Back in July of 2006 I wrote a post marveling at a family friend who always managed to be cheerful and loving, even though she worked five times as hard as I did and had significant problems in her life. I didn’t have a take in the post; I just relayed the story, and promised at the end that I would write a Part 2 with further thoughts. I have never forgotten that I didn’t write that second post. By Grabthar’s Hammer, when I say that I will write a follow-up to a post, I SHALL DO IT!
…Sometimes it just takes me six years to get to it.
I was reminded of this subject last weekend when my husband and the four oldest kids took a weekend trip to visit his dad. The baby spent quite a bit of time visiting her grandmothers, and so I basically had the house to myself.
When they first pulled out of the driveway, I walked through the empty kitchen, the quiet living room, and took in the situation. This was the setup I had spent so much of my life yearning for: No commitments! No noise! No obligations! Just me in an empty house, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It was everything I dreamed it could be…for about two hours. And then it got kind of lame.
Back when I wrote that first post, this was still my ideal setup. I thought that a perfect life would mean having perfect autonomy. I loved my child and was glad to be a mother, of course, but I saw the work that came with it as a downside to be avoided as much as possible. As I said back then, I was acutely conscious of any effort I had to put forth, and the harder I had to work, the less happy I became. I fought and fought to resist any losses of freedom or control, making myself miserable in the process.
My husband calls that old ideal, the life of perfect ease and freedom, a “museum life.” It’s a good description. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I basically wanted to live in a museum: Everything in place, everything controlled, no noise, no chaos, nothing messy. Just a bunch of interesting stuff surrounding me that I could enjoy at my leisure.
But the thing about a museum is that everything in it is dead.
What I would eventually learn, that that friend of ours knew all along, is that a life lived to fullest will always involve service — and not just service like penciling in some volunteer work on your calendar, but melding your life with others on such an intimate level that you no longer have complete autonomy. Whom you serve may vary by your state in life (it may be family or your religious community or neighbors or a group of people in need), but whoever it is, if you’re doing it right, they will depend on you and you will depend on them to the extent that your life is no longer your own. When you think about it, it makes sense: Obviously there is no greater joy than unity with God, and we only need to look at a crucifix to see that the very essence of God is pouring out yourself for others.
On Sunday afternoon I heard the garage door open, and knew that my free time was over. An afternoon of toil was about to begin. Everyone would be tired and dirty and would need snacks and drinks and potty help and changes of clothes; the museum I’d had all weekend would be overrun by loud little people and transformed back into a crazy, chaotic home.
To be sure, it would be hard. I’d probably have to suppress the urge to scream “WHY CAN’T ANYTHING AROUND HERE EVER BE EASY?!?!?!” upon the second time I’d filled a drink only to have it spilled at the same time that someone knocked the tower of haphazardly stacked DVDs down behind the entertainment center. If my museum weekend meant experiencing pleasure on the surface but a dead hollowness underneath, this was the opposite: on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy. And as the kids came bursting through the door, tracking mud onto the carpet as they shouted, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”, I was overcome with gratitude that I no longer lived in a museum.