Back in the early 2000s, I remember watching a commercial for the US Navy which began with the actor Keith David saying “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?” While I have dear friends who chose to enter the military as part of their life story, it was not something I felt was for me. Still, the question stuck with me enough that I remember that commercial some two decades later. The question, like all great questions, was bigger than its context: I have returned to this question in different ways, and at different times of my life, and found different answers.
When I first asked myself this question of would anyone want to read the book of my life, I suppose the book looked very much like a future plan. It was full of aspirations, hopes. I thought I would travel the world, become a professor, and in the evenings do gigs with a jazz band. These details didn’t matter much though; what did matter was that everyone would think the protagonist – me – was interesting, and fun, and capable. I styled myself as a goofy, laid-back, intelligent guy. I had the right answers at school, was the youngest kid in bible study, and always had some off-the-wall way to get into trouble with my friends. Quirky, fun, thoughtful; someone you would see in commercials about having an interesting life. Exactly what I wanted to do, and why, and through what means were still distant, disquieting clouds on the horizon of my springtime youth.
What sort of person did you want to be as a teenager? If a teenage you was a character in a book, what sort of character would you be?
In my early twenties, I became ambitious. Here the book of my life began to look something like a manifesto, something like a book of poetry. Revolutionaries are birthed from the broken places of this world. I found my revolution in the poetry slams and open mics of cold nights in Spokane burrito bars. The young are often foolish enough to think they can change the world, and so it is the often young who do. I was young, foolish, but unlucky; I did not change the world. Perhaps the scar of this failure is the last rite of passage into adulthood for most of us. I was preoccupied most with theodicy, as my best friend at the time was grieving the loss of his roommate, who died of cancer. The roommate died well, loving God to the very end, and I have no doubt we shall see him again in Christ. But my friend lost his faith, his hope, his own fire to change the world. I didn’t understand how something like that could happen, how suffering could pull someone away from God, instead of drawing them closer to the divine. People are more complicated than the stories of my youth: people could fail, and rise, and fail again a hundred times in their life, and come to peace with the failing.
What were your hopes, dreams, and ambitions as a young adult? Where did you succeed, where did you fail? How did those successes and failures shape you?
It was only as an adult that I began wondering the very first question most book authors ask: what kind of book will this be? It is the first question someone will ask about a new book, before the plot or characters or even why they should like it. Who we are, what opportunities we have, and what we have done with those opportunities are all things largely beyond our control; what is within our control is our interpretation, our “spin” on the facts. Certainly, a good book, like our lives, will contain elements of every genre, but what was the main point of that story? The genre of my youth was perhaps pulp drama, and as a young adult I perhaps at times lifted to the region of an adventure story. But now I recognize that my desire is for my life to be a romance, and particularly a romance with God. What joy it is to love Christ, with the frank yet complicated love which misses moments, grows frustrated, exhausts itself in trying to (pointlessly) prove myself right, and finally falls asleep with the simple profundity of “I love you, Lord” on my lips!
And still, it seems the older I get, the more the question turns from “would anyone want to read the story of my life?” to “if they did read the story, what feeling would they be left with?” I have by this point in my life read many books. Some I close unfinished out of boredom, some I close on the last page and laugh at the petty but pleasant use of my time, some have made me feel a part of something bigger, and some books I have closed the back cover and tossed in disgust across the room. But the ones that stuck with me, the ones that really mattered, had some scent of the divine about them. I finish books like that and am full to near bursting with joy, contentment, and above all a love that we live in a world where I can read the lives and dreams of my fellows. We are in a vast cosmos of stories, with myths written into our stars, and God using the coarse desert sand to tell of numbers of His people. In a word, the best books tell us something about God. We have the choice to strive in making our stories written in such a mode. All we have to do is pray, and find ourselves in conversation with the maker of all stories, who promises such a tale to each and every person who follows Him.