A Young Man Builds His Library in Hope

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?
A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?
At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.
~James K.A. Smith, in a lovely post- Mortality and My Library. It reminds me of a similar statement Lewis gave in an address to students:
If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say “No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me.”
This talk was published as Learning in Wartime. Do you feel the shortness of the tether? Like Smith, with God’s help, I will die reading. I’m also going to raise four readers. There is some measure of comfort in knowing that the quest will continue.

Children, our deliverers

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

George Eliot, in Silas Marner. 

I am not my own: a defense of children

I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life when I held my oldest child for the first time. The tears of joy and the dizzy raptures of that hour keenly remind me of a surrender I made that day. Like my wedding day, my identity and my vocation as a Christian man became linked to another. Seven years of parenting (four!) children has shaped in me an introspective sensitivity to an existential pressure point of the soul- a pressure point shared by many in our culture today.

The Ethics of Autonomy and Self Determinacy

Popular culture is awash with a wave generating from the twentieth-century sexual revolution and existentialist movements. A supreme value of this cultural milieu lies in the need for the individual to overcome any obstacles to authenticity. At all costs, I must be true to who I really am. We’re familiar with examples of communities that have taken up the Disneyesque challenge of pushing all peoples to self-determinacy and actualization. The recent cultural constructs of same sex marriage and transgenderism stand out as recent success stories.

More socially conservative communities are not immune to the existential quest to be true to oneself against all social constraints. In online college courses, I’ve interacted with a number of disillusioned ‘labor workers’ and retail clerks and accountants and stay at home moms- all who have left houses and lands to discover their true identities as counselors, physical therapists, and teachers.

Where are our Children?

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I alluded earlier to a pressure point that parenting has brought to my awareness.  Marriage and parenting have profoundly shaped my responses to my inner existentialist self. When faced with disillusionment about my life choices in this cultural narrative of self-determinacy, I need to be reminded that I simply do not have the authority to recreate myself. In many respects, core components of my identity are received, not created. My children serve as a steady reminder that I am not my own.

Perhaps this is one reason why children are valued so little today. Our culture’s story of complete autonomy will only work at the expense of others. We cannot all live as though we are the most important realities in our universe. Children will cramp your style. We cannot live our lives chasing, with abandon, our wildest ambitions while committing equally to being faithful spouses and parents. The family is an institution we submit to, not to lose our identity in a morass of diapers and grocery bills, but to help us find ourselves, truly.

The Culprit and the Remedy

The Romantics probably would have disagreed, but I think our culture’s assimilation of existentially minded Romanticism has pushed children to the margins of our cultural anthropology. Here’s my question for the middle-aged man looking to recreate himself in the merciless forge of the commercially driven university: how will your children actualize their dreams for what the good life looks like, when the best portions of your life are spent on you? Gone is the Pauline sentiment that the parents ought to store up for their children and not the children for the parents.

But the Romantics didn’t leave us without aid. What if we could find joy, meaning, and peace by pursuing the happiness and completion of those who have been entrusted to us? Wordsworth mused on the blessed pleasures that stem from a mature and sober realization that we can find life more beautiful and satisfying by experiencing it through the happiness of those we love. We can test this daily by searching to find our joy in the happiness of the beloved. The idea has some antiquity behind it. In all honesty, the children make it easy for us. No humans on earth are as willing to trust and as quick to forgive.