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The Wonder Report: October 7, 2022
A Livable Life: Part 3
We’re officially in my favorite month of the year. If the only thing October had going for it were its brilliant skies, I think I’d still like it best. But add to that the brisk air, the colorful leaves, all things pumpkin, … oh, and my birthday! Well let’s just say that I totally resonate with all those people who break out the famous L.M. Montgomery quote from Anne of Green Gables this time of year: “I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
October is also a complicated month for me … 15 years ago this very day I first learned that I had an aggressive stage 4 cancer that cost me so much … and almost my life. Even as I embrace the joys and beauties of October, I can’t help but remember its griefs. It’s a month of birth, near death, and renewed life my doctors still don’t understand. It’s also a month where I tend to do my best soul searching: Who did God create me to be? What is my purpose? Why am I still here?
As you can see, I haven’t quite finished thinking about this theme of a livable life … will I ever be finished? I don’t know … but let’s dive back in for at least one more week.
Be Careful What You Call Yourself
In the book I co-wrote with Ann Kroeker, On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts*, the first chapter is called Identify. In it, Ann and I talk about important moments in our writing lives when we began calling ourselves “writers.” We also reflect on the connection between identifying as writers and doing the work. For me, the work came first—years of paid and volunteer writing for myself and others—before I ever thought of myself as, much less told anyone else I was, a writer.
For the past decade, though, being a writer has been an organizing principle in my life. Not only was writing my full-time job, it was also my favorite hobby, the way I made friends and professional connections, a way of thinking about the world. I often weighed choices and took on new obligations based on their impact on my writing life. Even the way I kept house, parented, and cared for my Mom during her final years were made possible because of my writing.
I am a writer. A writer is who I am. Or at least who I was.
Because now, though I still write as much as ever—as part of my job, for my graduate school course, here in this newsletter, and even on a couple of freelance projects I’ve continue with—I don’t really call myself a writer. Partly it’s because writing is no longer my primary job. When people ask what I “do,” I tell them I work at a library. It’s not only true; it’s a joy. I love my job and the people I work with. I also no longer organize my life around my writing. Now I have “work hours” and “vacation time.” When I make an appointment or schedule time off, I think about work meetings, homework assignments, and how much PTO I have available, not my writing works-in-progress.
But I’ve also quit calling myself a writer because I’ve recognized that “writer” became a limited identity I fashioned for myself rather than a reflection of all God made me to be. By thinking of myself so narrowly, I forgot about all the other parts of me that don’t fit so neatly into the writer package. You could even say that being a writer—or at least thinking of myself as one the way I did—made my life less livable.
In case you’re wondering, I still stand by everything I wrote in that first chapter of On Being a Writer. I think there are a lot of reasons for new (and even established) writers to take their writing lives seriously enough to claim the title. Telling someone, “I’m a writer,” can help a person see their work as important enough to commit time and resources to. It can bolster one’s courage and confidence to send work out to publishers. It can also help a person weather the rejections and failures that inevitably come.
But if any part of who we are becomes all of who we are—if being “writer” or “parent” or “boss” becomes the fullness of how we think about ourselves—we end up living an inauthentic life. And the surest way to know if we’ve overemphasized one part of our life to the detriment of all the rest is to have that part end or be taken away. If all we’ve been is “mom” and now the nest is empty, if all we’ve been is “boss” and now retirement has come, if all we’ve been is “writer” and now a new job pays the bills, and we’re not even sure who we are anymore, then the title was more than just something to put on a business card.
Now, we look in the mirror, and we’re not so sure who we’re seeing anymore.
That’s where I’ve been living the past few months. And it’s tempting—really tempting—to replace “writer” with a new job title or career plan. It would be very easy to organize my life around a new skill set or specialty. But then I’d just be back in the same boat: squeezing the fullness of all God made me to be into a tiny little, one-dimensional life.
Instead, I’m trying to remember what a multi-faceted life looks like. What it means to belong to God beyond what I do or how I spend my time. In fact, I want to think about what I do and how I spend my time based on all God has made me to be, not just how I make a living.
As someone who tends to “do” more than “be,” the writing life has been especially treacherous at times. After all, a creative life is always only as good as the next creation … the next essay, the next issue, the next book. So it may take me a while to see my life and myself as valuable apart from what I create. But to live a truly livable life, to honor God in all I do, I think it’s the only way.
I wonder … what do you call yourself? Are you ever tempted to think of yourself too narrowly by one part of who you are? How do you maintain a larger sense of self according to all that God created you to be?
You Are Not Your Own
If you’ve been reading The Wonder Report since the early part of 2022, then the theme of a livable life may seem strangely familiar. I spent the first few months of the year writing about the theme of being human based on Alan Noble’s book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World*, which touches on similar topics. Noble’s work continues to be one of the most influential books I’ve read in years, and I'll admit I’m still thinking about it as I move into this new stage of life. I recently discovered that he has a Substack newsletter, which I’d like to commend for your reading list. The You Are Not Your Own Substack has a paid option, but like The Wonder Report, most of the posts are available for free.
A Less Livable Life
I can’t stop thinking about this recent article from NPR, “Personalities don't usually change quickly but they may have during the pandemic,” which explores the ways the COVID-19 pandemic left many of us less able to navigate life and relationships.
“The first year [of the pandemic] there was this real coming together,” says study author Angelina Sutin, an assistant professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine. “But in the second year, with all of that support falling away and then the open hostility and social upheaval around restrictions ... all the collective good will that we had, we lost, and that might have been very significant for personality.”
Particularly, the later years of the pandemic left us with “declines in the traits that help us navigate social situations, trust others, think creatively, and act responsibly,” the article noted, all traits necessary for a livable life. Young adults were particularly affected, researchers said.
I wonder … how do you think you’ve changed in the past three years? Do you think you are more or less equipped to pursue a livable life?
The Restoration of the Human
I’ve been noting with interest the many conversations and resources that are springing up around this notion that our humanity, that our viability as people, is somehow being diminished by modern life. To that end, Comment Magazine, a publication I’ve been following for years, has a new issue that explores the question, “What does it mean to be fully human?”
Anne Snyder’s editorial introduction on the topic was enough to convince me to subscribe for a year just so I’d have access to all the essays in this issue. You can read her thoughts online for free, but I wanted to leave you with this one passage that really sums up what we are facing:
“While there have always been threats to human beings fulfilling their plenitude, a new tsunami appears to be barreling toward the beach. The currents aren’t necessarily in sync, but they are merging: advances in biomedicine and artificial intelligence that are rushing past basic questions of human freedom; ideologies that essentialize individual uniqueness into group-based caricature; an instrumentalist culture that idolizes efficiency, productivity, and technique at the expense of persons and a transcendent telos; social media and its scaled-up distortions; coarsening language from leaders at the tippy-top; more time spent interacting with a screen than with people; temptations toward single narratives that essentialize, especially narratives of power. And then of course all the enduring sins of selfishness and hard-heartedness that can wreck the relationships that fashioned us in the first place.”
I wonder … if this is the world we’re living in, how do we still live full and meaningful lives in service to God and others?
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
Until next time,