They say that life is short, so you should play hard. While I believe there is a lot of value in that aphorism, I’m not sure that’s what God wants us to glean in the 70, 80, 90 years we live on this Earth. Lately, I’ve had to come to terms with that hard truth in more ways than one.
This past week was my first full week back to work. I mean real work. Not workdays, but work work. As in for 8 hours every day I have to be at the top of my game, I have to smile when I feel like screaming; I have to listen when I want to nap; I have to stand when all I want is a nice bubble bath and a glass of Cabernet. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I love my students (more than they even realize), but the first week always feels like…the first week. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My brain hurts. And I love it. In my English 4 class, we read part of The Things They Carried, a fabulous book that chronicles the young protagonist’s time in Vietnam. It is painfully honest, and I focus on the chapter “On the Rainy River” with my students. These are seniors, who come to school this last year thinking they have it all figured out. Thinking they’re going to slack off and still walk across that stage. Thinking they’re done.
They’re not. And this short story helps me to prove it to them.
Let’s be honest, most our students know squat about the Vietnam war. Hell, I know only what I have researched. Even if you fought for (or against…) the Vietnam war, often there was so much confusion about WHAT you were fighting for that the reasons and logical sense of it got lost in the propaganda and manipulations. On both sides. Whatever sides those were. What my students DO know and understand is that no one, especially not 18-25 year olds, wants to be told what to do (side note, I know this from experience. I made some epic mistakes the past few years when it came to honesty and advice giving to this age group. I didn’t do it well. BUT I’m learning…). So, when a young man receives a draft notice, life comes at him quick in this short story and he’s left standing at a crossroads. What I particularly love about this story is the way that the protagonist addresses the paradox of decision making. For him, going to war was cowardly because he didn’t believe in the war and the only reason he went was that he was embarrassed by the possibility of people looking at him as a coward. Our society sees him as a hero for going to war and not running out on his patriotic duty, but he sees himself as a traitor to his own morality.
And life is like that.
It is short.
It is hard.
It is filled with decisions that will change the course of our entire reality; with peer pressure; with internal conflict that sometimes, will never be solved.
My seniors understand this.
I understand this.
I didn’t want them to just understand it. I wanted them to embrace it. Make it their own. So, the assignment was simple: make a map of the choices you have made over the past…4-5 years. It can even include choices you will make (like, after graduation). But you have to include the alternatives. You chose a path, follow that around, but reflect on the path you could have taken and how that might have made your life different. They don’t love this assignment. It forces them to reflect on things they may not like reflecting on. What they produce though, is pretty cool.
None of their maps are the same, but all of their maps show one thing: life is short. Our decisions matter.
I wish someone had given me the courage to look at my life this way as an 18-year-old, but it’s a lesson I am still learning to this day. And I think God wants us to embrace this. To understand that our decisions matter, so we should seek Him. Not so our journey can be easier. Nothing worth doing is easy, but so our journies matter. They become meaningful when we make purposeful decisions. When we ask God to “teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12), we make our lives matter. We make a mark.
So, yes, life is short. Don’t just play hard. Don’t just take risks. Be wise. Make a mark.