It’s Not a Ladder, It’s a Circle

It’s Not a Ladder, It’s a Circle January 17, 2019

One website I keep running into, when I’m taking my desultory early morning turn through the interwebs, is some ghastly offering called Ladders. I think it is one of those stepping over your dead self to better things sort of endeavors.

There you are, a confused mess, sleeping too late (like me), eating poorly, spiritually comatose, and you think you need a change, and so you foolishly go to to fix it all up. The place is stuffed with 19 ways to be happy and 45 ways to be more productive and 4 ways to be a better parent. I don’t go there because I want to be any of those things—indeed, I never purposefully go there, it is always an accident—but I do find it fascinating to read what other people think I should do. Wakes me right up in the gray dawn.

Earlier in the week I skimmed some long, discouraging piece about how most people will never be successful because true success means always evolving and always becoming better no matter what, and most of us don’t want to be bothered. And this morning I labored through another long stupid one about what it takes to truly experience ‘work-life balance.’ It was so long, and so detailed, I almost died.

Truly, in the ancient human quest for self-care and happiness, I would like to quibble with the image of the ladder. I think lots of us imagine that we are going up a ladder. We go relentlessly up, towards something better. Our breakthrough is about to come and if we are already ascending, working hard to go up—what was that much more ancient picture? Gosh, it’ll come to me in a moment, something about a tower and everyone working really hard to make it as tall as possible…oh never mind, it’s gone, this must be a very new idea that literally no human has ever thought of before—we’ll be ideally positioned to experience some awesome mind blowing wonderful thing that will make us permanently happy.

I keep waiting for a Ladders piece on How To Avoid Death in 75 Easy Steps, but so far none have been forthcoming.

No, we’re not on a ladder, unless it is one that is slowly lowering us into Sheol, rung by rung. There is no going up. But that doesn’t have to mean total despair, especially for the Christian, who does, in fact, have a ladder—look at me all bible trivia this morning—that would be Jesus. And though Jesus isn’t that interested in us becoming more productive and perfectly enacting a work-life balance, he is interested in us getting holier over the course of our lives, which certainly involves the work and physicality of the body.

But this is not an upward trajectory. It is rather an endless circling, round and round and round the same set of ideas and actions, not going up, but going deeper, though not deep down into Sheol, but into a true and settled understanding of Jesus himself.

So discipline, which there certainly should be, might rather be a slow and cheerful merry-go-round. Every day you get another chance to do what you didn’t manage to do before. You are not evolving into something better, you are becoming more human, more like Jesus. You are seeing more of him as you go round again.

That is the church year, of course, but also the day—evening into morning, and then on into the frustrating afternoon, and then into the evening again. It is also the week, each day following on the other with the same set of tasks and expectations that were there before.

And yet, as the existence of websites like Ladders reminds me, it is terribly difficult to bend toward a coherent and, dare I say it, productive circle, a rhythm perhaps. Part of the problem of modernity is that there are fewer and fewer external rhythms to constrain the body and mind toward holiness. When it gets dark, you don’t have to go to bed, although I feel that I at least should. Instead, you just turn all the lights on and keep going. And what with your car, you are probably not constrained by distance. You don’t have to walk to the market on a certain day because the market is every day and is everywhere—which one do you want to go to? So you have to create constraints for yourself, and that is sometimes miserably hard. And so we all rush off to places like Ladders to get lists of ways to order our lives, and in the process get tricked into thinking we are doing something more exciting than we really are.

I have come to love the constrains I’ve created for myself. As I age, I get sniffy about other people forcing me to break them apart. Last night I had to stay up past my self-imposed bedtime with a child who, as the long evening wore on, came to appreciate very much why I insist on going to bed at 8pm. By 10:30, when we had finally managed to save his paper, he was eager to carry all my array of required items—hot water bottle, mug, milk, glass of water, basket of correspondence, stack of books—up three flights of stairs, praying in his soul that I would not redescend upon him for many many many hours.

Discipline, in other words, is not a bad thing. Doing the same set of things in the same order every time could be construed as obsessive, but it could also be the way you bend your will towards God, who, one might say, does the same set of tasks for all eternity—balancing mercy and justice in the palm of his perfect hand, forgiving the sinner over and over and over and over, giving life to the cosmos yet one more day. We don’t want him to suddenly do something unusual and exciting—not for himself certainly. That would be a catastrophe for all human life.

And now, if you will excuse me, I will descend from my serene attic lair and once more order the ways and inclinations of all those people down there.


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