|The Conversion of St. Paul, 1767 by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie|
I’ve spent the last few months on self-imposed sabbatical to read and write about St. Paul, a guy, as it turns out, I didn’t like very much. After reading a biography of Charles Manson last summer, I found more connections between Charlie and Paul than I did between other apostle-saints and Paul. In fact, Paul fits the profile of exactly what he was: a cult leader. By force of will and personality, he cajoled, bullied, commanded, and guilted others into following his lead. When they didn’t do what he wanted, his rage was legendary.
The part of the research I became obsessed with was the way Paul changed his life. There are two stories about his “conversion”: one where he is knocked to the ground by a flash of light and a voice demanding to know why he is persecuting the followers of Jesus; and two, a quieter, more internal change from persecutor to early Church leader. Whatever story one believes, it is a startling transformation. My money is on the quieter transformation, as I have never seen someone hit by lightning (although I’m told it is quite common) and have rarely seen someone change his life in an instant. But this is old news. What I’m left with after all of these weeks of work is the way we change or fail to, and specifically, as I approach the half-century mark of my own existence, why I must change my life.
One late evening recently, I took an online quiz about life expectancy. In my current state, I will live until December 12, 2030. On that day, I will be 67 years old. This supposedly factors in my current health issues, weight, and lifestyle choices. The random age of 67 was a disappointment, because bad days aside, I do not really want to die while everyone else is living longer and longer. Life expectancy today averages 78 years, give or take for gender and standard of living. If I could drop the prodigious amount of weight I want to lose, I could increase my time on this earth, again according to the internet, to July 26, 2050, or the ripe old age of 87. All of this seems so random as to be real. Life is like that. I mean, a computer algorithm is really no different than nature or God’s algorithm, I guess. The bottom line is, I will die. I knew everyone else would die; I just hoped I was exempt. No such luck, and really, I’m appalled and frightened by the number of people I know who have died recently, people I thought had a few more good years ahead of them. I find myself calculating ages on the obituary pages of the newspaper. We are well into my father’s age group now, with an uncomfortable number of my demographic as well. Life is short. You would think that fact was something you learn by age 50. What can I say? I’m slow.
There is a more important lesson here in the deep water in which I tread, in the bottomless ocean of my life. I have not been happy for a long time. (My wife would say I’ve never been happy. My defense? I’m a Capricorn, not the strongest rebuttal.) I am nagged by the feeling that things are not in balance, that I’m not on the right road. Is there such a thing as a right road? Robert Frost seems to say that it is the road not taken, the one we are loathe to travel because it is a bit overgrown, or appears to lead away from where we think we should go. What if both roads feel equally dark? What if we find that the road we are on leads to a cul-de-sac? And of course, we can never return to the junction to try the other one.
What I’m feeling, I think, is the need to define what the next phase of life will be about, and how I can find a way to be happy, even when things go wrong. I may never have been happy, but I’ve always believed I had time to find happiness. Now I know that time is short and there is so much to do. Yes, this is a mid-life crisis, but not the kind where I get a girlfriend half my age, hair plugs, and a red convertible sports car. (I can’t even have a normal mid-life crisis.) I’m the guy who always wanted something more out of his life and now, with “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” finds the sun setting and fall moving into winter. It’s now or never. Forget the girl and the full head of hair as well as the fast car, I want to feel I’ve accomplished something in my life. I want to leave something behind. For whom, I could not tell you. I’d just like someone to know I’ve been here. But we all die twice—once when we pass, and again when everyone who remembers us has passed. We are but shadows of things that have been. Even echoes die.
So what to do. “Here lies me: I was never happy.” Not the epitaph I want. There were moments when I possessed the secret of joy. There were a few times, only a few, where I was struck by a sense of awe and wonder. Those days are long gone, and I need to find them again. To that end, I’ve been filling notebooks with pages and pages of notes about this life. Wednesday, December 11th: Discover the “slight but profound epiphanies of life.” And, “Do things you find scary and challenging. These are the things most worth doing.”
Quotes from Montaigne: “When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.” And, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props at most.”
Every contemplation about life needs Henry David Thoreau, here from his journals: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another island. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”
I’ve put away Paul for a while, up on his dusty shelf. His admonishments lay dormant in the leaves of his letters for now. The lesson he had to teach me has already been internalized: I must change my life. (Rilke has also whispered as much to me over the years.) Not change my life so much as learn to enjoy it, to recover the lost sense of awe and wonder. At the half century mark, I have so much more to see. There are so many more stories to live to tell. This is a strange, wonderful world. Yes we are often let down by circumstances and people. Tragedy rides shotgun on every journey. Loneliness is a paradox, both welcomed and abhorred. Through it all there is rain and sun and winter wind; there is the fire glowing in the hearth and soup on the stove. There are good books and long winter nights to read them.
Sometimes, we change our lives by simply opening our eyes and our hearts, and like Paul, letting the scales drop away. It means summoning the courage to step outside and see the world anew, before we grow old and this journey ends.