I had a professor in college who was, for me, the fullest example of what it means to live a full, grab-it-all-by-the-horns kind of life. She laughed often, spoke honestly, and ate well. And she lived with a generosity that was so natural to her that it felt easy to accept and separated her from the frugal Dutch roots of West Michigan. She simply didn’t have time to think about money when a joyful experience was on the line. The extra appetizer or bottle of wine was always worth it because she valued her friends more than the money.
One night after a dinner gathering at my house, a small group of English majors sat around in the dying candle light with creamed coffee and pumpkin creme brûlée when she said thoughtfully, “I have finally learned to burn the candle.” Her comment broke the meditative silence of our post-dinner respite, and we stumbled into the idea with the dazed confusedness of young students in the presence of wisdom.
I asked her to explain. She said that for a long time, when someone gave her a beautiful candle, she would hold on to it without ever lighting the wick, because no occasion ever seemed important enough to warrant the use of such a beautiful and transient gift. Like our flaming lives, a wick burned is a wick never burned again. But, she said, she had reached a point in her life where she didn’t want to keep waiting to burn the candle. She mused on the origins of the lesson: Perhaps, she wondered, it had something to do with the imposed urgency of midlife, where tomorrow feels less and less like a guarantee. Or maybe it was the growing impatience of putting off joy until tomorrow. Whatever the impetus, it was clear that she had decided at last to grace today with the joy available to it.
I, like my dear professor, was a hoarder of candles at that stage in my life. The wayward leaning spread even into my dealings with bottles of wine and new notebooks and my favorite perfumes. When the cork is pulled or the page is marked or the scent is sprayed, something is lost to time and will never be recovered. There is grief in the impermanence of beautiful things, but how sad it is to think about dying with a house full of unburned candles and unopened wine and unmarked pages, all because we found no moment of our lives to be worthy of their enjoyment.
Don’t hoard joy, friends—there is plenty.
I went home to the farm last week, and when I pulled out of the driveway to follow the lake back towards Buffalo, the only thing I could think was, “It never feels like enough time.” Of course it doesn’t. We were made for eternity, not for transience. For bounty, not scarcity. Of course the temporality of things that we love creates anxiety, and grief, and longing for us. The hope of eternity—of the new creation—is joy that doesn’t feel like it needs to be rationed. But we don’t need to wait. The God of joy is here, now.
People like my dear professor (now friend) can live generously, with open hands and joy because they are drawing from a source that is bottomless in a way that you and I can’t even imagine. And better still, they trust that it will still be there to draw from when they wake up tomorrow. Today, we can learn from their wisdom: burn the candle, eat the pie, buy the pumpkins even though they will shrivel. The Bible says not to worry about tomorrow, for today has enough troubles of its own. Yes, and perhaps, it also has enough joy.