From about 6-7 years ago…
Perhaps not in every way, but for the majority of my life I’ve been your typical American in one very important particular: I can’t stand waiting. My first job was as a cashier at K-Mart when I was 16, and I swear I must’ve been the fastest cashier those customers had ever seen, because I had at least one (admiring) comment on that fact per day. In high school, I prided myself on taking every AP course offered, and not only completing all of my homework every night, but also being in drama, in the school musicals, and in Bible studies without breaking a sweat. (I complained about having too much to do, sure, but this sort of complaining is barely distinguishable from bragging, and in my case I’m convinced that they were the same thing.) Once, walking to class in England with my friend Kelly, she told me, “Geez, do you always walk this fast? You need to stop and smell the roses more often!” When I lived in Mexico, trying to acquire medical volunteer experience, my boss John told me that, like most Americans he’d known in the medical profession, I was very high-functioning, meaning my priority was to do as much as possible in the least amount of time. He encouraged me instead to engage in the mindset of prayer, without necessarily feeling the need at all times to do something external. “A lot of the issues we’re dealing with here are spiritual,” he said, “and they can be tackled only on the spiritual level.” So where most American-trained doctors would shuffle through as many patients as possible, superficially examine their physical symptoms, shove a drug at them and move on to the next person, John encouraged a more holistic approach, which, invariably, meant more time. You have to get to know the person in order to understand from whence their problems arise, he said, and that may mean that you don’t always have a direct objective in your interaction with them; sometimes you’re just “hanging out,” getting to know them, trying to get a feel for their lives.
I still got pissed off when I had to wait two hours for someone to show up, though. But, when I got back to the states after those brief three months, I realized that somehow without my realizing it, some aspects of my American-ness had been chiseled away. I no longer knew how to juggle eighteen things at once and come out with a smile. I no longer even remembered how to be punctual. The semester before, I’d had 23 credits, three of which were Physical Chemistry, six of which were my senior thesis; I was in a musical with Arizona Rose Theater Company, I was studying for the MCAT, and my roommates and I got almost no sleep because we were battling a stalker… but after three months in Mexico, suddenly 15 units and no extracurricular activities were too much for me. I couldn’t seem to snap back into being “myself” – partly, I think, because the pace of my life had finally slowed down, and it gave me time to think – to think about where my life was headed, why I did the things I did, whom I was becoming. It was terrifying. “Darting through life at a progressively increasing speed diverts us from deeper realities,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in When the Heart Waits (forgive the title). “Likewise, latching onto easy, quick-fix solutions becomes a way of escaping the slow pain of uncertainty and self-confrontation.” I was depressed, and I didn’t understand why; at the time I wrote it off to simple culture shock, but now I think there might have been something deeper at work: the seeds of change.
Suddenly at the end of that last semester of college, with those “meager” (for me) fifteen units and monstrous amount of free time that somehow still never seemed to be enough, I realized that I hated medicine… and, much bigger than that, I realized that in all the hustle of my day-to-day existence for the past many years, I had left myself behind. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. A period of waiting for me was not optional (had it been, I most certainly would have chosen to have foregone the process); it was thrust upon me. I had a solid month after graduation with absolutely nothing to do — my own personal “wilderness experience”, in which I spent all day, every day at Catalina State Park sitting by the stream with my prayer journals, thinking that if I just made enough lists, if I just reflected enough (and by “enough”, I meant for a couple days), I’d – presto! — discover myself, my true calling, God’s plan for my life, what kind of a man I was attracted to and should marry, what my next ten-year plan would be and exactly what I needed to do next in order to find it.
So convinced was I that it was this simple that within about a week of graduating in December, I very nearly sent in an application to the naturopathic medical school in Phoenix, to begin in January. It was only my mom who convinced me that maybe I should think about that a bit instead of rushing into it, and if I still wanted it in the fall, I should go for it then. Within a week, I had changed my mind to something else; and truthfully, every time I entertained a new idea, the second it entered my mind I made plans to act upon it. Waiting was painful, after all, and I felt that if I didn’t take some action, even if I didn’t know whether or not it was the right one, I would remain exactly where I was forever; nothing would ever change or improve. I was “hurrying as fast as [I could] into the next moment, so that [I didn’t] have to dwell in this one.” It was during this period that I wrote more often in my journal than ever before of the “fast-forward button” that I wished I had for life. I wanted to skip to the next scene, instead of enduring the grueling process of learning whatever valuable lessons lurked in the depths of my wilderness.
I should add, too, that I am not (certainly not!) writing this from the perspective of one who has mastered the art of contemplative waiting. I have probably spent a total of maybe two months, not consecutively, of the last year and a half of confusion actually sitting, waiting, and not pursuing the next big thing. As I write this, I am still pursuing the next big thing. I had thought that finding myself would happen on a dime, that I would do it and it would be behind me, like an isolated moment rather than a process.
Likewise, I thought that entering into a deeper walk with God would be an instantaneous event. After a period of spiritual draught last summer, I decided that the problem was with my routine, and that as soon as I gave it up, I would suddenly find God in a vital way. Instead the apathy has persisted for about a year; I’ve only just begun in the last week to desire to read the Bible again, and I’m still as hopelessly confused about hearing God’s voice as I ever was. I began to ask very serious questions about the process of conversion during that time in my wilderness. I wrote in the January just after I graduated, “What I want to know is this: can grace really change us? Did any of us really get a new life that can be seen, do we have any evidence, or do we just have to trust that it somehow happened, mystically, even though the biblical promises seem awfully radical to be completely invisible on the everyday level? … I picked up The Ragamuffin Gospel, and it says somewhere near the beginning, “We want ever-sharp spirituality… and attempt to cultivate a particular virtue at a given point in time. Prudence in January, humility in February, fortitude in March, temperance in April. Score cards are provided for toting up gains and losses. The losses should diminish if you expect to meet charity in May. Sometimes May never comes. For many Christians, life is a long January” (Manning, 32). I quite agree, but I wonder why this must be the case. New Christians are ravished by the promise of a new life that the gospel offers, but at one time or another during the course of everyday life, most of the Christians I know have had to come to terms with the fact that whatever the promises may seem, they must not mean what we originally understood them to mean. As John Eldredge has said in Waking the Dead, “When you stand them side by side, the description of the Christian life practically shouted in the New Testament compared with the actual life of most Christians [is]… embarrassing” (Eldredge, 6).” After years of chasing after God the best I knew how, I suddenly found myself questioning everything I thought I had ever known. I had absolutely everything still to learn. I wrote, “John says that anybody who keeps on sinning isn’t of God (1 John 3:9), and then Paul says he does what he doesn’t want to do because he keeps struggling with this flesh he supposedly crucified (which is putting up a heck of a fight for something that’s dead; Romans 7:15).” Shouldn’t I have been a “new creation” by then? Shouldn’t I have already conquered selfishness, mastered hearing God speak, and learned how to be content in all circumstances? (I was, after all, 22.)
I believe I see now that I was just approaching this question of the “change” of conversion from a very culturally confined perspective: I was expecting instant gratification. “No aspect of thinking on conversion is more foreign to the American evangelical experience than this stress on conversion as a process,” writes Dr. John H. Westerhoff, as Kidd quotes him. She paraphrases, “I yearned for an express spirituality that would work at the same speed as my computer, providing a ready transformation and answer to my prayers. Frankly, I resented the fact that God didn’t work that way when everything else in my world did.” Traditionally, Christian thought has embraced the idea that God is always in the process of creating the new man within us. It is not a sudden and instantaneous change, like Cinderella suddenly transformed from housemaid to beautiful princess; no, this image leaves out a critical part of the story. The paradox is that one must die in order to live; the acorn falls to the ground and is buried before the tree can grow; the caterpillar creates a cocoon and enters a period of gestation before becoming a butterfly. Waiting is an essential part of the process: new life cannot come without it. One of my favorite quotes of all time (which I happened to stumble upon on a greeting card that I found in a little paper shop in Breckenridge, Colorado, of all places) is by Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet. It goes like this: “I beg you… to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
I have lived my way into a few answers in my time, but somehow I am always apt to forget that they were ever questions once they come to pass. I am always onto the next big thing, demanding answers to the next question, hoping that this time, I might bypass the waiting, but it never seems to work that way. That essay I wrote last January ends with this: “As I told my friend recently, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of something really big, but I don’t know what it is, when it’s coming, or what it will look like. Then again, maybe it’s just the beginning of a journey, rather than a single sudden revelation, and that seems more likely.” More likely indeed. I am beginning to see that this may be a journey that will last for the rest of my life.