In her novel, The God of Small Things (1997), Arundhati Roy described a world in which unseen billiard balls were constantly smacking up against one another in a daisy chain of causal sequences. For her characters, a seemingly insignificant event on Monday would lead to a series of interconnected micro-decisions throughout the week, culminating in an inevitable life-changing event on Friday, or Saturday. Tremendously thought provoking, but decidedly brutal and deterministic, readers should be advised to crack the cover of this book with a great deal of caution.
Why is it always like that? It seems to me that to qualify as a classic, a novel, a play, or a movie has to include a significant element of brutality, determinism, or tragedy. Sure William Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, but when you think of The Bard of English Literature, I’ll bet that Macbeth and Hamlet come to mind long before any of his comedies. Search your own memory. Go ahead, close your eyes, and repeat the mantra, “Classic”… “Classic”…. over and over again. What comes to mind? Maybe…Moby Dick? In that classic, everyone dies because of a seafaring captain’s obsession. See what I mean? A tragedy. Oedipus Rex…enough said. Death of a Salesman?…Ouch! The book form of Bernard Malumud’s The Natural (as opposed to the feel-good Rick Ankiel-esque movie)?-pass the Prozac please. The Glass Menagerie, On the Waterfront, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Spiderman, Batman…the list goes on and on.
It seems to me, that one of the underlying themes compelling readers and authors to consume and produce these tomes has to do with the insight that Arundati Roy captured in her 1990’s novel. One thing has an intriguing way of leading to another.
This was the insight I found myself contemplating a few years ago in a decidedly non-tragic context. My family and I had just completed a challenging, round-trip, eight-mile hike up a 12,000 foot mountain in Colorado. As they rested their weary feet in their tents, I sat by the fire and cast my gaze out over a breath-taking view of purple mountain’s majesty while journaling about the previous day’s experience. It occurred to me that in some ways, our day began at 5:30 that morning. In other ways, as I looked back over time, it seemed like this day may have began years and years earlier (from an Arundhati Roy perspective).
Perhaps it began when my wife confronted one of those round-numbered birthdays that causes men to rub Rogaine into their scalps, and to buy sports cars. In an attempt to sweeten the bitter taste of the words, “middle-aged,” she signed up for an Olympic Triathlon held at Lake Saint Louis. Leading up to that event, my kids watched their mother spend her free-time jogging, biking, and swimming toward her goal. Just under four hours after she began, I stood at the finish line. There I watched, through the lens of our camera, as Annalise, John Harry, and Lizzie joined their mom for the last two city blocks of her race.
Since then, every summer trip to a favorite friend’s lake cabin contains some version of a kid’s triathlon. In these events, children and adults cheer one another as they swim, bike, and run toward goals individually set according to age and competence levels. On the day of our mountain hike, three years ago, I saw looks on my kids’ faces that, by now, have become familiar. Despite the altitude, and a family cold we were passing around, I kept observing looks of determination to reach a goal-looks that I have seen in about eight different kid-triathlons…a look that I saw this past week as my son and I trudged up a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado (Mt. Bierstaadt). What began as an attempt to stave-off middle-age, led to a group of kids knowing what it is like to set their feet, one-foot-fall-at-a-time, toward a worthy goal.
As I sat by the fire and reflected on this chain of causality, it occurred to me that it was also possible that our family’s hike began about eight years ago, when a priest at family camp led us in a goal setting exercise. On that afternoon, we came up with five family commitments. Pursuing physical growth through exercise and nutrition came in third-place on our priority list just behind loving and serving God, and growing intellectually.
In this Sunday’s first reading, (Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b), Joshua gathered the tribes together at a sacred location, and asked all of the mothers and fathers, elders and everyone to be decisive about how they would live their lives. “If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve… As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
It seems to me that Joshua, along with the priest at our family camp had intuited the insight that all of the authors of the classics have been writing about for thousands of years. One thing has a way of leading to another. If you are not conscious and decisive about which values will guide your life, then the causal chains embedded within reality will choose for you. Every farmer will tell you that without unflagging effort, and intentionality, weeds have a way of taking over everything. Absent a process of conscious self-reflection, and intentional living, the line between your life, and a classic tragedy can become frighteningly thin.
This Sunday’s readings provided an invitation to you and me. What are the signposts by which you will lead your life? What clear and intentional process will you fold into your days that will make you more self-aware and intentional about whether or not you are living according to those signposts? How will your Christian tradition inform and guide that journey?