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Signs of Life
The noises and messes and struggles of life are precisely the things worth living for.
This morning, shortly before the dawn broke on Louisville, I was sitting on our living room sofa and contemplating how our home seems to stay in a perpetual mess for the longest time. Even with as much attention as my wife and I give to it, clutter seems utterly resilient. Clothes, toys, books, wrapping paper on the floor; on the coffee table, more of the same, plus a couple of kids plates from the day before. It was not an ambience of peaceful luxury for a few minutes on a Saturday morning. It was, all things considered, a reminder of a to-do list.
Just as I was about to descend into a mood of self-pity about how messy kids are and how unnecessary much of
my wife’s our stuff seemed, the thought occurred to me: these messes, these things, are the signs of life. This unkemptness exists because people live here: people who eat and sleep and play under this roof, together, every day. This isn’t a revolutionary thought, of course; that these messes are caused by precious, divine image-bearing human beings does not make them less of a mess. But I think it’s worth thinking seriously about the inconveniences of everyday existence as signs of life. Culturally, many of us seem to be at a place where we have forgotten what a sign of life looks like.
A few days ago, The Atlantic published an article titled “The Dilemma of Babies on Airplanes.” To be fair, this was not a thoughtless argument against taking children on plane rides. It was much more nuanced than that. But I couldn’t help but pause on this passage:
What do we owe a stranger’s child? Should we have to listen to them cry and babble? Must we tolerate the sound of their toys and TV shows? Are we obligated to trade our premium window seats with them so they can sit with their parents?
A sensible answer is that you don’t owe anything to other people’s children, or rather, that you owe them nothing more than you owe anyone else. It’s a very American answer, one that follows naturally from the logic of liberalism: Each of us is the master of our own destiny, free to do as we please within the bounds of the law, and to bear the consequences.
Whether the idea that you should never have to listen to the cry of a child follows logically from liberalism is debatable (I have my doubts). If you’re familiar with the infants-on-airplanes discourse, you may know that there are a number of people who insist that small children do not belong on airplanes and that loud, jerky, unpredictable presence is a gross imposition on the rights of other passengers. Such an attitude is “sensible” only if the sole metric of goodness and value is whether I am undisturbed. Frankly, I cannot sympathize at all with it, and I pray that God would never allow me to get to a place in life where I could. To be totally undisturbed is to be totally alone. Complete silence is possible only when there is nothing. Children are loud, yes. They are stubborn, yes. They may even do something you find unpleasant. Yes. But just how valuable is the elimination of these nuisances? Not that much. They are signs of life.
I was struck recently by this essay by Clare Coffee, in which she asks whether it’s really true that experiences are worth more than things. Clare points out that things can be shared across time, whereas experiences are temporary. A person who was not at the vacation with me cannot enter into my joy the same way the person who inherits the family heirloom can. Things—which take up space, cause messes, get lost or broken—are signs of life too. She writes:
There are people whose long-finished lives are only dimly known to me, but whom I meet and cherish every year in the physical memorabilia they handed down: great grandmother’s silver, pottery made by my grandfather’s sister. Even ridiculous kitsch can gain a new dignity this way. Each Thanksgiving I greet a grinning plastic monkey that was my great Aunt Gertrude’s. I would miss him greatly if he were ever gone.
Even as contemporary society gives more lip service to the trappings of materialism, we seem to be spiraling toward a deathly esteem of positive experience. Consider one of the most important stories of 2022: Canada’s astonishing expansion of its criteria for doctor-assisted suicide. Loneliness and depression are now, according to lawmakers in Canada, grounds for death. There is no longer a workable distinction between suffering and suicide, between resilience in the face of pain and surrender to it. This collapse of distinction is more than just ghoulish ideology; it’s a calculated flight away from any conception that life might be more than physical well-being or a happy temperament. It is expected now that we interpret genuine anguish as a sign that we are not really alive, rather than a sign that we are.
The cultural aesthetic of minimalism and experience-over-things does not seem to be curing us of despair. Instead, our neat, symmetrical, Instagrammable lives are often devoid of the meaning we crave. Lately I’ve been watching tours of “tiny homes.” These buildings are fascinating and I get their appeal; they seem cozy and cost efficient. But one thing I’ve noticed watching people discuss their “journey” to tiny homes is how virtually no one talks about having people over. The tiny house movement, as well as the van life craze among millennials and Get Z, is a monument to isolation. They seem to be living concessions that community is impossible, so we might as well make our world shrink as much as possible to the size of our individual selves. These hyper-efficient lifestyles sell themselves as repudiating consumerism, but what they seem to end up repudiating are the signs of life.
Here’s an encouragement for your new year: yours and my inefficient, unremarkable, non-streamable existences are not problems to be fixed. The things that make us late, or bored, or stressed are often the signs of life. Even our pain and suffering are, in their way, reminders that the valley of the shadow of death is not the only thing that’s real. So are his rod and his staff.
It is fashionable to see children as inconveniences. This is, on its face, absolutely true: they are inconveniences. The misconception is not about children, but about inconveniences. Inconveniences do not make life less worth living. Inconveniences are not cause to blow up and dislocate us and those around us. As annoying as they can be, they frequently are ways we are pulled out of the cavern of the self. A life invaded by inconveniences is not an island. We are bugged and put out precisely at that moment when God’s goodness is being made evident. It is far worse to be left to our own devices.
I pray that in 2023, I won’t shrink back from the signs of life. I pray that I would want more of them, even at the cost of my own personal kingdom. A generation of despair needs them in the worst way. And so do I.
I wish you a very happy New Year.