The good life
This week Joe and I celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary.
We also found out recently that we’re expecting baby number six! (For those of you who need a refresher, we have an eight-year-old boy, and four girls ages 6, 5, 3, and 15 months.)
We’re so busy and tired, I’m not sure if we’ll even do anything to celebrate. Between homeschooling, dance class, soccer, scouts, general chaos management and me feeling astoundingly exhausted and vaguely sick all the time, I think that what we’d both like for our ninth anniversary is the opportunity to get 12 straight hours of sleep (that is the traditional nine-year gift, right?).
This is not the easiest phase of life I’ve ever been in. The baby spends about 30% of her waking hours yelling at the top of her lungs (which is a huge improvement from the six-month period she spent yelling at the top of her lungs for 90% of her waking hours, otherwise known as THE LONGEST SIX MONTHS OF MY EXISTENCE and OH MAN HOW AM I STILL ALIVE). Depending on the whims of the Insurance Fates, which are even more temperamental than the poop fates, we may end up spending more than our mortgage payment each month to get Lovenox to treat my clotting disorder during pregnancy. Our three-bedroom house is crowded, with people as well as terrifying arachnids, and we somehow have both an extreme night owl and an extreme morning person among our children, which makes it feel like there is someone who needs something from me 24 hours a day.
I forgot to get an anniversary present for Joe, and was looking through old pictures so that I could print one for a makeshift card (look out for my tutorial about how to print a photograph on office paper and fold it in half to be the next hot thing on Pinterest!). I laughed out loud when I saw some of these old shots. Ah, yes, there was the time we swung on down to Argentina to tour the vineyards of our favorite winery…
And that elegant weekend in San Francisco…
And that time we sipped champagne and watched the sun set in Florida…
We were seeking the good life, and we thought we had it. Yet even at the time, we felt a sense of emptiness. We wouldn’t have labeled it as such — we were so convinced that we were doing everything that we needed to be fulfilled, we never stopped to ask ourselves if we were actually fulfilled. But the emptiness was there, and it manifested itself as a carrot on a stick. There was always “just one more” thing we needed to own or achieve or do, and then we could rest, then we could be happy.
We put most of our energy into thinking about ourselves and what would bring us most comfort and happiness. We created a museum life, and said that we liked it. After all, we would have seemed ungrateful to have all that we had and say that it wasn’t doing what we thought it would do. But the truth was that our museum kind of started to feel like a prison. Thomas Merton captured it well when he said, “To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.”
It would take us a few more years and a profound religious conversion before we realized that the way to be happy isn’t to amass nice stuff or go on awesome vacations or even to think about yourself much at all. The way to be happy is to love. And real love always involves self-sacrifice; in fact, love and self-sacrifice are basically the same thing.
It was scary to take that leap from a philosophy of “happiness via self-focusedness” to one of “happiness via self-sacrificial love.” What if all this Christianity stuff was wrong? What if we underwent this massive lifestyle change, stopped chasing dollars and material possessions, lost our condo and our nice car and our ability to travel, and ended up with a lame and boring life?
It didn’t take long to see that there was nothing to fear. Immediately upon our conversions, our marriage experienced an explosion of life: we became open to life, which led us to see children completely differently than we did before. Not only did we start having more kids, but we were surrounded by the people of our parish, our diocese, and the entire Body of Christ. Our new suburban house suddenly became a hub of activity, with kids and friends and neighbors in and out all the time — none of which would have ever happened in our old life. It was loud. It was chaotic. It was messy. It was more work than I’d ever had to do in my life. It made us wish the original owner of our house had not installed white carpeting. But, interestingly, we never yearned for our old way of life. Not once.
One day we looked around and saw that our museum was gone. All the stuff that we’d arranged so carefully to suit our tastes had had to be rearranged to accommodate other people’s tastes. The hustle and bustle of so many other people running through our lives meant that things got knocked down, broken, and moved. Life was no longer about just us anymore; we had to consider other folks’ comfort in addition to our own. And it was a wonderful feeling when we realized that our museum was no longer there…because it had been transformed into a home.
Tomorrow night Joe and I will probably celebrate our nine years of marriage with a quick toast, in the approximately four minutes we will have between when the last kid goes to bed and when one or both of us falls face-down on the floor from exhaustion. And when we do we’ll toast to the good life, and thank God that we finally found it.