Vanilla Ice Cream with Hot Chocolate Sorrow on Top
Call me forty-one. That’s middle-age, if you’re optimistic. Of course, life expectancy is all statistics and probabilities. In real life, the hearse doesn’t only call at the nursing home and tiny caskets break many hearts. Whether our days are few or many, they are all together a brief mist, soon and easily dispersed (James 4:14).
By now you must think me morose and maybe bitter. No worries, I’m not at all. I’m my usual lighthearted and cheery self. I’m as fit as a pure cotton shirt after a hot wash and dry. I’m thinking sober thoughts about the number of our days. These are the kind of thoughts we are supposed to think (Psalm 90:9-12). The point of this reflection is not morbidity but rather to apply our hearts to wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and instruction (Psalm 90:12; Proverbs 2:2; 22:17; 23:12).
When we have the proper perspective on our birthday tally, we think about how we should best use the time we have. So I’m hitting pause and offering some reflections that may be a blessing and a help to my younger constituency.
The future is closer than you think
It’s easy to get along with the future when you are a ruddy youth. You hardly ever argue and all is bright and agreeable with the future. It’s a long-distance relationship for you. It’s going to arrive some day, but you have plenty of time to get everything in place for it. Or, so you think.
You can go quite far on the energy of what you’re going to do when you are young. When a fourth-grader announces he is going to be a neuro-rocket-surgeon, he is applauded and congratulated as though he has actually done something, and sometimes he starts to believe he has. Even into your twenties you can get by on what you’re going to do. You’re young. You’re responsibilities are few. You’re expected to be figuring things out and trying to get settled. You can now have bigger ideas than that fourth-grader and still get congratulated for the great things you’re going to do.
By the time you finish your fourth decade though, you realize you’ve been watching the future approach through a convex mirror and you’ve ignored the white-lettered warning, “Objects are closer than they appear.” The future is upon you and all the time you thought you had is hard to find. All your grand schemes for what you’re going to do are no longer congratulated when you haven’t actually done much. They’re no longer inspiring, even for you, and instead those big ideas are just sad.
If an eighty-year-old man, who has trivially frittered away most of his time, sits on the front porch talking about all the great things he is going to do in the future, you might question his lucidity. You might wonder if he is regularly swallowing all that’s appropriately and professionally prescribed. You are sure he is fooling himself if he is serious. That could be you. It could be any of us.
How do we avoid this shameful eventuality? Heed the words of the wisdom preacher. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Note that we are to do what is at hand to do. Brace yourself because I’m going to utter an abomination to popular dogma. Stop dreaming big dreams and start doing what is at hand to do. How did the artisan in Proverbs come to stand before the royals? It wasn’t by dreaming big dreams to get there. It was by being diligent in his craft (Proverbs 22:29).
Changes are coming
At twenty-years-old you can scarf pizza or burritos at 2 AM with virtually no ill effect. At thirty you can maybe do midnight. By forty, don’t eat pizza after 6 PM or you’re likely to suffer all night. Such are the effects of aging that we cannot envisage when we only have a pair of tens in our hand.
Assuming you have normal vitality, you can expect to see physical changes. Energy levels go down. More sleep is required but harder to get. Certain foods and drinks no longer agree with you, and many more such delights. This is where most of us become more concerned about the quality of what we’re ingesting and maybe even supplementing our nutrients.
A key point in all of this is to realize how these changes affect the way you feel, think, and act. When you’re tired, your tolerance threshold goes down. You’re impatient and irritable. Sometimes you are more negative and maybe even irrational. Sometimes the best thing we can do for the relationships in our life is to get some sleep. We have to be more deliberate about necessary rest and activity and understanding toward others in the same way.
You’re not a kid anymore
I can remember being a young lad and hearing grown-ups talk about how they wished they could be a kid again, or how they’d give anything to be able to go back to childhood. I thought those statements odd then and, frankly, I still think they’re odd. No thank you. I have no desire to go back to childhood days (1 Corinthians 13:11). We’re meant to grow up and discover the world’s vanity and fool’s gold, because we are meant for another world. This is just a brief sojourn.
One particular feature of childhood that differs from adulthood is pure childish joy. A child can experience pure joy without any trace of sorrow, worry, or guilt. Whenever anything upsets their delicate internal balance, an ice cream cone sets the world to rights once again. The cold, creamy goodness is a wonderful restorative to the single digits.
As a kid, I could read for hours for the sheer joy of reading without the least feeling of guilt for other things left undone. I could shoot around-the-world on the court for hours without any thought of anything else going on in the world. It was the same for climbing trees and running the ridges.
Such pure joy is lost in maturity though. Even our greatest moments of delight are tempered with sorrow and worries. It seems I have felt this acutely over the last couple of years. While I’m glad to gift my children with moments of pure joy, I’m unable to share it with them completely. They smile and laugh without a care and I smile and laugh with many cares always present. Maybe this is something of Solomon’s meaning that in much wisdom there is much grief and increasing knowledge also increases sorrow.
It seems we are doomed the rest of our days to eat ice cream with hot chocolate sorrow on top. Joy and sorrow are inseparable as our days advance. But is it better to go back to the childhood joys? I don’t think so. I will leave you to consider the words of Solomon once again.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
– Ecclesiastes 7:1-10