This being a square birthday,* the last I’ll have before I have to worry about who will need me, who will feed me, I’ll take advantage of the occasion to write something solemn and portentous.
The years have steadily amplified my appreciation of, and amazement at, the intricacy and fragility of the world. Even in very modest circumstances, we’re surrounded by devices of staggering complexity; even with minimal social engagement, we’re immersed in lives whose cumulative joys and stresses extend far beyond our capacity to imagine. And I live in neither very modest circumstances nor minimal social engagement — I’m swamped in complexities and intensities.
Our capacity to start with [natural] complexities and amplify them hyperbolically charms me. In the face of our mortality, of our relative insignificance, of our childlike overconfidence in our capacity to make a difference, our determination to take ourselves seriously wins my heart. When Nietzsche compares humanity to a mayfly (at the beginning of my beloved “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense”), he calls our attention to “how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature.” The comparison has just the opposite impact on me: no matter how heavily the forces of circumstance weigh against our sense of our dignity, we remain convinced — by the testimony of our actions, our daily lives — that somehow all this stuff matters greatly.
I take that confidence as a theological clue to both our harmful obliviousness to how small and limited we really are and to how nonetheless we are beloved, we are given meaning. That gift of meaning attains its fullness as our lives cooperate in enhancing the beautiful, frail, evanescent intricacies of life, so that others may share in apprehending them. They are, and remain, always a gift. It’s easy to damage, destroy, mangle such gifts — but when we take the harder way of letting the gift teach us how to receive it, and then cooperating with the gift toward engendering more beauty, more grace, we testify to a grandeur extends beyond our grasp.
Among those gifts in my life, I number my remarkably spectacular family; my patient, devoted friends; my students and colleagues over a long-ish teaching ministry; congregations that have made homes for me in their midst; and the extended network of people who have drawn what I write here into their lives, who have reciprocally made me a welcome part of theirs. Thank you for this, and all the many gifts you’ve given me.
* I thought “square birthday” was a term I’d heard from someone else, a birthday that’s an integer squared, and it made sense to me and so I started writing this entry on the assumption that the term was publicly intelligible. A quick search, however, turned up no obvious links that used the term as I do here, so in case my [false] memory is an inspiration just masquerading as a memory, I’ll stake a claim for it here.