Today is my birthday. I turn 36.
Not only have I now passed the halfway point of my thirties, but it’s a brand new year, I just had a brush with a medical condition that is often fatal, and my whole life has been turned upside down by my recovery. So, as you can see, I have no choice but to write a long and reflective blog post that opines about the meaning of life today.
It’s a lot of pressure, really. I was lying in bed yesterday, mentally writing my post about all the Important Things I’ve taken away from this situation, and was mildly disgusted with myself that the first thing that came to mind was a list of tips about how to sneak contraband into the hospital that you’re technically not supposed to have. (And the next thing I thought of was a recipe for this amazing-sounding martini I discovered while surfing the web in the ER that I cannot wait to try as soon as the baby’s born.)
But I do think that I have learned a lot from this situation, even if the real insights were buried under ah-hah moments about sneaking Bendaryl into the hospital so that you can actually sleep.
Interestingly, facing my mortality was not what jarred me out of my usual routine — we Catholics are always thinking and talking about death, and since my conversion I’ve lived with a fairly constant awareness that, truly, not one of us knows the hour or the day that our time on earth will end. Having the ER tech whisper to me that the last guy who came in with a pulmonary embolism was dead 15 minutes later wasn’t what shocked me into a new way of seeing life. Instead, what has been the real bucket of icewater over the head for me has been the shattering of all my plans. I’ve only now realized that I tend to live in this weird mental space where I am pretty aware that death could come at any time…yet not all that aware that something mildly less catastrophic could happen. If I found out that I was going to die tomorrow it would shock me less than, say, if I found out I was going to lose the use of my right arm. I guess you could sum up my outlook as, Today could be the day the Lord calls me home…but if he doesn’t, good thing I have all these carefully laid out plans and that nothing could possibly go wrong with them!
But now all my plans are toast, and as I face a third trimester of pregnancy with a compromised ability to breathe, wonders about whether there will be lasting lung damage, and tricky long-term health management questions, I have been smacked upside the head with the reality that all my delusions of control through planning were just that — delusions.
I’ve been sitting here thinking of all the things I thought I would be doing in 2013 that I will not actually be doing. The crazy-intense curricula that would forever ensconce me as Queen of All the Homeschoolers, the cool speaking gigs in interesting places, the challenging but exciting writing opportunities, and those elaborate home organization projects that would surely make our entire house look like something off of Pinterest, have all either had to be hugely modified or scrapped altogether. Heck, I’ll be excited if I can walk up the stairs without flopping on the bed to gasp for breath at any point before summer. And here’s the most surprising part of all of that:
I don’t really care that much.
Starting with the moment my OB came to my hospital room to explain my diagnosis, I kept waiting to feel a great wave of mourning for all my plans. I waited and waited. But it never came. And when I look back on what God was teaching me in 2012, I see why.
In 2012 there was a very clear, specific message that was presented to me over and over again, reinforced to me countless times in countless ways. It seemed kind of random, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would apply to daily life, but it was undeniable that it was something God wanted me to understand. The message was this:
It’s all about the human person.
Though I had felt the silent whispers of this concept in various forms as the months went on, it was Cardinal DiNardo whom I first heard articulate it, in a speech he gave at a benefit dinner in which he recounted something that John Paul II told him on his first ad limina visit to Rome. The great pontiff could have talked then-Bishop DiNardo’s ear off with hours and hours of advice about what it takes to be a good shepherd, but instead he left him with that one truth to ponder. On the bishop’s last day in Rome, John Paul II leaned in close to him and said, “Remember, Your Excellency, it’s all about the human person.” No matter how important or sweeping our plans may be, no matter how big or small the scope of our authority, everything we do must be ordered toward connection with individual human beings.
The message simmered within me all throughout the year, but it’s only now that it’s all gelled.
I’ve come to see the radically freeing truth that our plans only matter to the extent that they’re ordered toward deeper intimacy with individual people. What makes this truth so freeing is that, if your ultimate goal is to make the world a little brighter of a place by touching one person at a time, you can do that under any circumstances. You can live a life ordered toward human intimacy as a jet-setting movie star or as an invalid confined to a hospital bed; whether you find yourself surrounded by Hollywood directors or the nurses on night shift, you will always find yourself surrounded by people in need of love.
And so, to the extent that my plans for 2013 were rightly ordered in the first place, they actually haven’t changed all that much. I may have thought that on that one weekend in March I would be connecting with the people seated at my table after I gave my speech; instead, it looks like I’ll be connecting with my family, my neighbors, the people in my parish, or whoever else I can encounter without getting on a plane. The details may be different, but the goal is the same.
This is especially freeing in light of my birthday.
I’m not immune to the occasional pang of “I’m getting old!” thoughts that probably plague most citizens of our youth-obsessed society. MTV culture tries to paint aging — or illness, or disability, or any condition other than being young and healthy — as a great limiting of options. Alas, you can no longer [insert description of supposedly glamorous activity]. That’s for people who are [younger / healthier / prettier / wealthier] than you are. But the truth, which I understand with such great clarity after all I’ve been through in the past week, is that if your plans were not love-driven in the first place, then they were the kind of stupid, time-wasting plans that people shake their fists and rue through tears on their deathbeds; and if they were love-driven, then there are no worldly circumstances that could prevent you from executing them, even if the details change a bit.
And so I find it profoundly liberating here on my birthday, as I enter into the daunting territory of a year full of questions and unknowns, to know that as long as my life is ordered toward love, it is a life with limitless possibilities.