by Carole Duff
On a Saturday morning, I sipped green tea to the sound of steady rain in the forest outside our house and finished Janine Urbaniak Reid’s memoir The Opposite of Certainty. Her brush with alcohol abuse in her teens and early twenties reminded me of the inactivity or useless activity some have noted on social media during these months of stay-at-home quarantine.
Inactivity isn’t a problem around our mountain home. There’s always plenty to do. But I’ve turned off the bake oven and put away our cookie recipes and wine glasses. My useless activity is often self-indulgent, unhealthy, and born out of a desire to control—putting myself first before God. And I’m a control freak as Reid defaulted to after she quit drinking. What she could not control was her younger son’s brain tumor.
I have not been so sorely tested, not yet, thank God. But in some ways, all of us face the challenge of inactivity or useless activity and desire to control. Why do anything during this time of uncertainty? Let’s wait till this pandemic is over and certainty returns. Then we’ll be back in control and can get back to normal.
In 1939, the beginning of World War II in England, C.S. Lewis had this to say about certainty:
The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If [people] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
We have never been in control and never will be. If we suspend useful activity, we’ll likely substitute “a worse cultural life for a better,” and who isn’t seeing some of this already happening? But fixating on potential threats should not preclude other worthy pursuits.
As Jeremiah prophesied to Israel after the LORD carried them from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there… Jeremiah 20:5-6a (NIV)
We may have a duty worth dying for, C.S. Lewis noted. But if we devote our entire lives to that duty and cease all other activities, the duty is not worth living for.
Janine Reid discovered this truth as she gave full attention to her younger son’s life to the detriment of her health, marriage, and two other children. A duty worth dying for—she would have given her life gladly for her son’s—but not worth living for. With time and lots of prayer, she learned to live in the present, one day at a time, as recovering alcoholics and recovering control freaks like me must learn.
“The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received,” Lewis reminds us.
When we put God first and live in the now, uncertainty becomes a gift worth living for.
A version of this post first appeared here.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Building a House and Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her at: https://caroleduff.com