How about something a little more hopeful. I love this submission, because it is filled with promise and purpose and smarts. Remember our kind and gentle commenting policy, s’il vous plait.
One winter I hated my job and spent most days hiding in bookstores. I had a regular rotation of bookstores, and after checking in at the office each morning I would venture out to make “sales calls.” Each working day I visited E.B. White, Flannery O’Connor, or John Milton. They talked a good game but came up woefully short on purchase orders.
We are not our jobs, but we are the sum of our choices, and my choices had led me to a life of quiet desperation, serving a vision I no longer believed in, and working a mediocre job to support someone else’s disillusioned dreams. It was the life I had cultivated for myself.
Four years earlier I had moved to Washington, DC to help plant a church. I had joyfully quit my job in Ft. Worth, Texas and followed a vision to “change the world by impacting our nation’s capital for Jesus.” Other than the pastor of our fledgling church everyone else had agreed to work secular jobs, but our real focus was conquering Washington in Christ’s name. There are too many flaws in this approach to enumerate, but the single biggest flaw was simply this: the plan was someone else’s dream, not mine, but I was driven by a powerful need to be accepted by those I admired, so I signed on to the team. Now, after four years of hard work and dedication, our original church planting team of twenty-five people had flowered into a metropolitan church of twenty-eight people.
That’s when the Booker Prize saved my life.
One day, at the front of a bookstore was a display Booker Prize-winning novels. Nestled in the display was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Full disclosure: until that moment I had never heard of the Booker Prize, but the prize was a British award and, as we all know, everything British is excellent. Further, the Booker Prize sounded important and worthy, as if all the world had seen and applauded the work.
Turning from the November of my soul I bought the book with a credit card and invested my sales days reading the book at the food court of a local shopping mall. It is the story from the pre-war era of the 1930’s of old-school British butler who had given his life in service to a dying way of life and to man who had nothing to merit such devotion and service. The story describes service to others and loss of self—two qualities I admired then, and still do. The story provides insight into what it takes to achieve excellence—and I believe in the pursuit of excellence. These are noble ideals, and nobility of spirit is a great accomplishment.
Yet in this story the butler, Stevens, sacrifices relationship with his father and the only love of his life, Miss Kenton, who slips from his grasp and is herself wounded in the event. Should we pursue excellence, service, and self-sacrifice at the expense of relationships? Sitting there in the food court, four years into the noble endeavor of planting a church, I had done just that: my wife was unhappy and I was a stranger to my children, I was near to losing them forever. I saw myself in Stevens: repressed and struggling with the balance between ideals and the daily treasures of life—treasures I was squandering.
Worse still: Stevens discovers the Lord of the manor is a vacant man, a descendent of great ancestors who himself had neither the greatness of spirit nor nobility of heart to take his place among his forbears. We discover—long before Stevens—that the lord of the manor is a foolish sympathizer of Nazi Germany, a man who admires the vision of eugenic greatness so popular among the educated people of the day. The lord was not a Nazi; he was merely a fool. I saw in this book a withering portrayal of leadership in the hands of the vacant; and I saw before me a withering portrait of our Washington, DC pastor, a man who imagined himself greater that what he was, who eagerly desired to be important man in an important city.
Worst of all: I saw that I was Stevens. It was not enough to serve faithfully, nor live a life of sacrifice. I was responsible to God for what I served, and whom. I was responsible for the why of my life. I had sold my life nobly, but cheap. And through that novel, I saw the end of such a life. It was unspeakably sad. Is it permissible for a man to admit to weeks of crying and despair? If it is not permissible, it is true nonetheless.
Somehow, by God’s grace, I found the motivation to change my station in life, to disengage from the foolishness of service and sacrifice apart from the hard questions of who and why. And (I believe) just weeks or months before utter shipwreck my family and I moved to the most insignificant little town in the center of an insignificant state, where no one important knows I exist, and where I work faithfully at a calling few recognize or appreciate.
But in the 17 years since the Booker Prize caught my eye, I live a life of service and self-sacrifice, and I have figured out the who and the why.