Henri Nouwen once commented that he used to be resentful whenever he was interrupted in his work until he realized that, often times, interruptions were his real work.
There’s a lesson here: We’re often resentful when our plans are interrupted. Sometimes these interruptions are minor, an unexpected phone call while we’re working or watching television. Sometimes though they’re major: an unplanned pregnancy that interrupts our career, an economic hardship that derails our plan for being a writer or an artist, a family situation that prevents us from pursuing a dream, or a loss of health that puts everything on hold.
Countless things, big and small, perennially conspire against our agendas and sabotage our dreams. Often we’re resentful and think to ourselves: “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 fulfill my dream.” Sometimes in middle age, or even earlier, this resentment takes a more radical form: “I’ve wasted my life, been a victim of circumstance, given in to the demands of others, and now I’ll never get the chance to do what I really wanted.”
But the opposite is also true: Sometimes instead of resentment there’s gratitude because we realize that the interruptions, so unwelcome at the time, were really salvific and, far from derailing our real agenda, were our real agenda.
A couple of examples might help explain this: I’m sure all of us have known individuals or families where an unplanned pregnancy suddenly turned all plans (economic, career, travel, new house) upside down. Initially there was resentment. Later on the unwanted interruption turned into a much wanted and loved child who helped create a happiness that dwarfed anything that might have resulted had original plans not been derailed by that interruption.
The British historian, A. N. Wilson, in a 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 countless hours doing domestic chores.
Lewis himself, however, gives a different assessment. Far from being resentful about these interruptions, he’s grateful 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. Wilson agrees and suggests that it was precisely because of these interruptions, which kept Lewis’ feet squarely on the ground, that Lewis was able to have such empathic insights into the everyday human condition.
As these examples illustrate, what initially is experienced as an unwanted interruption can, in the end, be our real agenda.
Of course, this isn’t always true. Our lives are not meant to be left entirely to circumstance. We’re meant too to make choices, hard choices at times, to actively shape our own destiny. It can be unhealthy, fatalistic even, to simply accept whatever happens. It can also lead to considerable bitterness and disappointment with our lives. We have God- given dreams and talents and must, in the name of the God who gave them to us, fight too for our agenda.
However, we must also look for the hand of that God in our interruptions. These often appear as a conspiracy of accidents through which God guides and tutors us. 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 demands, I fear that many of us would, slowly and subtly, become selfish and would, also slowly and imperceptibly, find our lives devoid of simple joy, enthusiasm, family life, and real community.
Baptism means derailment. Christ baptizes Peter on the rock when he tells him: “Your life is now no longer your own. Before you made a profession of love, you fastened your belt and 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, namely, to let our lives be forever interrupted. To not let our lives be interrupted is to say no to love.
C.S. Lewis once said that we’ll spend most of eternity thanking God for those prayers he didn’t answer. I suspect we’ll also spend a good part of eternity thanking God for those interruptions that derailed our plans but baptized us into life and love in a way we could never have ourselves planned or accomplished. We do not live by accomplishment alone and sometimes what’s best for us can only be learned conscriptively.