In the spring of last year, I read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and found myself disappointed. In it, Henry DeTamble time-travels, haphazardly and against his own wishes, frequently abandoning his wife Claire as he lives their life together out of order. At the end, Henry travels away from her for good. The ending should be moving—yet it falls flat. There is no meaningful personal growth in Henry DeTamble’s story. Indeed, the time travel device makes this impossible. Certainly, important life events happen in it—marriage, a child, death—yet these events seem to leave little imprint on the human heart, whether theirs or ours.
If I contrast The Time Traveler’s Wife with Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations—which I also read for the first time last year—my disappointment only deepens. In that book, Pip, a somewhat dull protagonist, learns worldliness, pretension, and selfishness, but chooses the better way of human goodness and compassion. He grows into a more humble and thoughtful and kind person, though not without struggling. There’s nothing in that novel so exciting as time travel—and yet, it’s much more engaging to read. In Great Expectations, Pip’s soul is enlarged and deepened, and ours is stretched merely in the reading.
If a book is the “chariot that bears [the] human soul,” to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson, a good story ought to engage the issues of the human soul. Great Expectations succeeds in this task where The Time Traveler’s Wife fails—and that failure is relevant to understanding the way American adults I know today see their own lives.
If life is like a story, one test of a good story and life alike is its ending. Louie Zamperini, an Olympian and a World War II hero, had a life well-lived, and a story well-told in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 biography Unbroken. Zamperini, who passed away earlier this July, reached what the apostle Paul calls “mature manhood” in the reach and stature of his soul. There are other well-known examples of faith and of lives well-lived that come to my mind: Jim Elliot, missionary martyr to Ecuador in the 1960s; Eric Liddell, Scottish Olympic gold medalist and missionary to China in the 1930s; and D. L. Moody, nineteenth-century world evangelist and founder of the school where I currently teach. In their boundless ambition and otherworldly hope, they lived out lives that make good stories.
Those who live lives of quiet faithfulness—the neighbor planting daffodils every spring, the dad who drives his kids to afternoon soccer practice, the professor teaching Wordsworth year after year—can also live significant, good stores. Take Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century layperson in a French monastery whose life of intimacy with God is chronicled in Practicing the Presence of God. His achievements were, in a sense, ordinary. Yet amongst pots and pans and ordinary trivialities Brother Lawrence found the opportunity to commune with the divine.
And here I’ve noticed a difference between college and adult life. I mostly don’t miss college—at this point I much prefer adult life with its attendant joys and sorrows—except for this one thing: friends and colleagues seem less inclined to speak in the future tense. In college, future plans once dominated nearly every other conversation: “I can’t WAIT to take D—’s Aeneid tutorial next semester.” “I forget—remind me again—was it Spain or Argentina for your study abroad program in Global Health? Oh, Rwanda and India, too?” “You’re studying what kind of rocks in Ireland this summer?” Plans were constantly under revision, dreamed up one day and discarded the next. My adult peers, on the other hand, are comfortably and happily situated in the lives they now live. We work long, hard weeks and enjoy time with friends on the weekends. Most of those who aren’t in a romantic relationship are half-hoping and half-looking, and many harbor vague intentions for a family someday. I see my friends and colleagues settling into a routine, which is not itself bad—think of the Brother Lawrences. Stability and comfort are good.
But as Jonathon Wilson Hartgrove, among others, has pointed out, stability is good as a context for personal growth, not as its replacement. When routines have a kind of complacency to them, a sense of no longer striving for growth, they have less of the atmosphere of Great Expectations than they could. Here, for example, was some advice three Washington Post writers gave this past New Year’s:
At this time of year, you’re going to be hounded by Resolution Zealots. Make this the year you stop procrastinating! Resolve to get healthy! Cut those credit cards and stick to a budget!
Sure, it all sounds good. But by the time March rolls around, we bet those new workout clothes will have been chucked into the back of your closet and that fancy calendar you bought in an effort to be on time for appointments and to remember your mom’s birthday will sit strangely empty.
So this year, why bother making resolutions? Ignore those killjoys who tell you to become a fitter/happier/more productive person and feel free to wallow in your flaws and vices. (We like you just the way you are!) Enjoy that occasional cigar. Say yes to dessert. Tell your boss you have a 3 p.m. doctor’s appointment and head straight to happy hour.
Here’s to a more fun and less serious you in 2015.
If we are honest, this probably characterizes more of our lives than we might want to admit. Of course, I only see a part of my peers’ stories. These stories are unfinished and incomplete works, into which the threads of restoration and redemption are being woven in even when I myself cannot see them. But in this life, the human heart and intellect are limitless in scope and ambition. At the deepest center of our hearts is a longing to be known and loved—with the Psalmist, we cry, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!”—and, in turn, ourselves to know and to love. There is no end to this knowledge on this side of eternity. Always, we should adopt the battle-cry of Jewel the Unicorn from C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “Come further in, come further up!”