I used to say that I wanted a small life. A family, good work, and good friends – a humble list.
There are, of course, many problems with this formulation. First, no life is smaller or bigger than any other. In one sense, George Washington’s life ended just the way yours and mine will – in the ground, with a few people’s lives dramatically changed by the loss. In another sense, his life ended just the way yours and mine will – eternally real, equally small and weighty beyond understanding before our maker.
The second problem with claiming I wanted a small life was the assumption that I was destined for a big life – a life that would be thrust upon me because of my innate wonderfulness and superior education, and in spite of my desire for a humble existence. Imagine how grotesque the claim would sound to a single mother trying to scrape together the money to get her kid piano lessons. Finally, claiming that I wanted a small life protected me from humiliation should the big life made inevitable by my brilliance not come to pass.
Today, though, I realized for the first time that my life is in fact going to be small. I’m closing in on fifty, and what I am is a decent but not exceptional homeschooler. I’m a decent but deeply flawed wife. I teach Sunday School, try to be a good friend, sister, and daughter. I write a mediocre blog when I’m not more interested in watching all three seasons of Treme over the course of a week, and I start but never follow through on many different spiritual disciplines in an attempt to draw closer to a God I almost always believe is there.
Isn’t that sad? Not that I am just an average person doing the best’ish that I can. That’s not sad. What’s sad is that today was the first time it occurred to me that this is most likely not going to change.
I was sitting in my dining room, surrounded by eleven homeschoolers who were in an American Revolution class that I am teaching on Monday mornings. The class was great; the kids were engaged, excited, learning, and having a blast. So was I. I couldn’t believe how much fun we were all having.And then it hit me. “This is it. I’m never gonna do a whole lot more than this. And my kids may not even grow up to appreciate how much it takes out of me to give myself over to them in this way.”
Maybe it’s because my father’s death ignited some sense that I bear the responsibility of his legacy. Maybe it’s because of people like Phillis Wheatley and George Washington and John Adams, people whose words and deeds are having a profound effect on me as we study the Revolution. Maybe it’s because of Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From The Tree I am reading and whose writing often makes me gasp or pump my fist in the air with its beauty. Whatever it is, I am acutely aware of how little else I may do in my life.
When I told Jeff and two friends about my realization tonight, I surprised myself by tearing up. I’m mourning the loss of something, and I’m not sure what to call it. My dreams? Vanity?
Luckily, Jeff and my friends didn’t try to convince me that I was actually an amazing teacher or the like. Instead, they asked me what could be more important than raising my kids. They reminded me that this is what I feel called to do in this season. They reminded me that God only asks us to be faithful; he’s responsible for results. Finally, Syndi told me a Tolkien story whose message is that the things that look small here may have an eternal glory we can merely glimpse now. It was all true, but it didn’t make me any less teary.
Maybe I’m having a spiritual mid-life crisis. My spiritual director would probably ask me what Jesus is saying to me about a small life. Good question, I would say. Which is the only answer I have right now.