(RNS) — I was recently asked if the life I lead — the public one, as a writer, speaker and “influencer” (as they say) — was the one I’d always envisioned for myself.
The answer is no.
My public life is not what feeds the desires of my heart. It is not the vision I had for myself. My public life is the things that happened along the way while I set out to do different things: read, study and teach.
It’s the public things, naturally, that draw people’s attention. And, just as naturally, it’s those same public things — in contrast to the workings of the inner, hidden life — that become fodder for other people’s aspirations and emulations. It’s human nature to cultivate desires based on what we see before us.
Our new digital age magnifies in new ways what we see — the public personas, portrayals and projections — immeasurably, often distorting reality beyond recognition. A socially mediated life severs the outer public person and the inner private self; cultivates unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment and bitterness from hopes unfulfilled; purveys plastic people and distorted dreams.
Recently, after giving a talk on such effects of this technological age, I was asked what visions we might offer to counter these false ones. One suggestion I gave is to focus on the joys of everyday, ordinary life to counter the romantic notion that in order to serve God well we must “do big things” and “change the world.” The truth is that we serve God best when we love our neighbors and each other faithfully and well in whatever ways God calls us.
Yes, God calls some to serve in loud, public ways. But he calls us all to serve, too, in quiet, inglorious ways. Doing either well depends on how we form and feed the inner life — the heart, mind and soul.
The vision that formed — and forms — my inner life was placed before me when I was very young (long before the age of social media, thankfully).
It happened on a trip my family made from our home in Maine to that of some distant relatives in Vermont. I was just 4 or 5 years old. These relatives — an older, childless couple caring for an elderly parent — lived in an old brick farmhouse surrounded by trees and gardens with a stony brook running along the back of the house.
The place enchanted me. Though I was so young, and the memories are faint, I never forgot the character and strength of that old couple, or their tall brick house with its comfortable rooms inside and inviting land outside, or the crystal water of that stream I splashed in. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I forever after carried this vision of the good life inside me.
Years later, I met a good man who had a similar vision for his life. After we married, we struggled for a long time through the poverties of youth. When I received my first full-time academic appointment, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. In preparation to move several states away, I stayed back to work while my husband journeyed in search of an apartment for us to rent.
On his way, a friend from church contacted him out of the blue to say he was going to loan us money to buy a house. This was one of the biggest — and most surprising — blessings of our lives.
A week later, my husband came home and handed me a card with a picture inside of the house he had made an offer on. It was an old brick farmhouse surrounded by big oak trees. And a creek ran through the back of the property.
The house had sat empty for years. Because of its poor wiring and plumbing, it was considered uninhabitable. But we inhabited it anyway. And now, after many years, the house inhabits us. I believe that when human hands built this place over 100 years ago (a cottage given to a daughter as wedding present), God meant it for us.
It takes seconds to send a tweet that goes viral. It takes an hour to give a talk. It takes a year or two or more to write a book.
But it has taken two decades to restore this home, to tame its grasses and shrubs, to cultivate the flowers planted years before by others, and for the roses planted by us to climb over the garden wall.
It has taken two decades to live with, get to know and serve, and love our neighbors — to see their children grow up and their parents pass away, to be the ones who mow a lawn during a medical crisis, to plow the driveways after a snowstorm, to get the texts when they are going on vacation, to share pictures from graduations, to celebrate the milestone birthdays, to look for a lost dog and to share holiday dinners together.
For two decades we have dwelled in the land the Lord has given us, trusting in the Lord and doing good, delighting in the Lord who has given me the desires of my heart.
This is not, of course, to say that the soul is sustained by brick and mortar or land and streams (or skyscrapers and cityscapes) alone. But it is to say that the outward life cannot be separated from the inward. For lack of a vision, the people perish. And with a malnourished vision, the fruit withers.
In this way, the call of each of us is the same: to inhabit our souls, souls formed by God for our good and his glory, and to nourish the inward life that yields the fruits of the outward one.