I think we all like to think we have some control over lives. That is, I presume, one of the reasons I like writing so much. I like having the ability to frame my experiences. Sentences end and begin when I want them to. It brings a certain sense of security. In the same way, if my life is made up of metaphorical sentences, I surely like the idea that I can start and end them where I like. I choose my education, job industry, 5,10 and 20-year career path, wife, amount of kids, geographical location, etc. These are all in my control. Just like the words I write.
On the final day of my studies as an undergraduate student, my roommate Dustin and I planned a small get-together at our apartment. We chose some like-minded friends to attend an evening we could only coin as “Wine and Weird Shit.” A month earlier, on a drive to a friend’s wedding in Louisville, Dustin and I listened to the commencement address given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005 (if you haven’t yet heard it, I would strongly encourage you to take a drive and listen). The address felt so pertinent so some of our own experiences that Dustin and I decided we should have a group of friends lie on our floor in our apartment and listen to it together. This is the kind of thing we liked to do at school. Throughout our time at Liberty, we would have friends over to watch documentaries and discuss them. On other occasions, we would simply lie on the floor with a glass of wine and listen to our favorite music while musing about how it made us feel. This would be like those times, but with a bit more intention.
As our friends gathered with the end of school upon us, we listened to music and the commencement address while sipping wine and staring up at the ceiling. We hoped that this evening would create space for us to think and reflect on our time at Liberty University as a community. Before and after the listening, we shared stories of our times at school and the successes and failures there within. This group, among a few other friends, was a special community that sought to make sense of some troubling experiences and happenings at the university. We spent three years trying to find answers to questions we had about confusing interactions with professors, complicated administration politics and the ever-betraying Evangelicalism of the Bible Belt. I think, in the same way, this evening was our attempt to find answers to how we felt about concluding our time at Liberty. We believed it was time to finish this sentence, and with the worldview I held, I believed I controlled this ending. I hoped this evening would create space for the revelation of the sentence’s end. All I had to do was find the words I thought most eloquent to describe my experience.
Soon enough we were all walking across the graduation stage receiving our letters from President Falwell informing us that we would always be welcome at Liberty as alumni. I won’t hold my breath.
The summer began and we dispersed to our different limbo stages and new jobs. I kept telling myself this sentence had to end. I couldn’t start a new sentence without ending this one. Where were the words?
Growing up, I was told I could end my own sentences in life. I had full control over them. Of course, this was never explicitly told to me, but it was so often implied. As a Christian, I was told I had a handle on the Truth (with a capital T!). I was given the impression that the Christian religion had a monopoly on truth, and it was my responsibility to let people know about the truth and protect the truth at all costs. Because I had become a part of the Christian tribe, the truth had given me a special control over life, and I was to wield that truth like a double-edged sword.
When I started high school, I joined a speech and debate club. As a first year in high school I debated heatedly with my peers about U.S. trade policy with India and China. My partner and I were better novice debaters than most, and placed very well in some tournaments considering our lack of experience. At 14, we were kings of trade policy in our fragile little worlds. Maybe we weren’t policymakers, but I had a sense of confident control as I entered a debate round. Before the last tournament of the season, we realized we had completely misunderstood the case we’d been arguing. It was there we learned that a persuasive tongue can help end sentences in life even when your bank of knowledge cannot.
Toward the end of high school, I participated in an organization that paid for me to travel the country as an 18-year-old with the hope to “change lives to change the world.” These weeklong intensives would bring high school students to camps as normal homeschool or private school kids and leave them feeling like their lives were profoundly different. It was addicting. I was given a company credit card and was sent my flight information weekly so that I could fly into town and change lives before heading to my next destination. Rinse and repeat.
In middle school, I was taught a formula to ensure I could write a “good” paragraph. I did a program where I learned different elements of a sentence that would make it stronger. I was taught that a who/which clause, strong adjective, adverb, various sentence openers and other elements were the ingredients to a good paragraph. Then, when the time came to actually write, I was given a checklist consisting of all the elements. In order to pass the writing project, I had to incorporate one of each of the elements into the paragraph. Once I had backwards checked (I’m left handed, so give me a break) the final element on the list, I had written a good paragraph. It was an easy transaction to be a good writer. If you write at all, you know that is not how writing a good paragraph works.
Much like this writing program, I began to believe there was a formula to life in order to be happy and flourish. Diligent work in my spirituality, physical health and emotional health were capital I could use to purchase my way into the good life. This type of transactional worldview gave me the impression that I had the control in life. 1 + 1 = 2. Who/which clause + strong adjective = good sentence. Bible reading + lots of prayer = healthy understanding of God. I greatly benefited from this line of thinking throughout high school. I had the opportunity to travel the nation on a non-profit’s dime doing work that I think was genuinely good for people. I was highly accepted and loved by my social groups, which mostly consisted of friends in Christian circles.
I have come to learn that there were more dynamics at play to bring me this flourishing. While this flourishing seemed like a result of healthy spirituality, a diligent work ethic and kindness toward others, I would soon learn that those did not always bring about happiness.
One of the biggest questions I’ve wrestled with throughout my time in college is why things didn’t feel like they worked out after I did everything I was supposed to. On a broader scale, it felt like others were also not getting the treatment or flourishing they deserved. 1+1 started to show different outcomes. 1+1 was equaling 0 for my LGBT, black and female friends in school, and yet 1+1 was equaling 3 for the white males who were slacking in their coursework and spiritual lives. This wasn’t the formula I was taught. And while I was already struggling to find the right words to end some of the sentences in my life, certain circumstances forced me to go back and read sentences I thought I understood only to realize they were reading a completely different way now. I felt de-centered and deconstructed, and as these feelings grew I began to struggle harder and harder for the answers. It felt like the world was flipping upside down.
In the middle of my attempts to figure out what I thought about life, a few things happened within my friend group this summer that were crippling to both individuals and the group as a whole. One of our friends was cheated on, ending a relationship that had grown quite serious. My friend was such a good and loyal significant other, and it made no sense to us why this would happen. Another of our friends experienced rejection and resentment from family because she has found a different path from the one her parents had fantasized over.
These injustices were results of harmful ideologies that I have now seen hurt innocent people time and again since being in college. As these injustices came crashing into my friends’ lives, I could not sit by and tell them to take a number and sit in the waiting room while I tried to find the last words to the sentence of college. I could not even come to them anymore with the belief that we can end our own sentences the way we want to. What do you say to someone whose significant other cheated on them senselessly? I told them they are beautiful, strong, worthy beyond what many people can understand. Yet, I knew those facts cannot protect us from pain. And what do you say when your friend is continually treated poorly by parents whose acceptance they desperately desire? This person is a dream child to their family, but I now see that kindness and unconditional love are not often reciprocated equally.
It seemed as if while I was in the middle of untangling the sentences I thought I had figured out, there were new dilemmas in life that were presenting themselves with a whole new set of challenges. Yet, in the moments where I sat with my friends this summer, I began to see something new that I had not seen before. While my world was certainly spinning 180 degrees, I felt like maybe it was flipping right side up instead of upside down. If these issues that my friends were encountering were, to some degree, tied to the tangled and convoluted sentences I had accepted about life before, maybe I should let go of my old way of writing sentences. That way of writing sentences is not based on love, acceptance and justice, I learned. Instead, it’s based on power and control. The formulas are created in the name of love, and yet are written with control in mind.
So maybe we don’t have that kind of power as individuals. It seems the world is too big and the issues are too complex for such simple logic. A paragraph is not good just because of the use of diverse grammatical elements. But if that’s not what makes it good, what does? What is the missing ingredient? I think to some degree the answer to that question is a mystery. However, I learned something helpful in college as a writing coach: the most important part of any writing project is the content.
As a writer, content is one of the most uncontrollable elements in writing. Whatever my subject, I do not get to predetermine all of the things I will write. In fact, I think some of my best work feels more like the piece is writing itself rather than being written. Life is similar. It is not so much my job to focus on writing and creating content as much as it is listening and learning from the content. Once I have listened thoroughly, the content of my life might feel more like it’s writing itself, and me, rather than the other way around.
I don’t think we control when a sentence ends in our lives. The sentence ends when it’s ready.
It is the end of my summer. I have spent half of it in Lynchburg with my friends while working at a local cafe, and I have spent the other half in my parents’ house while looking for jobs. In three weeks, I will move to Chicago, feeling like I understand life less now than ever before.
This evening, I felt a bit antsy, so I decided to hop on my bike and take a ride around the neighborhood. As I climbed the first small hill, I began to feel the slight, satisfying burn in my thighs that comes with riding a bike. I peddled a bit more and then allowed the wheels to spin as I relaxed my legs and stopped peddling. All of a sudden, I began to notice the beauty of the sunset and the complexity of the oncoming storm clouds. I noticed the height of the old trees and the welcoming breeze that hit my face as I passed through this neighborhood. I noticed the midwestern kindness of the fellow neighbors walking and the pleasant birds chirping in those tall trees. And then I noticed the sense of contentment I had with not peddling and simply allowing the wheels to turn.
I so often have had a productivity complex in my life where I tell myself I am not worth as much as I could be if I choose Netflix over classic novels and pop music over more innovative genres like indie or classical. I might even feel as if I was wasting an opportunity for a healthy workout by allowing the wheels to spin while not peddling. This was a part of my transactional worldview. But tonight felt different. I was okay with allowing the wheels to turn and take me where they might. Maybe this is because I’m learning to let sentences in my life end when they decide to. The wheels in life won’t stop turning, but I should allow myself to stop peddling now and again. And maybe when I do, I’ll start to notice the beauty that is existing all around.
I don’t have a solution for how to find the good life, but I am fairly confident it cannot be bought with piety as capital and happiness as the product. That is fantasy. I am committed to keeping my eyes open to the reality that is unfolding all around me, and allowing it to teach me and direct me toward the good life. Now that’s content for a good sentence.