On Turning 32
Reflections from the mountaintop
Yesterday was my 32nd birthday. Every year around my birthday I try to reflect on life and the living of it in light of how things are and how they aren’t.
An Unexpected Meeting at the Mountaintop
In March 2020, we were all introduced to COVID-19. Two weeks later my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. In fact, she was induced a week early out of fear that hospitals may lock dads out of maternity wards.
It wasn’t long after that I began my on-and-off wrestling match with an opponent that may be best identified as “existential dread.” That term has different meanings depending upon which Google search result or psychologist you trust. The kind of existential dread I have experienced is not one that has led me to grapple with meaninglessness. Rather, the species of existential dread I’ve been fighting is one characterized by uncertainty, a despair regarding the human condition, and my impending, inevitable death.
It isn’t that I’m afraid of death. I’m confident that the faith God has graciously given me in Jesus will deliver me by death to a life of unfathomable length and unmatched goodness in His presence. I’m not particularly looking forward to dying, even as much as I don’t fear death and what comes after. But my newfound wrestling match with occasional existential crises doesn’t have as much to do with fearing death as it does with enjoying life.
Despite the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 to the present have been three of the best years of my life. We welcomed our daughter Maggie in April of 2020. I began a wonderful new job in September 2020. I signed a contract for my first real book Terms of Service in 2020 and saw it released earlier this year. My second book The Wolf in Their Pockets will be published in March. I’ve been able to watch my daughter grow up because I get to work from home. Our family takes walks almost every day before dinner. Life has, truly, never been better.
I’ve always been a forward-looker, a planner. Often to my detriment, not being as present as I could be because I am so interested in planning and strategizing and preparing for the future. My youth pastor saw this in me as early as high school and warned me of its perils. I have always had a plan. I am disciplined (mostly). And I work hard to make sure my plans come to fruition.
In the last three years, global pandemic aside, I’ve reached the mountaintop. I have finally grasped the life I longed for when I was a sophomore in high school and a sophomore in college. I’m even married to the girl who, to my despair, friend-zoned me in high school. I’m not rich. I’m not famous. But I have a family I love, a house I can afford, a book published (with another on the way), and work that has meaning. I have everything I could ever realistically want. And it was upon reaching the mountaintop of the last three years that I have been reminded that nothing in this life can truly satisfy.
I have everything that 14- and 16- and 19- and 22-year-old Chris Martin could have ever wanted, but I still have bad days. I still sometimes wonder if any of this matters. I still question whether I chose the right career path. I still sometimes don’t think I’ve done enough or achieved enough—not to earn God’s approval, but my own. I’m not as good of a dad as I could be. I’m not as loving of a husband as I could be. Blessings abound, but so do feelings of insecurity and insufficiency.
Upon reaching the mountaintop I find myself looking for a taller mountain instead of enjoying the view.
So I’m doing my best to stop climbing and sit a while. I’m learning what it means to be and not do. Most of all, I’m learning that it’s okay to be and not do. I’ll write more on this later, but it’s profoundly shaping how I’m thinking about my present and my future.
Considerations Regarding Life Expectancy
The average life expectancy of a white American hovers around 76-years-old.
I go to the gym five times per week. According to my Apple Watch I exercise for an average of 43 minutes per day and burn roughly 1,200 calories per day. So I’m relatively active for someone who works a sedentary job. But I also love cooking and eating delicious food that isn’t the healthiest.
All of this is to say I have every reason to think I am quickly approaching middle age and should see the average white American’s life expectancy as my life expectancy. I would be grateful to live the 76.68 years I am expected to live as a white American, given that one of my greatest fears is dropping dead of a stroke, heart attack, or some other biological catastrophe before my daughter even goes to college. As a result, I have begun to be much more considerate about how I spend my time. The scarcity of time sharpens into clearer view with each passing day.
Providentially, as I’ve been trudging through the despair the accompanies the realization of time’s endangerment and eventual extinction, I’ve been reading Jacques Ellul. And his considerations of how we spend our time have encouraged me despite a tone that some may consider…dreary.
What Is the Use?
Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, sociologist, and theologian. He wrote what many consider his seminal work The Presence of the Kingdom shortly after World War II.
Here is Ellul on pages 55–56 of The Presence of the Kingdom:
What is the use of the life which we take such pains to conserve? What is the use of time? What is the value of life, since it is precisely by the use of these means in our civilization that time and life no longer have any meaning, that man really does not know what to do with his time, and that life is more absurd than ever, because the spiritual foundations of time and of life have been destroyed in the heart of man? Modern man, having been dehumanized by means, having himself become a means—in spite of the fact that “time” has been gained, and new methods of preserving human life have been discovered—is like a savage who has been given a very delicate and perfect machine which he does not know how to use.
Ellul can be a difficult read, so let me summarize him this way:
What is the use of saving time and prolonging life if we don’t have any idea what it is we are even supposed to live for?
Enjoy the View
This is where my mind is on the mountaintop:
Here I am. I’ve achieved everything I have set out to do, at least to a reasonable measure.
I am not wealthy, but I have enough.
I am not a perfect father and husband, but I am one.
I am not a best-selling author, but I write and people read.
…So what do I do now?
My answer to this question isn’t simple or permanent, but to put it simply for now, I would say:
Now, I enjoy the view.
What does this look like? It looks like slowing down.
It looks like taking more intentional steps to praise God for where He has me at the cost of wondering where He will have me.
It looks like putting my phone away while playing with my daughter. It looks like becoming the best version of myself at my work that I can be.
It looks like writing what I want to write and maybe stepping back from all this social media stuff, even if just for a season.
It looks like trying a bit less and being a lot more.
I am reminded of these words from Ecclesiastes 9:7–12:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
When I reached the mountaintop I was initially filled with a sense of dread as I groped for my binoculars to find the next highest peak and chart my path to the top of that one, not knowing what may await me at the top but knowing that it was at least another mountain to climb. But by the grace of God, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be better for me to stop climbing, take a seat, and praise God for the view from here. At least for a little while.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are not the measure of what we do so that we can revel in what has been done for us.
Thanks for being here. I’m grateful to write for you.
For fun, I went back and read my reflections from last year. They’re quite similar to this year, but with more of an emphasis on death! Made me laugh. Man I’m a fun person to be around.
I don’t know what this looks like, yet. But I have a lot of creative energy that I’d like to release that does not fall into the category of “thoughts on social media.” But I have a book publishing in the spring, so we’ll cross that "new projects” bridge sometime around a year from now, probably.
I'm 71. A year ago I audited a class at DTS, "Ministry to the Aging". I thought since I was becoming one of 'those' I ought to learn about growing old in a godly, God-honoring way. I discovered that most often the emphasis was on meeting the needs of the aging rather than understanding the unique contribution age gives to life and the aging can give to the church and world. It is only after one has lived a significant length of time that he can look back and see, in an understanding way, God's purpose and plan for his life worked out in small, incremental ways, day by day, step by step. And, that story is what we, the aged, have to give--not a series of interesting things that have happened, but a cohesive, compelling story of God working in an ordinary life incrementally. As the physical eyesight often dims with age, the potential to see spiritually clearer can (not necessarily 'will') develop. When that occurs you don't need binoculars, but simply eyes of faith and eyes full of wonder. Growing older is fulfilling and the young cannot really comprehend what the LORD Jesus has for these 'older years.'. Blessings
I’ll be 59 at the end of November. Consciousness of time really came late for me... so good for you! Happy Birthday and congratulations on the books... but especially your awareness of the joy and importance of family. I enjoyed the post.