“Elliott, we need to leave this place looking better than when we got here.”
My mom used to say that when we would go on family picnics or church potlucks out in the park. Of course we would pick up our trash and everything when we would prepare to leave, but she wanted us to go around and pick other things up too. Garbage that wasn’t ours, that we weren’t responsible for. I think the reason she said this to us is because it helped us in going the extra mile to ensure we DEFINITELY had cleaned up everything that was our mess. Maybe she wanted to teach us responsibility and good stewardship too. After all, this park wasn’t OURS. Other people would use it after we did, and while they may never know who came before them, they would have to deal with whatever we left behind.
Lately I’ve been wondering what I want from life. The most profound thought that seems to be following my every move and every decision is that right now, I don’t want anything. ANYTHING. I have no real desire. For awhile I thought I saw something I wanted. I was excited about it, I saw a future in it. It’s gone now, but the fact is, I can’t blame that situation for the way things are now. Before I was ever in that situation, I had no idea what I wanted too. I had passing fancies and whimsies, ideas of what I would want to do with myself, but truthfully I never had anything solid in mind.
Some people grow up wanting to be teachers, or politicians, or lawyers, or astronauts. Some dream of being musicians and movie stars. Some people dream of being a parent, of being a husband or wife, and they dream of raising a family. And even when they are grown and have achieved their dream or something just as good, they dream up something new and keep working toward it.
Not me. No, I never dreamed of being an astronaut. When I was little I liked the idea of being an archaeologist or paleontologist. And yes, even at 7 years old I knew what those two were and even how to spell them. But while my fascination with dinosaurs has stuck with me, my desire to study their bones has not. Eventually I gravitated towards being an actor. I thought I was pretty funny, creative, and not all that bad at acting. But that too passed. I told myself that it was difficult to really make it big, and I just didn’t have the right look or talent to do it. After a trip to the Denver aquarium in my early high school years, I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, or perhaps a zoologist. Maybe even a veterinarian! I have always been fascinated with animals and more specifically the ocean, so pursuing that career was ideal. However, just a single year of undergrad study changed my mind about that. I realized how much science was involved. How focused you get on minute things like genes, viruses, bacteria, DNA, and cells in general. I didn’t want to do all that mess, I just wanted to swim with dolphins and explore the ocean. It seemed that my fascination with animals was limited to an intense hobby, but not something which I would want someone to pay me to do.
At every turn, I wrestled with the idea that something I loved could become something I hated. I could be a zoologist, but I could only make money studying in particular ways and particular places. I would have to receive grants, and you only get those when the benefactor expects some kind of useful benefit from the research. How much benefit do you get from studying lions in Africa? No, the money there would be studying cells in a lab obtained from animals in the wild, poking and prodding and looking for a better diarrhea medicine. I wasn’t going to do that.
And so high school graduation came. Everyone was exciting to be done with school, to be moving on to college and careers and new life. I didn’t know what to expect when I got my diploma as I crossed the stage. Pride? Excitement? Anxiety?
The words going through my head were “… What now?”
Up until that point, I didn’t need a plan. The plan was taken care of for me. I HAD to be in school, so it was easy. Just do great at the thing someone is making you do, that you really don’t have a choice of whether to do it or not. I applied for college and treated my first year much the same way. It seemed like the logical next step after high school, after all, and I had an idea in my mind that it was what I was required to do. It wasn’t until I started supporting myself and my parents separated that my life changed and I realized that I had to make decisions for myself. I was relatively self-sufficient, and have been ever since then, but the fact is, the plan doesn’t extend that far into the future. Even when I returned to school with a new plan, of becoming a counselor and helping people, I wasn’t sure in what context I would do that.
As college graduation drew nearer, I got more afraid. More clingy to people around me, to things I had. I had no PLAN after school. Every and ANY time someone EVER asked me where I saw myself in 5 or 10 years, I would either make up a BS answer or simply say “I don’t know.” That fact drove me to find my future, find my desires, in a person that could not fulfill me. It wasn’t that they as a person were inadequate: it’s that NO PERSON is adequate. No one could tell me what I wanted, and no one could transform into what I wanted.
And so, I sit here, pondering what I want from life. What do I desire so much that it would drive me past my anxieties and fears, past all my hang-ups, and draw me towards it? What could possibly transform me from this lost person that I am, this lazy, wandering, frivolous man, into someone strong and determined, someone with direction, someone who could be respected?
This thought, for whatever reason, brought me back to something I said one night last fall, while giving a fireside devo. I was using the analogy of plants, and how our life and faith, how we find inner joy, is much like working in a garden. I mentioned how the most joyful moments I had working at my landscaping job were when I got to go plant something. How we are made with the Spirit of God in us, and how God loves to create beautiful things, so it makes sense that we too would find joy in creating beauty.
And it hit me. Like a piano falling from the sky in a Wile E Coyote cartoon, it hit me.
What I want is beauty.
So much of what I do, every day, in every interaction, every conversation, every hobby, is aimed at making something more beautiful, or orienting people towards the beauty that already exists.
I compose music, without any hope or desire to make money from it, so I can share it with people in the hopes that they recognize it as a beautiful thing. It has nothing to do with the fact that I composed it, because in some strange way I feel that the music simply presents itself to me and then flows out of me. It already exists, and I am simply an instrument that does not compose music, but rather makes music heard.
I take pictures of nature. I love taking pictures of sunsets, of storms, of flowers and random bugs, of dust storms, of the trees in the forest and animals at the zoo, of the stars and planets above us. I do not make these things beautiful, they are that way all on their own. I simply capture moments and share them with people so that they may see beauty, that they may have a piece of a moment in time where they felt happy to take with them.
I love filming things too. Whether it is capturing a moment to remember, or if it is writing a short film, I love filming things and then sharing it with others so that they may see something that is beautiful. I love sharing movies with people in the very same way, and discussing these films or TV shows with them to flesh out wonderful storylines and amazing symbols that can teach us ways to live our lives for the better.
I grow roses. My garden used to be bigger, but now I only have two rose bushes. If I had it my way I would grow 50 different kinds of roses, and I would give them away to every person I met who would take one. I see so much beauty in flowers, so much beauty that cannot be seen or duplicated anywhere else. I recognize that in the secular world, a man who likes flowers might be seen in a negative light, but I think there is nothing unmanly about appreciating, growing, and protecting the delicate beauty that is a flower.
I even write a blog. This simple thing, this random vehicle for the traffic jam of thoughts in my head to come spilling out. I like entertaining people, making them laugh and enjoy themselves. I try to talk to people every day and involve myself in their lives, in their feelings, in their ideas and hopes and dreams. I recognize how I come across many times. Creepy, persistent, annoying, maybe even pathetic. People don’t know me, and I don’t know them, so it’s very strange for them to have a stranger want to know more about them so suddenly. I hope that they realize, though, that as weird as it may seem, I have no intention of taking anything from anyone. In some ways, this blog, my persistence in speaking to people, is simply my way of trying to give them a flower. A way to hand them something beautiful that I already have, or to work with them to create something beautiful out of what seems like nothing.
My brothers and I have always been helpers. When we see someone in pain, someone in need, someone with a problem, we HAVE to help. We are COMPELLED to do it. We know that we have the ability to help many people, and we are hardwired to help people using the talents and blessings we have. Many times we even volunteer to help despite our lack of ability to. I recognize this is irresponsible, but it comes from a good place. We know that we have a responsibility to respond, when we possess the ABILITY TO RESPOND. Response + ability = responsibility. It’s just math, really.
The fact is, I want people to live beautifully. I want people to see beauty all around them, to see beauty within them, and to see the beauty that comes from above. Everything I do is a testament to that. Even since I was a kid, all I wanted to do was study and share beautiful things. In my quest to find beauty, I learn a lot, and the more I learn, the more I want to know. And the more I know, the more I want to share.
So where does that leave me? What do I want? What will I leave behind? What will be my legacy?
I want to be a professor.
I want to keep learning, and keep learning, and KEEP LEARNING, and turn around and give all of that knowledge, experience, and hopefully wisdom, to others. I want people to see the road clearly, to have a clear path, so that they worry about where they are going less and instead enjoy the journey. I want to show people how to take a deep breath, work out their problems and hangups, and discover the beautiful path that they wish to follow. I think, somehow, I’ve always known this is what I wanted. If I am to be remembered in any way, I want to be remembered as someone who was determined to make lives beautiful.
When I was born, the world was a mess. It had been that way for quite some time. In so many ways, it has steadily gotten even worse. War is rampant, freedom does not mean what it once did. The less obvious and more insidious evils of idolatry, apathy, and distraction are creeping into our lives. Christians bicker about about semantics and fight amongst each other while the poor and sick and lost suffer in the shadows.
God created this world.
He created eternal truth. What He has made is pure and beautiful, and as badly as we mess it up every day, nothing can change the fact that His love IS. BEAUTIFUL.
I intend to spend every moment, every chance I can, showing people that beauty. Showing them the beauty of creation, the beauty of love that persists, the beauty of community and communion. I intend to bring light into dark places.
I intend to leave this world looking better than when I got here.