I am living in a third-floor walkup on the west side of Manchester. It’s small, but it’s got three bedrooms and the kids stay with me about three nights a week. The boys share one of the extra bedrooms, the girls the other, though the little one usually ends up climbing into bed with me before morning. They seem mostly unscathed by the two-home situation, and seem to enjoy playing house here, in this compact space upstairs from two African families, the wonderful odor of whose cooking wafts into the stairwell all day, and who greet us shyly if we meet coming or going, the women and girls in their beautifully colored dresses and headscarves.
The how and the why of this is something that belongs to Kristen, to me and God to work through. But the what of it is what it is, a fact, and whether ignored or embraced, realities must be dealt with. Or they deal with us. If the great wave comes, you have to get up on it, otherwise it’ll crush you. Or to use a more New-England appropriate metaphor; when the road is covered in black ice and you’ve begun to slide, you’ve got to steer into the skid.
All of this became what it was going to be a year ago in March or maybe long before that. My running buddies helped me move in here in January of this year. Who but a group of slightly mad distance runners would turn out with such enthusiasm to maneuver Craigslist couches up three narrow, twisting flights and through a doorway so tiny and boxy it might have come from a Lewis Carroll story? A new method for cross-training! Endorphin rush. Their jokes, laughter, vigor were calmingly familiar in a time of deep disorientation and I was grateful that we had run so many miles together. There is a calm, quiet companionship that grows out of hard physical activity together, unencumbered by too many words.
That at least was a reminder of some fixed stars within the galaxy by which I could still navigate.
Later, sitting alone at a kitchen table, watching the snow fall on the rooftops of the apartment buildings, I’d work and when I wasn’t working I’d think about how much of my identity, so much of it that wasn’t founded in the notion of fatherhood, was tied up in being a husband. What else was I? And how much of identify is related to purpose? And what’s our purpose?
Only a few instances of dislocation have ever come close to this. When I quit smoking at 27. I’d been a smoker since my teenage years, and literally every passage-to-adulthood memory I had, from my first car, my first love, my first drunk, were all wrapped in a comforting haze of warm, sharp tobacco. When I left New England for the Caribbean – and then Florida and lived a vagabond life that had nothing to do with the life I’d been raised toward, and was unfamiliar to me except for what I’d read in books. When I converted – reverted – to Catholicism when I was thirty.
This last one was perhaps the greatest unmooring and realigning of them all. To move from a devoutly secular worldview to a mystical one is nearly unhinging. It is as terrifying as it is ultimately comforting; and triggered a crescendo in a lifelong war with anxiety that resulted in my first visit to a therapist and a pharmacy.
This experience, as I recently described it, observed from here on the corner of Zoloft and Klonopin, is something like that last. (Joking in that case to avoid dealing with the magnitude of, and conflicting societal attitudes toward seeking help for conditions like depression and clinical anxiety; and my own discomfort with it. Of course dismissing it with a quip dismisses its legitimacy and perpetuates the stigma for others, so here I’m outing myself instead.)
Which brings me back to identity and purpose.
If you take that lovely, simple answer from the Baltimore Catechism, “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven,” you might think, great, done.
Except, how are we supposed to show forth His goodness? How do we know when we’re doing it? Are we supposed to be happy while we are doing it? Sometimes? Always? Never? What’s the difference between happiness and contentment? Is contentment a vice? Is it possible to be happy in suffering?
It turns out the philosophy of identity is ridiculously diverse. Saint Thomas, taking a Christian viewpoint, says an individual is “a being undivided in itself but separated from other beings.” While the Buddha said that both clinging to an idea of a fixed self and the idea that we have no self are both wrong. Or maybe he didn’t say anything and just held up a flower and asked you to contemplate.
In either case, to find one’s self living a life entirely different than one planned as one arrives at middle age is both a nearly debilitating shock, and an awkward cliche. It is to simultaneously feel at a strong, high place in experience and competence in some arenas of life and an absolute abysmal, soul-broken failure in others.
How to reconcile these? Perhaps they aren’t meant to be. The country, the world right now feel as roiled up and unmoored as my own internal landscape, and in both cases, there’s nothing to be done but pick a course and move forward with the best intentions, a sincere desire to do good, to reflect God as best one can, and accept the fact that we humans can’t ever be sure. The original sin, picking the apple, was a sin of presumption.
Pope John Paul II said, “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil recalls symbolically the absolute limit which man as a creature must recognize and respect. Man depends on the Creator and is subject to the laws by which the Creator has established the order of the world which he created, the essential order of existence (ordo rerum); therefore man is also subject to the moral norms which regulate the use of freedom. The primordial test is, therefore, aimed at the person’s free will, at his freedom. Will man confirm the fundamental order of creation in his conduct and recognize the truth that he himself is created—the truth of the dignity that belongs to him as the image of God but also the truth of his creaturely limitation?”
We didn’t pass that test. Still don’t. Don’t even understand it.
So who, here on the brink of my forty-sixth year, am I supposed to be now?
As I write this this last, I am at the kitchen table again and the youngest is sitting next to me playing a game on an iPad. Every so often he looks up, and pats my arm to get my attention. His brown eyes have universes in them; infinity. He says, “I love you, Daddy.” I stop writing and am careful to look at him with real attention. Whoever I am, I’m here with you, truly present. I say, “I love you, too, bud.”
And that, for now is sufficient.