One of my favorite writers, the great American novelist
Walker Percy, talks about dreams and ambitions that get
derailed by personal choices, and the long, slow road we
must follow to recover. His books reflect themes such as
longing to make a difference, wanting our life to count, and
making sense of the challenges we face. Percy trained to be
a doctor but contracted tuberculosis and was never allowed
to practice medicine. So he became a novelist, combining a
deep understanding of human nature with a profound,
lighthearted sense of humor. When asked about the most
important question in life, he responded, “There are essentially
two types of people: those for whom life is a quest and those
for whom it isn’t. The great question we must answer is:
which one are we?”
Percy’s last novel, “The Thanatos Syndrome,” addresses
spiritual reformation. The Greek term “thanatos” means
spiritual death, being physically alive yet spiritually dead. Tom
Moore, a medical doctor, has just been released from minimum
security prison after serving two years for selling stimulants
to long-haul truck drivers. He returns to his hometown and
begins a quest for recovery. He discovers the value of enduring
relationships, of loving and being loved. He begins to understand
that his life counts as he faces his moral failings and recovers
from spiritual death. Many of the revelations in the novel occur
during his conversations with a priest.
Romans 8 also presents us with two choices: following
the way of life or the way of death. The passage begins by
saying there’s no self-contempt for those who have discovered
their life with Jesus Christ. “Zoë,” the uncreated, eternal life
that originates in God alone, is found along this path. Not
only are we emotionally free, we are spiritually and intellectually
capable of handling all that life brings.
The Harvard Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal project
following the lives of nearly 300 young men who attended
the university in the late 1930s, has revealed factors that
contribute to happiness and success, including coming to
terms with life’s regrets and close relationships. One of the
subjects, who spent his life in a miserable marriage, blamed
his wife’s failings for his unhappiness. But as he began
thinking about his own role and responsibility, he recognized
it was the best marriage he was capable of having.
Freedom from self-contempt allows us to see our obligations
and interests in a whole new light. We can take responsibility
for the roles we’ve played in situations without letting them
ruin us. As we come face-to-face with our own failings, either
professionally or morally, we find a deeper reality in Christ
that helps us get back on track.
The law of life in Romans 8 is stronger than the law of
death. Throughout Scripture, there are two terms for life:
one refers to biological existence (“bios”) and the other to
spiritual vitality (“zoë”). We can be physically alive yet
spiritually dead by participating in beliefs and behaviors
that bring utter ruin into our own existence.
But we’re not stuck with or forced to endure this. Instead,
life with God allows us to make peace with our deepest regrets
so we can engage in purposeful activities that make a difference.
The greatest joys in life come from committing ourselves to
purposes that will outlive us, from striving to make a difference
while answering life’s greatest questions: Why am I here?
What is a good person? How can I become a good person?
What will bring meaning to my life? And can I find it? At
Westmont, we continue to pursue the twin rails of rigorous
academics and deep love for God to engage life’s greatest
questions and offer an enduring and compelling response.
In an earlier novel, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Percy asked,
“Why is it that as we know more and more about the universe
we know less and less about ourselves?” This observation,
so poignant in its accuracy and insight, penetrates every
reader as it forces us to recognize the easy seduction of being
so preoccupied with our external self that we never do the
harder work of cultivating our inner selves.
In an earlier epistle, Paul identifies nine qualities of those
on a spiritual journey: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These
characterize people who come to terms with their regrets
to embrace and live life more fully.
In this New Year, may we give ourselves to the life of the
spirit that cultivates deep engagement while allowing us to
contribute to purposes that will outlive us. Happy New Year.