Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?
Are you ever confounded by the passage of time? Not the simple passing of hours that segments each day, but significant time. Like when you look out over the ocean and remember that those waves have been meeting the shore for untold millennia; or when you find a tombstone from the 1800s; or when you hear a favorite song and realize it’s already twenty-five years old. In those moments, a type of soul-inertia can set in, a simultaneous smallness and weightlessness of spirit. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, a feeling of insignificance slips in.
My quest for solitude—a scant commodity, given that we have three kids (which I’d never, ever, ever give up for any reason), and I have a full-time job (which I can’t give up, at the moment)—often leads me downtown, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It was there, very recently, that I was confounded by time. The current big-ticket exhibit, Rome: City and Empire, is filled with dozens of art objects from antiquity, and wandering among 2,500-year-old marble sculptures can definitely cause that soul-inertia to rise.
But unlike standing beside the ocean, no feelings of insignificance beset me. And I think it’s almost entirely because of the portrait bust pictured above. I wasn’t diligent to record its title or provenance—a rare lack of meticulousness on my part—yet I remember its impact. Note the scar on his cheek. And the deformity of his ear. He is imperfect, and also there is something common about him (though I know only the wealthy could afford the extravagance of a marble likeness). He’s flawed in ways that the nearby bust of Octavian is not. I remember reading that the portrait above was produced at a time when realistic representation was the standard, whereas the sculptor of Octavian would’ve been more interested in rendering the emperor godlike. It’s understandable that a dutiful sculptor should render an emperor godlike. After all, Romans believed their sovereigns divine. However, it’s the flawed old man with a gashed cheek and a crinkled ear that resonates as human. It is he who helps ward off feelings of insignificance in the face of unfathomable time.
It took three-and-a-half miles for my anger to soften. We’d worked hard to leave on-time: snacks, coffee, and water, already loaded in the van; the boys dressed early; the baby fed.
But then Arthur dropped his cheesy puffs as we drove down Highway 31, and we still had twenty-five minutes left to drive. No big deal. I turned onto a side street and hit the hazard lights. He unbuckled, got in the floor, got back in his seat and buckled again. No substantial time was lost. But before we’d even fully turned back around, Arthur announced that he’d forgotten his snack; he’d picked up a couple of toys, instead. So now I’m stopping again—still not too big of a deal—a minor irritation. That is, until two vehicles managed to slip by us.
The first was turning left. Traffic rarely lightens at certain times on Highway 31 in Spring Hill, so with this being a Sunday morning, the car in front had to wait a long time for an opening. I could feel the clock ticking now. It seems churches are always either starting services or letting them out at all hours on a Sunday morning, and for a town no bigger than Spring Hill, there are an unseemly amount of churches. A high concentration of churches in a suburb of Nashville is no surprise, I must admit, but why must they stagger their beginning and ending times in such a way? I know I’m being unreasonable; you don’t have to tell me. Certainly churches don’t consider their effect on local traffic when planning services.
Anyway, we were trying to get to our own church. And finally that first car had managed its left turn. But here’s the kicker. The other vehicle in front of us—the one standing between us and punctuality—was a pickup truck loaded down with junk, and when it pulled onto the highway, it refused to accelerate above thirty miles-per-hour. We were stuck behind it, with no chance of passing, for two whole miles. (Okay, seeing this in print makes me feel really petty. But at the time, I was enraged.) I had made a serious effort to get us out the door with as little stress as possible, to get us to church without feeling rushed, and now it was all for nothing. I began wondering why God didn’t help us out—why he didn’t honor my noble effort, thinking that if he really wanted us in church, he would’ve prevented some of these obstacles. Such is the occasional pettiness of the human mind.
Some would blame these obstacles on the devil. But I think that’s a not-so-clever way to excuse ourselves from responsibility—the responsibility of realizing that the movements of the world aren’t tailored to our egos; that the schedules of the thousands of other residents of Spring Hill are not designed with my need for efficiency in mind. It’s the price of the free will we so adore. Just as I was free to stop our van so my son could pick up his snack, the two motorists who stalled our progress were free to drive up that same street at the exact time that they did, passing us by with our hazards flashing. No one was in the wrong; no one was an instrument of either divine or evil will. It was just a thing that happened in a world that keeps moving, whether we’re ready or not.