God's word in this world (because that's bound to introduce conflict.)

    But sometimes I feel like Miller puts too much emphasis on adventure and conflict and challenge without mentioning God. God is the key to any kind of fulfillment or any life worth living, whether you have a life full of challenge and conflict, a life full of bitter moments, or a life with peace and sweetness.

    As someone who wants to do challenging things, I agree with a lot of what he says. I just think that 1) he doesn't bring God into focus enough and 2) he doesn't take into account the people who have "ordinary" yet wonderful lives and are just as fulfilled and blessed as those who live an adventure.

  3. Lauren, I think you're describing the sort of dissatisfaction that seems so common to people who feel like they're living a life in between. Not a child, not quite an adult. Not wholly self-sufficient but independent enough to make big, life-altering mistakes. Not completely directionless but wondering what life has in store... I felt that way in my late teens and early twenties. I think it's why I switched majors four times, and finally latched on to my boyfriend (soon to be husband) with an almost rapid grip--I had to have something in my life that seemed stable and permanent, even if it was another person who was bound to fail me. (Though Aaron is my soulmate and the best decision I ever made was to say "yes" when he proposed, I don't suggest you attach yourself to any one person in the hope that he'll make your life meaningful.) Anyway, I'm sorry that your life feels tasteless, but if I could offer you a bit of advice it would be to live these learning years with your arms (and your heart) wide open. This is the last chance you've got to exist untethered, to spend countless hours and days and weeks simply being... And discovering who you are through a slow and winding journey of self-exploration, failure, and, eventually, understanding. It may feel like you're going nowhere, but every moment is something to be savored, even if it feels horribly mundane. You're being shaped, Lauren, even if you don't feel like you are.

    Blessings to you as you journey, my friend. I promise you'll come out on the other side with the ability to see each seemingly meaningless experience for what it truly was: a moment that defined one more small part of who God created you to be.

  4. Oops. I meant "rabid" grip, not rapid... Typo.

  5. Heidi, I think we have much in common... I was so like you when I was your age. Yikes. Do I sound old or what? But the point is, I've lived a very blessed life--and I continue to do so. It used to drive me nuts that people who had "experienced the bitter" looked down on me in college and beyond as a naive do-gooder who was in for it when "real life" struck. I felt like people were just waiting for me to experience something ugly so that they could see my faith fall to pieces in the face of real pain. And though I certainly didn't long for bitterness in my life, when it did happen I have to admit that (after the grief, the anger, and the eventual acceptance) I did find life somehow sharper on the other side. That said, I totally agree with you that Miller puts too much emphasis on adventure and conflict. But maybe that's because everyone seems to face it at some point in time--whether they seek it out on their own or not. I can honestly say that I have never known anyone who hasn't met with a life-altering sorrow at some point in time... For some it comes later than others (like me--my childhood and young adulthood was idyllic), but we all will know deep pain eventually. Maybe embracing the bittersweet quality of life is simply our way of dealing with it, of affirming that the light shines brighter because of the darkness around it.

  6. A close friend of mine died yesterday, and your post made me think of her. She was a person who "acknowledged the brilliance of life" in the midst of great personal pain. She never really knew her father, she suffered through a date-rape that led to an unwanted pregnancy, and had a life-threatening kidney disease at a young age. Her response to these bitter events was to turn to the Lord, forgive her father, have the child and place it with a Christian family, seek prayer and the best medical advice for her healing.

    When I met her over 20 years ago, I was struggling myself. She felt God telling her to pray for me "until it was finished." That began a weekly vigil that lasted for over two years. Seriously! She came ever week! For over two whole years!! She didn't realize that her visits and prayers maintained my sanity and saved my life.

    She left a high-paying job in the legal profession to become a prayer counsellor who was paid by donation. She had recently begun a worldwide prayer ministry but that was suddenly halted 6 months ago because of illness. Monica was 57-years-old when she died yesterday of pancreatic cancer.

    That is how I want to live my life! She became an example to me of embracing the challenges, the "bitter" and making it as sweet as she could, by her response.

    Like you, Nicole, my childhood and young adulthood was idyllic but you are so right - we all will meet a life-altering sorrow, and often more than one. What is our response? I believe we can let the light pierce the darkness around us because of what we choose to do at these crucial points. These are the moments that define us and our relationship with God. I wish I had met some of these challenges better than I did, but I am learning, and the challenges are not going away.

    I am thankful for friends like Monica, that have battled dark demons with their flashing swords before me and lit the way.

  7. Ahhhh… blogger ate my comment. Grrr… And it was good, too.

    OK, it wasn’t that good. It was something about how I was really struck by the part where Miller talked about our greatest fears being relational. The memoir I’m writing started out as an exploration of home, and in it’s next iteration is more directly about my journey towards love long distance as Mike and I were getting to know one another. So I’ve been thinking through what my greatest fears were in that process and how (or whether) I conquered them.

    Sorry, contrary to my usual process, I'm not as eloquent second time around, but I'm also running late so it'll have to do. (Wave) lis.

  8. Doris, I don't know what to say other than I'm sorry. Monica sounds like the sort of one-in-a-million person that most of us are only blessed to meet a few times in our short lives. What a gift to have known her. Thank you so much for sharing--and for reminding me to look closely, to truly see the people that God has placed around me to light my way.

  9. Lis, I have a book for you... Can I send a book to Laos? I'm reading Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist, and it is reminding me of your memoir in so many ways. The content is very different, but the idea is the same. It's sort of a collection of essays strung together with a common theme (rather obviously represented by the title: the bittersweet nature of life). Anyway, I'm loving it--and loving the fact that I can read and savor it an essay (chapter) at a time. I think you'd like it.

    I'm wondering how connected your desire for home and your love story with Mike are. Seems to me they're not so divergent... ;)


  10. Whew, I have been wanting to participate in the Million Miles Discussion for several weeks and have been super busy but I had a moment and wanted to comment on this weeks post. Currenlty I am living in the most bittersweet circumstance of my life that is rapidly becoming more sweet than bitter. I have often described my situation as the "best worst experience" I have ever had. Prior to this I had always lived a pretty smooth life that was untouched by negative circumstances. Then I gave birth to my fist child and was rocked to the very core of my being and belief system when I learned of the various health challenges he was born with. Completely shocked me and I was unprepared for the heartbreak, the guilt I felt , and the isolation it brought. However, the absolute joy I have experienced is like no other as I daily see God's miracles in my son as he continues to defy every negative thing spoken over him, the surrendering to God that I have had to do, and the mending of my heart that He has done, has been indescribable and to be honest I really like the new me as a result of this situation. I don't think that I would have this new depth and joy and view of life had I not had this experience. (It took time though at first it was very rough) I think when tough things come our way how we handle it definitely defines the direction that our life story will take on and I am choosing to have an awesome story as a result.

  11. I feel that way too - that people are waiting for something bad to happen to me so they can watch me disintegrate and my zest for life or my idealism swirl down the drain of disappointed hopes. I don't know. I haven't experienced anything truly terrible, though I know that I very likely will someday. I can't say how I react. But I know I have an awesome God to rely on.

    "Maybe embracing the bittersweet quality of life is simply our way of dealing with it, of affirming that the light shines brighter because of the darkness around it."

    Thanks for the perspective, Nicole. This quote reminds me of a place my friends and I visited a few years ago. We went for a hike in the Rocky Mountains, in the middle of winter, out of the range of cell phones. Halfway through our trek, we discovered that it was well on its way to being pitch-black outside, since the mountains are less forgiving when it comes to dusk and light never lingers long. We were going to have to find our way back to the car with no light to guide us. It frightened us all, but when we looked up at the sky, we were struck by the stars we saw. Layers and layers of stars shimmering; it looked as though every single star God had studded the sky with was guiding us home. We walked back to the car with eyes pointed to the heavens, the stars reassuring us.

    As we looked up at the sky, I was struck with the thought that we would never be able to see the stars in such multitudes if it were even a little bit light outside. And isn't it that way with most things? We never see the true brilliance of stars in our life unless they're offset by darkness.

  12. Jody, your story rocks me to the core because it hits at the very deepest fear contained in my mother's heart: health problems with my children. Last night my six-year-old fell off of a rod in his closet (don't ask) and hit his head on the sharp edge of s shelf. I saw it happen out of the corner of my eye and for a split second I believed every worst-case-scenario... Broken bones, brain damage, death. He's fine, but oh, how wild and natural is a mother's need to protect and defend her child--even from things like pain or illness! Insomuch as I can support, respect, and uphold you via a prayer across the miles, I support, respect, and uphold you! May your little one continue to defy the doctors and rise above any labels people may try to stick on him. And may you continue to live this awesome, inspiring story that is able to touch people even after a few quickly typed words. Blessings to you and your incredible family.

  13. Beautiful analogy, Heidi. I sense a short story in there. An essay, maybe? It has a lot of potential to be transformed. :)

  14. I liked Shauna's first book, I'd love to read her second. In theory you can send books to Laos via the office. Someone's popped one in the mail to me recently so I'll let you know if it gets here before I put you to any trouble... Yay. Books. Yay. Hugs back.
    PS... I'm loving reading everyone's comments on this discussion. Some really powerful ones in here, very touching.

  15. I know, the comments are amazing, aren't they? I love it when people are willing to be open and honest and raw and broken... We have so much to give each other, so much to learn.

    Let me know about the book! I'd love to send you a little something from Iowa.