A flawed beginning

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a book of essays: a collection mined from a pile of drafts I wrote four and five years ago, which has had me combing through a lot of personal archives. I’ve been writing nonfiction (for the most part) for nine years now, but even before that, I was in the habit of working through things by writing. My fiction always had the stamp of “me” on it, and maybe that makes sense because I’m the one who wrote it. I’m convinced there are people out there who write for reasons that have nothing to do with trying to sort themselves out, but for me, it always comes back to something Thomas Berger once said: “Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.”

In tandem with working on this book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past—about the things we wish we could undo and the ways we beat ourselves up for not doing what, in retrospect, might have been better. When I finally quit my high-stress job, a lot of people told me they wished I’d quit sooner, and I remember being consumed by the urge to repeat, “I didn’t have it in me to do this until now.” I can scroll back through the years and ask, about nearly everything, why didn’t I handle that differently? Why did I stay when I should’ve left (or leave when I should’ve stayed)? Why did I let myself get run over like that? Why couldn’t I have been stronger?

In the world of science fiction, there’s an oft-repeated joke about the dangers of time travel—that someone might go back in time, step on a bug, and change the course of human events. It’s meant to sound ridiculous, but the message is still pertinent: the smallest alteration could change everything. It might even change the core of who we are. For better or worse, we are products of the lives we’ve lived thus far and of the choices we’ve made, and if we couldn’t make “better” decisions in the past, well, then we couldn’t. We were who we were then, and we did what we did, and all we can do now is do something different in the time that lies ahead.

C.S. Lewis concludes The Weight of Glory with this: “Our morning prayer should be that in the Imitation: Da hodie perfecte incipere—grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet.” It’s something I pray often, but lately, I’ve been wondering what exactly it means. If I messed up yesterday, let myself get too worked up, spent too much time faffing around on my phone, said something I shouldn’t have said, and so on—good, great, today is a new day, and I don’t have to be weighed down by past blunders. But when it comes to the big things, the earth-shifting things, the things I end up spending years writing books about, do I really want move forward as though they never happened?

I’m not sure that would even be possible, at least not for someone like me, whose tendency to rake over the past in an effort to mine meaning from it borders on pathological. But let’s say it would be possible to drop the days gone by like a worn-out sweater and go skipping bare-armed into the future—then what, pray tell, was the point of the past? When it comes to the big things—the deaths, the heartbreaks, the deep uncertainties—the last thing I want to do is make “an unflawed beginning.” I may wish those things never happened, but they did, and to think that I might not behave differently because of them is to suck the significance right out of them.

The other day, a friend asked how I keep believing, not so much in God, but in His goodness, despite past and present pains. I told her what I tell myself whenever I ask the same question: I can accept, however begrudgingly, that I may not understand everything, but what I can’t accept is that everything is meaningless. To let go of God is to let go of the belief that I will one day uncover the meaning behind it all, even if it won’t be in this life. I don’t believe God allows all suffering as some sort of project for our improvement—I think that’s too easy. But I do believe He’s capable of bringing good out of every evil, and letting go of Him would also mean letting go of the chance to see that redemption.

Next Monday will be seven years since my father died. I read something on Instagram the other day that said, “I hope I never forget the grief I’ve experienced,” and I wanted to say back, “You won’t.” It changes, it morphs, it settles in the way soft sand shifts to accommodate the shape of you, but it never goes away. And either it hardens you, or it makes you the kind of person other people know they can come to. I remember, a few months after my father’s death, a friend said to me, “You’re still you, but you have more gravity now.” I knew what she meant, and while the sharp shock of losing my father has subsided, I have not lost that gravity. I wouldn’t want to.

A while ago, I came across the original version of the serenity prayer, written by Reinhold Niebhur: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” I like this version better and not just because I’m a stickler for originals—because there’s more insistence in it. I like that it starts with courage because courage is needed even to have serenity and especially to confront change, chosen or not, with an open hand. And maybe that’s the difference between making a flawed or an unflawed beginning: knowing what to let go of and what to hold onto.