We all have those moments that re-define our lives. For some, it is meeting that special friend who breaks us apart and re-cords our very essence; for others, it may be a death of a family member, or even something as inconsequential as a plastic hairpin, that when given out of love, shifts our paradigm completely. It is hard to accurately claim a life changed by one account, because our lives are made of so many elements. Nevertheless, those moments, the ones we remember, are like beacons to us, standing out in bright contrast to the rest of our boring, dull lives.
Apathy and the teenaged mind
I grew up in a suburban utopia, long swaths of green lawns, picture-perfect family facades, and the American dream pumped through every child’s veins so fiercely that by the age of ten, they had either become brilliant archetypes of contemporary society, or popped like a zit. This lifestyle has a particular affect: of serving the self. In a hapless suburbia, people are taught to be a step above the curve and carry that with pride; materialistically, we are as sure of ourselves as we are of our flowerbeds and weekly (and public) dog walks. By the time I was in high school, I had opted to try for a genteel medium between those intellectual snobs and the dregs of our boulevard society. I can say this in retrospect (because it is always easier to criticize past versions of ourselves), but at the time I felt this was the best option. A self-serving lifestyle, when served with fresh garden vegetables and sweet smelling first fruits, is rarely (at the time) seen as a bad lifestyle.
Few of us expect that our lives are going to change, and even fewer realize it when it happens. In high school, I was much too embroiled in the day-to-day social structure and dead-end curriculum to take notice of the coming paradigm shift. High school curriculum is often like that: a panning of knowledge, spanning the whole range of human existence, especially chosen to have a political or social effect on the student’s mind, in order to gear him or her towards a certain kind of Ideal. Perhaps this is the norm: that because of our culture, we barely recognize the gift when it is flatly in front of our face. I only know I was in no condition to make any judgments on my current state of being and how I was changing.
In addition, my experience growing up existed in a vast realm between the rich and poor, creating a kind of dead zone within me: a war zone of epic proportions that could hardly be perceived except as a smoky landscape of gunfire and cannon fodder. I suppose war is like that, and the soldiers rarely know what’s going on except behind the barrel of their own guns. Nevertheless, I was lost and left to my own ends. Although in my heart, I wanted to reach out and help people, make the world a better place, and perhaps gain some honor from it, by no means did I intend on sacrificing more than what was easy to get there. I existed, in a sense, to please myself, even at the expense of what I could become. Even though I was different from my peers (having already traveled to dozens of other countries and cultures) I still existed in a bubble of me: the swirling drama of gang warfare, inner-city buses, million-dollar homes, and migrant children hanging out by the gym. This hardly affected me at all, except to reinforce the need to stay inside my bubble, even as cultured as I perceived myself.
Those vast drugdreams
The playground of the wealthy elite has everything you can dream of: pleasure palaces of fruits and meats from all corners of the world, immaculate temples of knowledge filled to the ceilings with ancient and modern tomes of virtually any subject and idea, entertainment centers from pit fighting, virtual worlds, and even science-fiction neon-colored laser tag. It is hard to discern direction in such a world. The human mind is a simple one, but intelligent. It can sense the askew, but left with no alternative, chooses to ignore what cannot be justified; this is the best and worst of our survival instincts. Growing up in a world like this is not the paradise that so many dreams are built of, even though opportunities for growth and experience seem endless. My closest friends, even myself, all suffered from this invisible dystopia. Addiction, in its most subtle form, comes like a serpent in the grass, taking advantage of our weaknesses and our most secret desires. For my friends, this came in the form of herbs and chemical compounds to induce wild and fantastic fantasies. For myself, rather than choosing to be pulled into a world of drugs, I chose a rather alien route (at the time), one that is now only beginning to show fruition in the newest generation of the world’s richest. This route gave me peace among the intensity that surrounded me day-to-day, riddled out the polar opposites into a single statement: as long as you are here, you need not care. That simple statement took care of any responsibility to the present, and allowed merely the presence of being, pure, simple, unrefined by the extremities of sin, to exist without worry, in wonderful and creative enterprise.
I found Nintendo.
Now, to be fair, like alcohol, chemical substances, cigarettes, and food, video games are just a thing. Any thing can be abused, and if left uncontrolled, can take over the natural process our body needs in order to grow, and keep us locked away from our true potential. The idea, though, that through the simple interaction with a machine, I could throw away all of the confusion and mixed messages my world gave me and immerse myself in a detailed world that was not only scripted out but modeled to keep me attached in euphoria—that was a much better alternative than facing the darkness of the clashing cymbals and forcing myself to riddle out the problems. The world that surrounded me and its invisible and distant rules made so much more sense in a world with defined rules and defined (and attainable) roles.
I went so far in this particular fascination that I often would find myself struggling for hours and hours against a single digitized opponent, totally focused on the intricacies of how to strategize around the laws of this particular world so as to create a triumphant outcome. I did so at the degradation of my schooling (my GPA dropped to a 2.6 in high school, from a radiant 3.9), the abandonment of my family (I spent most free time alone in a dark room), and the general abuse of my health, working on one particular game for hours through the night. To be fair to myself (and others) this was not suffering, but a conscious decision to shirk my loved ones in lieu of an electronically created vision. And to be fair on another reasoning, people do the same thing today with television, movies, books, and music. Wisdom says “all things in moderation,” which lays an invisible claim to the inherent goodness in all things, though they can be abused. And of course, like anyone, I had my reasons for doing this in the midst of it: it was my time (which it was), they were good and heroic stories I was participating in (which they were), and no one else was being externally hurt emotionally or physically (and they weren’t). Our decisions always leave a lasting imprint on our lives though, and that decision definitely left its mark in a special way on my own life.
Growing up is a hard time for any teenager. The usual emotions of human life, when compounded with the changing chemistry of the body, discovering divided loyalties between the family and the opposite sex, and in general, a re-defining of one’s life as an adult create amazing and dangerous situations. Isn’t it odd how, when in the middle of volatile situations and highly-charged emotions, we lose focus of what is up and what is down? And far too often the impetus to these glowing exchanges of ire occur at the beset of our own known weaknesses, furthering the degradation within ourselves, and far too many times creating and widening gulfs between family members and friends who. under normal circumstances, would be the best compatriots.
As life-changing events go, this one began quite normally: not with a boom and a great voice from the heavens, nor a miraculous sign, but merely a commonplace event. An argument. You see, prior to the heated debate, I had opted to shirk my duties as a student (as I often did) and laze around the house, snacking on crackers and wasting away my time in the greatest suburban capacity I knew how to do: procrastinating. As evening rolled on, I chose (despite the grumbling of my parents) to sit in front of a television and have miniature and private battles with the menacing demons of the digital world. As far as stories go, this one was particularly good, driving me ceaselessly into the night, past my bedtime, into the early morning hours and finally to the dawn of a new day. In the morning, a very heated exchange took place between my mother and I about the ethics of wasting one’s talents mindlessly on electronic entertainment, and I remember in a fog, stomping out of the house, feeling guilt swirl around me, counter-arguments lost to the aftershocks of our embattled debate, and a sweep of weariness rush over me. Nevertheless, I had an appointment to keep that morning, so I barely knew what had happened when the van I was driving swerved off a sixty mile per hour freeway at top speed and smashed into a grove of trees.
For those people who have been in life-threatening positions, the concept of time slowing down is one quickly understood. For myself, as I attempted to open my heavy-lidded eyes (I had fallen asleep), the world seemed to blur into a miasma of one-single thought: I am going to die. To be locked into a metal missile, launched at full speed into a solid object, the expectation that one might live is barely thought of. I suppose my life flashed before my eyes, but I cannot be sure, because when one’s life is threatened, merely the idea that this precious thing called “breath” could disappear is a very scary thing. As the vehicle hurtled into the trees, I felt lifted up; it was as if a shield of protection had been thrown around me. A warm feeling, one that coupled with the prickly, freezing touch of death, compounded into: grace.
The car rammed into a series of trunks. Windows shattered, branches broke, and the hood was bent and folded like a piece of paper. When I came to, the wheels still burned under the pressure of my feet on the pedal, my head swam, and I noticed the window to the passenger-side of the car had been smashed through by a protruding and thick branch. The driver’s side, though, remained completely untouched, not even a streak of dirt or touch of tree. The car had miraculously been guided into the only open space in the grove large enough to accommodate a car, and to add to that, had been guided up a series of low to high branches, that when I left the vehicle, gazed in astonishment as the vehicle were at least five feet off the ground, wheels hanging in the open-air, centered between a massive growth of old trees that were the only thing between the high-speed freeway and a parallel highway. The trees had effectively stopped my car from running off the road into an oncoming car and brick apartment building. At that moment, I knew that God had interceded and sent an angel, even though I barely knew the consequences that would have on my life in the years to come.
Flowers in the dark
When I graduated from high school, I moved to Chicago for university. University, regardless of time or location, is a place of challenge, learning, and growth. At least in America, teachers are encouraged to challenge their students’ thinking, either by virtue of teaching ability, subject matter, or the plain college experience (being away from the nest, forced to fly on your own). Because my philosophy has always been to seek ways to make the world a better place, moving to an urban college in the center of a large metropolis seemed ideal: get involved, face-to-face on a personal level with people who are struggling, and hope your presence makes some kind of positive impact on their lives. College, for me, was a time of reaching out and expanding not only my physical borders of comfort, but mental (and spiritual) as well. But like all kinds of growth, I hardly knew what was happening.
A new life opens up like a flower. As the sun warms the petals, they slowly open up to face the new day. For me, my thinking before the accident and after was vastly different, as it came down to one central point: self. I went a little nuts in college. I became involved in a platoon of various activities, most of which were geared toward community service or involvement, though I barely recognized at the time that my initial drive for joining these was because something in me had fundamentally changed, and I was currently on a quest to discover my limitations. The challenges remained, however, for much of my training in college (for a degree in theology) revolved around the post-modern conception of God, which, to put it quite simply, was a richly textured and self-serving interpretation of the person coming to terms with an alien God. There was a silent battle going on inside of me, and by the end of my college career, I had nearly lost all faith in God. It wasn’t until years later, while living in another country, that I was faced with the true color of those monsters that had laid siege to my heart.
It’s easy to say this is retrospect: that throughout college after my accident, my life became less of my own. In the ideas I had for possible careers, in my evolving sense of how God interacts with us, and in the struggle with not only the American culture of an idealized self, but the evangelical Christian who sees God as a buddy rather than an omniscient creator who is untouchable save through the power of Jesus: I fought with myself. At the moment of my life flashing before my eyes, my life became a moving and growing sacrifice, even though I could not put my finger on it for quite sometime.
Breaking stone altars
Today I sit in surprise at where the journey finds me. From sitting alone in a dark room jabbing away at a television for days at a time, to having given up games, dedicated my life to serving God overseas for six years in a foreign country—I can hardly call this logical. I constantly feel barraged with my own inadequacy to live out what happened to me. The gift of life that was given so many years ago has had such an amazing impact on my own life, that the only word I can think of is miraculous. Of course I am still selfish, of course I am still awfully sinful and a person constantly in need of God. But the difference of now versus then stands out as something only God could have done: an event so powerful, that it shook me to the core and changed me fundamentally from a person focused on my own comfort, to one whose only purpose is to serve the Lord who gave me a second chance, in as much capacity as I can possibly muster.
This belief goes even further: that through the sacrifice that Jesus gave, his own life so that we could be reborn from the madness into a new body and serve God through whatever means He asks—that is the truth of our lives. It boggles my mind to how I could have ever believed otherwise. The Holy Spirit enters into our lives and changes us not only spiritually but physically as well—our brains function differently, challenging us on a daily basis to give ourselves to God so that one day His kingdom will come with glory. But this gift—our changing—came at such a monumental sacrifice: death. And so we also die and become new bodies in this strange world, and we justly have no claim over our lives, but ought to live in thoughtful and spirit-filled service to not only our creator but our savior, who took us away from the darkness into a life of infinite love.
I am thankful for this particular gift of life, but I will not discount the dangers of nearly losing one’s life, as so many are not so lucky to survive the same encounter. I feel blessed, knowing there was a special purpose as to why I survived, and so I try to live my life in thankfulness. I am aware of how pretentious this sounds, and wish to reiterate that by no means am I or anyone else who went through a similar experience “a cut above,” only that we are different and realize that our lives are forfeit. I live my life everyday toward the Ideal that it is no longer my own.