The Quintessence of Life
One of my favorite movies is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I don’t know that it’s a work of cinematic excellence, but I just really resonate with this guy, Walter.
If you’re someone who has not yet had the fortune of seeing this film that I’m about to spoil or hearing its excellent soundtrack that should be in the background of all adventures, then you should know that Walter Mitty works in the negative assets department for a magazine, tediously developing photographs and escaping into a world of daydreams where he’s a really cool guy doing really cool things. As the magazine transitions into an online platform, Walter must begin working on the final issue. World-renowned photographer Sean O’Connell has sent the magazine what he believes is the best photo he’s ever taken – the “quintessence of life,” he calls it – to be the final cover. The only problem is that Walter can’t find the negative of the photo.
This leads Walter on a wild ride through the icy waters off of Greenland, volcanic eruptions in Iceland, buzkashi games in Afghanistan, and a number of the other most beautiful places in the world as he tries to chase down the mysterious O’Connell. He's just a regular guy caught up in a crazy adventure. Finally, after all of his journeys, Walter comes home without the picture. However, as luck would have it, he stumbles upon the negative in his wallet. It had been with him all along. He runs to develop it so that he can behold the quintessence of life.
And of all the beautiful scenes in this movie, this is perhaps the greatest. Sean O’Connell had seen the world from every angle, had sought out the greatest adventures, and had pursued the most elusive of sights. But the picture he called the quintessence of life, the picture Walter Mitty had gone around the world trying to find, was actually a picture of Walter doing his job. The quintessence of life was never about Walter doing great things or seeing great sites. The quintessence of life was always with Walter. The quintessence of life was about Walter just being Walter.
There's a question we start asking at a very young age.
“What are you going to do when you grow up?”
We ask about the career goals of five-year-olds, reminding them of the purpose of their diligent kindergarten studies.
And they just keep asking you all the way through college.
That's when the question needed an actual answer. And I didn’t know. I didn’t feel prepared to do anything, so I started looking into more educational and experience opportunities that would equip me further to do whatever it is that I may want to do.
I often daydreamed about what I could do. I daydreamed about grand adventures and great accomplishments that would save lives and make great books and get a lot of likes on Instagram.
And then I finally made a decision. I decided to move to Mozambique. Very adventurous, indeed. I turned down all my other offers and made a two-year commitment. It was such a relief to finally have an answer to the non-stop questioning about my plans.
“What are you going to do?”
“Oh, I’m going to move to Mozambique!”
But, as fate would have it, that answer is still not a sufficient one.
“What are you going to do there?”
Ugh. This again?
The honest answer was, “I don’t really know,” but you can’t really tell people that. I’m a teacher. I’m learning about agricultural development. And a long list of other vague statements about this great unknown and unpredictable experience.
As I prepared to leave the States I daydreamed about this time in Mozambique and about all of the things I would do. But once I was here it became even less clear what I was doing. Actually, it became much clearer what I wasn’t doing.
I arrived and started teaching nine awesome American kids language arts, social studies, science, math, history, and music five days a week. I spent Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with my teammates. On Saturdays I went to the market. On Sundays I went to church.
But the list of goals that weren’t being accomplished felt much longer.
I intended to have two days of language class every week – but I wasn’t. My language teacher moved out of town and I was having trouble finding another. I had approximately six hours of language class in my first seven months of being here.
I intended to be out with local people more – but I wasn’t. I was very busy teaching and keeping up with team commitments, not to mention that I couldn’t communicate much. My teammates always invited me to go out with them when I could, but most of the time I was teaching.
I intended to learn more about the agricultural development ministry opportunities that I could get involved in once I finished teaching – but I didn’t. There just wasn't time.
I looked at the mission/vision/goals that I proposed at the beginning of my time here and assessed “Six Month Goals”. Next to almost all of them I put: “Goal Not Met.”
What am I doing, you ask? Well, on paper it doesn't look like so much.
A skewed value system, preoccupation with my idea of success, and Pinterest boards led me to believe that if I was not doing this long list of things then I failed. I daydream about doing this or that, superimposing myself into the image of a girl jumping down a waterfall and into an inspirational quote about how life is either a daring adventure or nothing. And that may be true, but perhaps I have put too many limitations on my concept of adventure.
Perhaps the quintessence of life is not about doing.
The quintessence of life is about being.
Who I am should define the things that I do, but what I do should not define who I am. And that’s such a liberating concept. I have too harshly criticized myself and been disappointed in myself at certain points of my journey because I didn’t feel like I was doing enough or doing the right thing or wished I could do something else. But life isn’t about doing. We’re not human doings. We’re human beings.
It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert to be transformed from workers to worshipers; to stop identifying as slaves and start identifying as the chosen people of God; to internalize Torah and learn how to thrive as a holy community; to understand how to be.
I hope these lessons don’t take me 40 years in a desert to learn, but I know some of them will be part of my journey for my whole life. It is an enormous shift to read your narrative through the lens of who you are rather than what you have done. But the last nine months have certainly been a time for me to learn that I do not draw my success, my strength, my confidence, or my identity from what I do, but rather from what God does in and through me. My life is not about filling my schedule with great and noble and picturesque tasks, but rather leaving room in my life for the divine to dwell and viewing the whole of my life as simply inhabiting the being of God.
I have rediscovered the importance of spiritual disciplines in this time of deconstructing my own ideas of what defines me. Prayer, Bible study, contemplation, examen, fasting, creation care, serving, fellowship, expressing gratitude, resting, peacemaking, and loving have not only increased in importance, but have radically changed. God has taken these things and transformed them into something really powerful– and in turn, transformed me. My view of myself, my community, my study, my work, my friends, and my future have all been saturated in this realization of who God is in the midst of it all.
And it’s not that we just practice these disciplines alone in our room and forego the realities of daily life. But because of this purposeful immersion in the presence of God, we begin to realize that the presence of God is everywhere. We become contemplatives-in-action who fast for the hungry, are silent for those whose voices cannot be heard, rest for the world that is ceaselessly spinning, and practice rhythms so that our souls are ready to embrace the unexpected movement of God. After all my daydreaming about things I would do, I have found myself in the middle of this unanticipated adventure that is so much better than my own dreams.
Life is about rhythm and beauty and contemplating and wandering and submitting to the fullness of God’s presence in all things. It’s about seeing our world as the ever-expanding garden temple of God, allowing the rhythms of our lives to open our eyes to the eschatological vision that is presently being fulfilled on Earth. It’s about being here.
And that is the adventure that we, just regular people, are called to get caught up in. The adventure of considering who we will be instead of what we will do. The adventure of discovering divinity screaming out of every atom of creation, calling us all back to partaking in the fullness of the divine. The adventure of letting go of our understandings of who we are and letting the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, all-loving author of life define us instead. The adventure of experiencing the entirety of the cosmos undergoing resurrection and restoration. The adventure of God making all things new. The adventure of participating in it all.
That’s the quintessence of life.