Friday, November 26, 2010

What I do and why I do it

I was enjoying beer and conversation with a couple of friends the other evening when one of them asked me a question more penetrating than he realized. It got me thinking. This is a lightly edited version of the response I wrote him.

Dear Scott:

You asked me a question on Monday that I never answer as well as I wish I could. In case you’ve forgotten, it was: So what do you do? It’s natural that you should wonder, and I’m sure that whatever I stammered out while ordering my pint of Dead Guy was inadequate. Upon reflection, I will take the liberty of rephrasing your question: How do you invest your life? I have few glib answers to anything these days, but if you pull up a stump and sit a spell I’ll try to do justice to your question. If I fail, then I hope to at least have inched closer to a better understanding of myself.

In monosyllables: I run, I read, I write, I pray and I muse. I also garden and travel. Come January, I will once again teach. Ellen and I operate Acorn and we manage our rental properties. I’m a deacon at church, and until recently I was board chair of the local pregnancy center. I write letters and sustain friendships. I take my marriage seriously, and enjoy Ellen’s company and conversation. I shoot photos. I hang out with my kids when they’re around. I also idle away time on Facebook, writing and reading emails, and watching good movies. I ogle the birds at the feeder outside my office window. On a day like today, I stare goggle-eyed as snowflakes the size of quarters drift by. At night, I sleep soundly, and I dream dreams.

That answer no doubt looks a little defensive. Anyone can make up a list of the things they “do.” The difference is, this is what I live. What’s missing from my litany is anything that pays a salary. I have no job, per se. I take a stipend from the university for the class I teach, but would probably do it for free (don’t tell them that). I avoid calling myself retired, as that term is commonly understood. There’s no disgrace to retirement, but it’s a loaded term I seriously dislike. I refuse to define how I live as “not working.” In a more descriptive turn of phrase, I live in the slow lane. I not only take the time to smell the roses, I actually grow them. As Thoreau wrote in a different context, I wish to live deliberately. And so I do. I live as I choose to live, guided by God’s spirit and in a manner that I hope He judges to be responsible. But to be very clear about it, no, I don’t have a job. That’s all in my past. In that strict sense, I don’t “do” anything.

The choices Ellen and I have made about how we live are predicated on two major facts: 1. We are financially secure and don’t require the salaries that conventional jobs provide. I worked maniacally at a well-paid job in medical news media for 20 years. We saved, and we invested. I would be truly shocked if we (singly or together) were to outlive our money. 2. I have metastatic melanoma and my odds of living a long life are not so hot. I’ve had a bunch of metastases removed since January. Because my cancer has spread and cannot be treated, it will likely recur. By God’s grace, it’s also slow moving, which affords me the luxury of time insulated from much of the normal buzz of life.

I’m grateful that you asked this question, Scott. Because I’m reasonably fit and take no drugs stronger than Advil and Peet’s coffee, lots of people make assumptions about my health and how I live. For me to not work at a real job looks, at best, a little flaky. If anyone takes the trouble to ask, of course, I tell them what’s going on. It’s a simple matter to ask people questions. How else do we learn what makes someone tick? I write a lot about my life as a cancer survivor on my blog—partly for those who don’t know how to ask—but I rarely bring it up in conversation. People get goosey about cancer and few are equipped to talk comfortably about it. That leaves me less prepared than I should be when it does come up. Taboo subjects are like that—better left alone than approached awkwardly.

What’s way more interesting than cancer is where my mind and spirit sometimes go because of it. I’ve explored interior places the last few years I never knew existed until I was smacked between the eyes with the realization that my days were indeed numbered (so are yours, by the way!). It’s been an extraordinary exploration and I love traveling there. I’m no mystic, and I have no interest in living as a hermit, but I can see the appeal of mostly just drawing closer to God. Ultimately, and for all eternity, that’s exactly what I expect to be doing. This time appears to be a sneak preview.

Since I have the time, my life has become more contemplative than it’s ever been. That behavior is practically un-American, I realize, and even within the church is probably seen as a little weird. It would be an indulgence if that’s all I did and an embarrassment should I beat the odds and outlive my critics. I’m in the peculiar position of possessing good health and yet, paradoxically, having terminal cancer. Should I die before I’m, say, 60, then my choice in how I live now will have been vindicated. Everyone will think I was a prophet for knowing when to take my foot off the gas. If, on the other hand, God should choose to heal me of cancer or should I live long despite sporadic outbreaks of melanoma, then people might conclude I was simply a fool and a sluggard.

American culture is shot through with the Protestant work ethic and most men of my generation feel its tug. There are alternative ways to live, but they lack the virtue we tend to assign to the 9-to-5 work culture. We show our moral fiber through work. In one of its most distorted guises, work becomes a road to atonement. This can be an especially long and exhausting ride—after which we die. I witnessed this pattern in my father’s life, who by choice worked into his 70s, developed Alzheimer’s, and after several years of decline died at 81. I’ve received the gift of a different kind of life, which leads to moments of social awkwardness over how it’s ordered. Not everyone understands or appreciates my choices, but that’s fair enough. In exchange for being occasionally misunderstood I have been granted the faith that this is the right way for me to live.

That, my friend, is my story in a partially cracked-open nutshell. Perhaps the next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll have a more satisfying response. For now, let’s just say that I run, I read and I write. That’s a good enough answer to a question that I suspect everyone would benefit from thinking about themselves. I find nothing more interesting or as important as how we live our lives, and not just what we do.


Anonymous said...

Hey Peter, I enjoyed this entry. I retired at age 54 and like you I still feel I am working doing things that make a difference in the community. We get paid in more ways than a paycheck and never feel useless. I also agree with your assessment of the contemplative life. Many (Martha's) think contemplatives (Mary's) are self indulgent. They don't know what they're missing. Actually it is good to have a balance. Contemplation/meditation and service to others for me seems the way to go.

I am expecting some dry days in December so lets get out for that run.

Nancy said...

Peter, thanks for taking the slow lane and living reflectively and thoughtfully. And especially for sharing your thoughts and discoveries with the rest of us.

grsmouse said...

Peter, This is probably beside the point but this blog brought to mind a question to Ruth by a neighbor boy many years ago. "Mrs. Smouse, what does Mr. Smouse do when it's not Sunday?" I won't even touch the answer, but it did get me to thinking then.....

Anonymous said...

Well put about a life worth examining and reading about.