Life as a Curmudgeonly Christian Twenty-something
I wish I could be more earnest. I’m twenty-eight-year-old woman, but I have the soul of a sixty-year-old man. Think A Man Called Ove. Christians can be so earnest, so doe-eyed and full of hope. I have instinctively scowled since I could understand tomfoolery. The brow-furrow is in my blood.
There was a porter at the restaurant where I used to work. In most parts of the country, the job title is “dish-washer.” I think porter is New York’s way of offering dignity, as if “dish-washer” is inherently pejorative. Anywho, this porter’s name is Ronaldo, and he communicates in grunts. He is my spirit animal. That guy works, but he stays in his own lane. “Hola Ronaldo!” I would cheerfully say. Ronaldo would reply with a guttural “Mmm.” It was our salutary ritual.
One day the health inspector came, so a kitchen server told him to dump the dirty silverware water. “Mmm,” he said, as he continued to load and rinse bread plates.
What a gem.
By the time I left, we had progressed to Que tal? Mmm. I go back occasionally, and I always try to find Ronaldo. He now gives me a hug and spurts out a string of Spanish that I mostly don’t understand. I do my best, though. “No estoy aqui ahora”, I say. “Yo escribo.” I am not here now. I write. He smiles and continues washing the tea pots, pretending that the words I have just uttered make sense.
On my worst days at the restaurant, I would fantasize about communicating like Ronaldo. Excuse me, a snobby New Yorker would ask, What’s a tingmo? I would scribble some notes on my dupe pad, grunt Mmm, then walk away. There would be no cheery recitation of a script: Tingmo is a Tibetan steamed bun filled with a dry garlic and chili chutney. It’s doughy and porous, so it’s best when paired with our saucier dishes (insert up-sell).
I never did, but a girl can dream. Danny Meyer had put the fear of God in me, via my manager. I’ve never even met the man and he dictated most of what I did at that job.
Even at my most cheery I wasn’t earnest. I was just doing what I had to do to make people happy, because happy people tip more. This is not an immutable truth. The whole thing was undignified, to be honest. I was pandering and manipulating and telling the guest what they wanted to hear because I had to.
I think David, as in king, was mostly earnest. I relate more to petulant David of the less cheerful Psalms. Or, better yet, old, grumpy Solomon of Ecclesiastes. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV). Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, this dude gets it. This whole book, Solomon is basically saying, “I did all the things, I went after everything that was supposed to be important, and none of it mattered.” I’m not a theologian, so maybe he has a different point. I think there’s something to his apparent nihilism, though.
People like to go after the next big thing, right? If I just have X, I’ll be happy and whole, we tell ourselves. There are people who have gone before us who say this isn’t true, but there is that little part of us that believes we will be different. Right now, for me, it is publication. If I can get my book published, my career will be launched and I won’t have to worry about anything ever again. I know this isn’t true. And yet, part of me is desperately clinging to the idea. I might be happy for a moment, but it won’t change all the messed up junk about me or in my life. I will wake up the next day and still be me.
I think I like to put my hope in publication because it’s an achievable goal. It’s hard, but not impossible. I come from privilege, so it’s even less impossible for me than for many of my peers. If I didn’t believe in God, chances are I could still get a book published, even if I had to do it myself. That’s probably why I like the idea so much, because I can seemingly do it on my own. I think I can take all the credit and then my life will mean something.
But I will never be able to completely take credit. There are too many things that aren’t up to me. Publishing is much like auditioning. You can be rejected simply because the person to whom you are pitching had a bad piece of chicken for lunch, or got cut off by a taxi on their way into work, and they’re still mad about it.
There is a strange comfort in Solomon’s words. The story never turns; Solomon doesn’t end with a cheery put-er-there. Instead, he warns,
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:11–14, ESV)
In the end, it comes back to God. Our wisdom can only be so wise. Our works can only be so good. Our pleasure can only be so pure. Solomon went after it and came up empty. He was one of the wealthiest, wisest dudes to live, so you better believe he went hard. I don’t think Solomon means we should give up. I think he just means that we won’t truly find what we’re looking for on our own.
I have found power in embracing my limitations, in letting God pick up where I leave off. I am learning to cultivate more joy in appreciating the everyday moments than chasing fleeting moments of extreme happiness or success. I still strive to do the good works he has called me to, but I’m learning to do them with the knowledge that I am blessedly finite.
That’s an idea I can earnestly get behind.