Do you feel like you’ve accomplished enough in your life? Or do you feel as if you never quite got there, or will?
I’ll confess I’m firmly in that second category. I don’t care about lists or number of books sold–at least not too much. I don’t care if every reader who picked up one of my books thought it was the best book she’d ever read. I don’t care if my life isn’t perfect in any number or ways, because I know how blessed I am and have been. I see reminders on the news every night about what I could be living with or through. So I’m profoundly grateful for what I have.
Where I fall short? I have a nagging feeling, with me always, that I have not done enough good in my life. I think often of all the things I never did, and worse, the things I did where I really fell short.
Maybe it’s Christian guilt.
I grew up in a Protestant home with a Catholic mother, and was briefly the member of a church that had many more answers than questions. Now I’m the member of a church with many more questions than answers. This adds up to a lifelong spiritual quest with an interesting side note. No matter how you look at it, somebody in my past is viewing what I’ve accomplished in my decades on this earth and shaking their head. When the roll is called up yonder? When the angels call us home? Whether I believe in that moment or not is immaterial. If it actually happens I’m never sure that I’ll make that cut.
Maybe, too, the doubt and guilt comes from the prissy little Puritan residing inside me. After all, if you like what you do, it’s probably sinful. And I have liked, even loved, writing novels. Instead of teaching church school more often or stocking shelves at the food pantry, I’ve used those hours to fantasize and put my fantasies on paper for fun and profit. With a certain amount of guilt I’ve passed up opportunities to be helpful, not always, but sometimes. And I’ve passed them up so I could take that time and craft another chapter.
With all that simmering in my head, it was with a great deal of gratitude that I read We Need Better Angels, an essay by Hugh Hewitt in the Washington Post.
Hewitt begins this way:
“I was on a book tour, and two young couples approached me and said, ‘We loved your books, they saved our marriage.’ Now, I don’t know how to do that. I couldn’t even save mine.”
So author Jan Karon told me on Oct. 30 on my radio show, and thus my interest was piqued even more. Which writer do you know who has saved a single marriage, much less two? Karon wasn’t boasting but responding to my question about an effect that Karon’s books have on people, one that, given Thursday’s holiday, I’ll call a Thanksgiving effect.
He goes on to say–and please follow the essay link above to read the whole essay–that Karon, who writes the Mitford books, set in North Carolina, recounted the story of a Marine who told that visits to Mitford helped heal him. And Hewitt himself says this his mother devoured the series when she was going an ultimately unsuccessful bout of chemotherapy. He’s read them, too. He says:
The Mitford books are not thrillers, though they are pleasant page turners. They are empty of sex and violence, though they are full of crime and justice, deep love, pain and loss. And they are suffused with a simple faith — “Mere Christianity,” as C.S. Lewis would call it — that is fulsome but interwoven so as to be representative of the way that many people of faith actually live. Not preachy, but pitch perfect.
Can we become better people by experiencing vicariously what fictional characters do? Can we move with them through choices, obstacles, violence, redemption, and at last, the arrival of a better sense of who we are and why?
Studies indicate as much. Participants who knew the most fiction writers on the author recognition test scored far higher on the measurements of social acumen. That study, titled Bookworms vs. Nerds, and published in Science Direct found that people who read more fiction were better at empathy and understanding others.
I’ll confess I’ve been evaluating my life just a bit since reading this. Maybe it’s okay for us to follow our bliss, to do what we’re called to do and know that in some way, we’re making a difference, even when we’re making up stories for people to enjoy. Guilt has its place in the world, but I don’t think that place is to rob us of the joy we feel at our own accomplishments.
If any novelist or artist has lightened your load in some way, small or large, made you think about some part of your life in a different light, made you understand people you never understood before, made you happier to be you, made you reach out to become an even better you? Then maybe we’ve done our job after all.
Even if we enjoyed doing it. A lot.