A true winter chill has settled in to Massachusetts tonight, as we begin to close in on the winter solstice. I took the dog outside a few minutes ago to prepare for locking up the house for the night, and I was taken aback by the beauty of the night as I headed down the porch stairs. The sky is crystal clear, the moon and stars: brilliant. The temperature is just below 20 degrees.
As I was wandering around the back yard, I was thinking how I so enjoyed these kinds of nights when I was young and carefree, and walking all over town with my friends at night – instead of being inside doing homework or other useful things. I think I enjoyed them even more when I was working nights, in my early twenties, loading trucks and sampling drums of chemical waste. It’s not so cold as to be oppressive, just cold enough to keep everything crisp: the ground, the air, the shadows, and the mind. There’s something about a cold, brightly moonlit night that clears the cobwebs from the head, and invites clarity of thought.
I had a lot of room in my life back then for thinking, though I can’t honestly say I did a very good job of it – especially as a teenager. But there were plenty of nights, spent – mostly alone – jockeying trucks and loading them up in the yard over at General Chemical, that I would let my mind wander over various ideas: working out moral problems, trying to understand political questions, wrestling with religious doctrines, and generally trying to find my place in the world of ideas. I wish I could reach back and grab that kid by the lapels, give him a little direction, and dispossess him of a few particularly noxious notions, but that’s just not the way life works.
One thing I might tell that young man, were I to have the chance, would be not to get impatient with life, but to treasure the opportunity that such a life provided for reflection. By the end of the decade, I’d grown quite tired of the kind of labor that provided me that opportunity for reflection because of the lack of mental challenge inherent in the work. I wanted work that allowed me to use my mind, and eventually, that’s exactly what I found.
But what I lost in the process of finding “meaningful work” was the freedom to think for myself. It could hardly be any other way: how could I possibly think for myself if I was busy thinking for somebody else? The great questions of my life would have to wait for my “spare time,” so that I could focus my mind on “meaningful” matters like desktop configurations, networking protocols, technical security schemes, business benefits, requirements analysis, project dashboards, and stakeholder satisfaction.
Life, it turns out, is full of trade-offs – not simple solutions, or “progress.” I should also not have been surprised when my weight ballooned after giving up manual labor – though I’m sure it never crossed my mind at the time. No doubt, I’ve appreciated the financial benefits of my current career – and I’m hardly ready to give them up. But as I find it harder and harder to keep my mind focused, during the day, on matters that seem to me ever more trivial, I have to wonder where this is all leading.
I took a deep breath this weekend, and began the process of applying to Franciscan University’s Masters in Theology program. This is going to be a long road, and I hope I’ve weighed the trade-offs appropriately. For all the good – and there is plenty of it – that the last 15 or so years have meant for me, I can’t deny that I feel myself being called back to an earlier, simpler way, in many respects – even as I look forward to brand new possibilities. Truth be told, there have even been plenty of days over the years (more recently than prior) that I’ve wished I was working outside again. I’m not sure how reasonable that is at this point, but I do need some kind of fresh start.