I sat in an uncomfortable chair in a room that smelled of old books. An old man talked. He was wise and accomplished—retired from a career filled with accolades, a dusting of fame, and more success than your average Joe. In a voice graveled by his former life of cigars and whiskey, he said the following:
Am I having trouble with my personal relationships? Absolutely. My wife and I can barely have a conversation without getting on each others’ last nerve right now. Can I control my emotions? No. At times I’m filled with fear, misery, anger and depression. Am I useful? I seem to become less and less useful every day. My life is unmanageable.
His wife of 6 decades was in the advanced stages of cancer. His hopelessness and bewilderment were understandable or even expected. I was silent, because there was really nothing to say, but in that heavy silence my mind churned. His last words reverberated in my mind. “My life is unmanageable.”
I recognized immediately that my worldview needed to change, because my life was unmanageable as well. In fact, my life would always be unmanageable, and I had spent the first 38 years of it on the Sisyphean task of trying to make it manageable. I was pursuing all of the things this wizened man had already accomplished so I could feel secure in my manageable life, yet here was a man who had already accomplished all of the things I desired, and he had just said, “My life is unmanageable.”
I had been pursuing a false dream. The dream of security, and in one moment of clarity, I realized how silly this pursuit had been. Tomorrow, my wife could die. Tomorrow, one of my children could experience an accident that would destroy my dreams for them. Tomorrow my carefully built savings and retirement plans could crumble. Tomorrow, I could lose my job. Tomorrow, the housing market could crash. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow … security and manageability were gone.
The old man breached the silence.
You know? I don’t need a manageable life. Sanity is what I need. A sane person recognizes that his life is not manageable, and so he doesn’t seek it. A sane person seeks to do the next right thing during the course of his unmanageable life, because that is all a man can do.
And as old men tend to be, he was right. If life is inherently insecure and unmanageable, only an insane person would make it his goal in life to correct this fact of nature. One might as well seek to control the flow of Niagara Falls with his hands. So what should a man do?
In so many ways, perspective is reality. At that moment, my perspective began to change. Human beings need security, but if the world cannot provide it, are we destined to a life of bewilderment and fear?
Thankfully no, because while I cannot manage my circumstances, I can manage me. I can change what it means to be secure, but not without work, and not just any work, but work on the right things.
If you were asked to plant a sapling, would you go pick up the sapling and begin slamming it into the ground? Of course not. You would prepare. Perhaps you would grab a shovel from the shed, purchase some fertilizer from the hardware store, and bring out the water hose. Then you would dig the hole, spread the fertilizer, put the tree in the hole, and water it daily.
So far so good with the tree, but what about you? Are you dealing with your unmanageable life by pounding the dirt? Are you trying to stay sane just by acting sane? Are you trying to do the next right thing by just doing the next right thing? Most men are. They either refuse to go to the tool shed, or have never been told they need to.
Sanity and righteous living are out of your reach if you refuse to go to the tool shed. Do you feed your spiritual life? Do you feed your emotional life? Do you feed your mind? If the answer is no, then you have left your tools at home and are trying to plant trees by pounding them into the ground.
So this is your daily work: gathering the tools you need to plant your trees, and you must do it daily, because life happens daily. Life is not happening yesterday, and it has not yet happened tomorrow. It only happens today. Once you have the tools, planting the tree is relatively easy and even rewarding. Without the tools, pounding the dirt is just an exercise in destructive frustration.
Today, I live an unmanageable life. Who knows what it will bring? But my tools, such as they are for today, are ready. Whatever happens, I can feel secure, because I’m finally reacting to my unmanageable life by doing the next right thing. That’s all a sane man can do.
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