Saturday, January 17, 2009

The longish and winding road...

Well, friends and family, the Cogitator is coming to a transition point in his shortish life.

The past few months I've been visiting friends and family in Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and, for the great majority of the time, Florida. During that time I've been reflecting on a number of things in my life: Taiwan, my educational and career goals, personal relationships, financial responsibility (and lack of such wisdom on my part), and the like. I had reached a point in Taiwan, after five years of pretty much nonstop English teaching and being-a-foreigner, that I needed not only a breather and a chance to recharge my batteries in my own culture, in the company of Ammi, "my own people," but also, more important, to take a step back from my normal life and see what I saw.

I have a hunch that life is basically five-year blocks that we swing between like Tarzan. I have a veritable theory that life is comprised of five-minute blocks of alternating currents of diversion and focus, fruitful or otherwise. If you can make it through "this five minutes," you can make it through the next. If you are wasting "this five minutes," you'll likely waste the next five minutes. Add enough five-minute windows and you have a life: endured, enjoyed, redeemed, wasted, or any other tale that each life ends up telling. In any case, I needed to step back from the "rut" I was in in Taiwan, rather like slamming the brakes in a moving car and seeing what flies away and what is really secure and part of the car. Did I love Taiwan as much as I do since it was all I've known, or do I have a genuine vocation there past the past five years? Am I really inclined to be a teacher, or has it just been a good way to earn my keep? Is the social and cultural void that the States seems to offer me an illusion, or is there in fact not much for me to pursue in my home country? Do I want to be a husband with a monk's heart or a monk with a husband's heart? And so forth.

It's been a season of prayer, some hard discipline, a lot of humility, tremendous gratitude, a good share of 'closure', and generally a total restoration of "my precious bodily fluids." Over the past couple months I've been fortunate enough to have work at a friend's father's demolition company. Good, honest labor. Today was my last day working there. I miss it deeply already. There's something truly satisfying about seeing something "get done" by your own hands and the hands of coworkers. There's also something very soothing about falling to sleep easily after a good day of exertion. Life is bursting with beauty and sublimity, if we have eyes to see it. The subdued rainbow of an early morning; the home-baked warmth of a diesel fan heater in the cool of the morning as hot air oozes through your jeans and steel-toed boots; the security of having a morning routine and morning greetings and morning coffee; the challenge of small things we are given to handle. (Admittedly, the dust is a real downer and I'd be nuts to think I would work demo full-time my whole life.) Plus, hey, there are all the manly goodies I've picked up along the way salvaging things before we toss them. Fifteen feet of large-link chain; a heavy-duty airport sandbag for carrying said chain; three pairs of almost new tennis shoes and two pairs of virtually new military-issue steel-toed boots; a Navy jumpsuit and two pilot jackets; mirrors, shelves, tools, and so forth. One man's junk is another man's jewel.

As I drove home from work, I listened to two strangely apt songs on the radio. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" followed by U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". Skynyrd's ode to being a simple man struck a chord with me: what more is there to life than honoring God and having a satisfying job? What need of there is introspection when you can find humble peace even while picking up trash on the side of an access road or shattering commodes and dry wall to clear out a room for renovation? If you can't smile and laugh and breathe easily doing that, what hope is there for you with some "higher" life? Strangely enough, all these principles find a breathtaking unity in the monastic life: humble work, fraternal collaboration, divine devotion, and simple peace--the high and the low at one in the Highest Made Low for us. I was given this transformative insight by watching Into Great Silence, which I assure you is one of the greatest films ever made. It is four-dimensional, its re-presentation of time, nature, prayer, and fraternity palpably enveloping the viewer in a special kind of time and space.

At a used bookstore a few weeks ago, I thumbed through a small book by M.D. Chenu on "the theology of work." I quickly decided not to buy it, and in fact not even to read closely because I sensed that I was already living that theology as a demo do-boy. There's not much to the theology of work in any case: God is good, man is fallen, but God can make man good through his work in all fields by His Son's work on the Cross. A good job is almost a complete moral: cooperation, discipline, honesty, generosity, fairness, humility, perseverance, and the like, are core virtues of a worker. It is gratifying to the bone to know I am God's son whether I study and teach metaphysics for a living, or shovel ceiling tiles, or, indeed, spend my days ill in bed as a clinical anchorite.

Nevertheless, while I strongly resonated with "Simple Man," I couldn't help finding my voice just as much in U2's song. I have reached some conclusions, namely, I do miss Taiwan and will return, but perhaps the only thing I can say with certainty and joy that I hope to pursue in my immediate future is a graduate degree in philosophy. I believe I can accomplish that goal more quickly, pleasurably, and economically in Taiwan than anywhere else. So, despite the misgivings in my labor-gut, back I go, with a preponderant peace and hope in my life-gut.

Please pray for me. My sins persist, but so does God's grace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a good exercise for you, Eliot. You have an unusual constellation of gifts--and I believe you choice to pursue a philosophy degree in Taiwan fits them well. The Church in the far East will need what you will be able to do. I keep you in prayer.
Jim McCullough, DRE
Our Lady of Grace Church
Greensboro, NC