David Steindl-Rast once commented that we tend to be resentful when things interrupt our work until we realize that, often times, interruptions are our real work.
Most of us tend to be impatient and resentful, sometimes deeply so, when our plans are interrupted by demands which deflect our energies from what we would ideally like to be doing. Sometimes this is minor: an unexpected phone call interrupts our work or our favorite TV program. Sometimes the interruption is major: an unwanted pregnancy interrupts our career or education; economic demands interrupt our plans to be a writer or an artist; the demands of a family interrupt our chance to travel, to see movies and plays, and to have the type of hobbies and recreations we would like, or the loss of health interrupts our career.
Countless things, big and small, constantly derail our agendas, force us to alter our plans, and slowly kill our dreams. Very often we are resentful: “If only! If only this hadn’t happened! Now I have to wait to go back to school, to resume my career. Now I’ll never have a chance to fulfil my dream.”
Sometime in middle age, or even earlier, this resentment takes a more radical form: “I’ve wasted my life. I’ve been a victim of circumstances. I’ve given in to the demands of others and now I’ll never get the chance to do what I really wanted to do.” Sometimes, however, as Steindl-Rast points out, the opposite happens. Instead of resentment there is gratitude. We realize that the interruptions, so unwelcome at the time, were really salvific and, far from derailing us off of our real agenda, they were our real agenda.
A few examples can be helpful here. I am sure all of us have known individuals or families where an unplanned pregnancy suddenly turns all plans (economic, career, travel, new house) upside down. Initially there is some bitterness and resentment. Later on the unwanted interruption turns into a much wanted and loved child who creates a happiness in life that dwarfs what might have resulted had original plans not been derailed by that interruption.
A.N. Wilson, the British historian, in a recent biography of C.S. Lewis, describes how Lewis’ life as a teacher and writer was, during virtually all of his productive years, interrupted by the demands of his adopted mother who made him do all the shopping and housework and demanded hours of his time daily for domestic tasks. Lewis’ own brother, Warnie, who also lived in the household (and who generally refused to let his own agenda be so interrupted) laments this fact in his diaries and suggests that Lewis could have been much more prolific had he not had to spend literally thousands of hours shopping, walking the dog, and doing domestic chores.
Lewis himself, however, gives us a far different assessment. Far from being resentful about these interruptions, he is grateful for them and suggests that it was precisely these domestic demands that kept him in touch with life in a way that other Oxford Dons (who never had to shop and do housework) were not. Historians like Wilson agree and suggest that it was because of these interruptions, which kept Lewis’ feet squarely on the ground, that Lewis came to insights which appeal so universally.
As these examples demonstrate, what initially is experienced as an unwanted interruption can, in the end, be our real agenda.
This, though, is not always true. Our lives are not meant to be left to pure circumstance and fate. We must also actively choose and create destiny. It is not always good to accept whatever happens. We have dreams and talents, and these are God-given, and so we must fight too for our agenda.
However, we must look always for the hand of providence in our interruptions. These often constitute a conspiracy of accidents within which God guides our lives. If we were totally in control of our own agendas, if we could simply plan and execute our lives according to our own dreams with no unwanted derailments, I fear that many of us would (slowly and subtly) become very selfish and would (also slowly and subtly) find our lives empty of simple joy, enthusiasm, family life, and real community. We do not live by accomplishment alone!
The very word baptism means derailment. Christ baptizes Peter on the rock when he tells him: “Because you said you love me, your life is now no longer your own. Before you said this, you fastened your belt and you walked wherever you liked. Now, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” To submit to love is to be baptized… and to let one’s life be forever interrupted. To not let one’s life be interrupted is to say no to love.
C.S. Lewis once said that we will spend most of eternity thanking God for those prayers of ours that he didn’t answer. Along the same lines, I suspect we will spend a good part of eternity thanking God for those interruptions that derailed our plans but which baptized us into life and love in a way we could never have ourselves planned or accomplished.
Lewis also once said that God’s harshness is ultimately kinder than human gentleness and that God’s compulsion is our liberation. In our interruptions, not infrequently, we experience this.