I just graduated from Calvin in December, and I’ve recently been experiencing the foreign and incredibly strange phenomenon of having a lot of time on my hands.
Now, I do work fairly steadily, (take note, potential employers) washing off peanut-butter noses at my nannying job and navigating the daunting world of substitute teaching (I’m very good at reading names and crossing them off). But at the end of every day I come home to a decided lack of responsibilities, at least in comparison to the most recent years of my life. These days, I pull into my driveway, throw my snowy shoes by the door, flip open my planner, and I don’t have a single assigned reading. I don’t have to fill out a three-page comprehensive lesson plan for someone else to evaluate. I have the occasional bill to pay or e-mail to answer, but for the most part, I Don’t. Have. To. Do. Anything.
Knowing that I’ll miss this freedom when it’s gone, I’ve moved from the initial Netflix-binging and napping to a generally more productive lifestyle, sorting my college notebooks, re-organizing my bookshelves so that Willy Wonka is no longer next to St. Thomas Aquinas, and having long, drawn out conversations with anyone and everyone about the direction and purpose of life.
And reading. So much reading. For FUN.
Now, I didn’t write this blog post in order to send my busy friends and relatives into a jealous rage. That’s what Facebook statuses about my perfect life are for (See “A glass of wine, fresh laundry, a roaring fire and eight hours of Anne Lamott #suckit”).
Rather, I wanted to bring up some of the books I’ve been reading, two in particular, that have brought surprising clarity to my life. That’s right; I’m still learning things. Somebody slap me on an Admissions pamphlet.
My father, being the well-read, dear, and thoughtful human being that he is, recently bought me a book by Steven Garber called “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good,” because he knows how much I’ve been struggling with the vocation concept.
To Garber’s, and my father’s, credit, the book is now a mess of blue underlines and margin notes. So much of the content speaks to the questions I have been asking lately, loudly, and with a fist to the heavens.
Garber speaks to accountability, to responsiveness. In beautiful ways, he puts an emphasis on the ordinary, offering great power to the humdrum not only by indicating its capacity for good, but its capacity for evil. In many ways, I tend to write off anything that can be considered “everyday” because it seems to be so meaningless. Some days, it feels like life only counts when you’re working toward a reconstruction of the corrupt justice system in third-world Africa.
It wasn’t until I read Garber’s summary of the Adolph Eichmann story, researched and compiled by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, that I began to see ways in which everyday existence is full of choices. Eichmann, a Nazi official on trial for crimes against humanity, was notable, in Arendt’s opinion, not for his cruelty but rather for his thoughtlessness. When asked to account for his crimes, Eichmann repeatedly claimed to have done nothing wrong himself; he was simply following orders and doing his job. While many considered this to be a simple attempt to re-route blame, Arendt believed that Eichmann was simply telling the truth; he suffered from an inability to see beyond his daily bread. While he was “just doing his job,” others were dying for refusing to go about business as usual.
Now sometimes when I read stories like this, I get fed up, because it’s easy to make a claim for the importance of the ordinary citizen in Nazi Germany.
Garber goes on, however, to talk about vocation as response, never giving up on his dedication to the everyday.
“Most of us cannot and do not live extraordinary lives,” he says, “Instead we live in families and in neighborhoods, working and worshipping week by week in rhythms that makes the sum of our lives, seasons after season, year after year. Life cannot be other than that.”
And along with his emphasis on the ordinary, he repeatedly comes back to Walker Percy’s question, “Knowing what you know about yourself and the world, what are you going to do?”
We must know and we must care and we must do, Garber challenges. The ordinary isn’t powerless; it’s autonomy that lacks power. It is when we refuse to engage that brokenness prevails. We must know and we must care and we must do.
I picked up another book lately, or rather a series of books, called A Song of Ice and Fire, more popularly known as The Game of Thrones. Yes, I know, I’m awfully late to the party. I often balk at things that are immensely popular because I have a distrust of bandwagons; I’ll tell you what I think of House of Cards in ten years.
And I will tell you what. I am nutso-crazy-over-the-moon for this book series. I mowed through those books like Robert Baratheon through the royal liquor cabinet (Eh? Eh?). Now, while there are off-putting elements to the books, most notably the copious amounts of head-cleaving and sex-having, there are many reasons for my swift and sudden love affair with George R.R. Martin’s novels. There is a complex and detailed social and political history for a world that does not exist, some of the best characters have wolves as life-partner-guardians, and people walk around saying things like “If you lay a hand on me, my lord father will have both your heads on spikes!”
What I love most about The Game of Thrones, however, is that it’s almost entirely about the question, “Knowing what you know about yourself and the world, what are you going to do?” Westeros, the heart of George R.R. Martin’s fictional kingdom, is black and white and a thousand shades of gray. The noblest characters seek justice and end up betraying their own families. The vilest characters suddenly save the day just when you’re sure you wanted to punch them in the face. And best of all, anybody’s head could be lopped off at any time.
Lest you think I’m some sort of sadist, let me explain.
Imagine every other story you’ve ever loved. Now, imagine that you weren’t sure that story would have a happy ending. Imagine reading Harry Potter with the certainty that somebody’s going to Avada Kedavra the kid any page now. Imagine that the fellowship of the ring isn’t entirely sure that going to Mount Doom was the right thing and Sauron might not be such a bad guy after all. Imagine a story about characters encountering countless situations wherein right doesn’t seem right anymore and being good is likely to do nothing more than get everybody killed. The most magnificent of moments occur when some characters decide to be good for the sake of being good, without the promise of a happy ending.
These books are about people who confirm Walker Percy’s vision that human beings are both glories and shames, people with limited knowledge who must take that knowledge decide how to act and whether to act at all.
And that seems pretty real to me. I’m not a protagonist walking around in a world of sidekicks and antagonists; I’m a human being trying to live in this world like everyone else. The good news comes with God’s covenant, described in Steven Garber’s book as the “north star,” leading us to know rightly and do rightly.
“Good societies anywhere require people with a similar sense of calling,” says Steven Garber. “Folks who see into the horrors and complexities of human history and decide to enter in for justice’s sake, for mercy’s sake.”
That’s it. That’s all. We’ve just got to do something. Knowing what we know, what will we do? We’re living in a world with black and white that often presents itself to us in shades of gray. We’re a part of a story where a happy ending is guaranteed, but maybe not the way we see it, and maybe not today.
We know that God is gracious and compassionate and so must we be. We must try, in our ordinary ways, to know and to care and to do.
Because that makes the best story.
Lauren (Boersma) Harris (’13) is a spontaneous, idealistic, independent, fierce, over-thinking, damaged, adventurous, ordinary megalomaniac with a healthy sense of self-worth and a high word count. She has been a teacher both indoors and outdoors; she loves improvised comedy, backpacking, and writing, even when it’s required.