This year has probably been the most difficult of my life so far. I’ve moved to a new place, started a new job, returned to a degree program that I began two years ago, and have spent the past few months planning a wedding! I’ve had a lot on my plate, and sometimes, when it seems like I can’t balance everything anymore, it becomes easy to forget how grateful I should be. I have an amazing family, incredible friends, a wonderful fiance, and an awesome job. I have a roof over my head, food in my mini-fridge, and enough time to occasionally go ice skating on the weekends and to sleep in every now and again. With these wonderful gifts, it seems logical that I should be incredibly happy right now. Considering what I have going for me, sometimes it’s easy to feel guilty when I think that my life is so difficult. In truth, I have been incredibly blessed, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t suffered as well.
Last Thursday, my class met to discuss the book Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. It was by far my favorite book this year, and this seemed to be the consensus of my class. It told the story of a southern American couple, Nathan and Hannah Coulter, and their life together. They lived on a farm, surrounded by family and friends, and were very happy with the lives they led. But they wanted better for their children, so they made sure that they could send their three children away to college. Certainly, they expected their children to graduate and return home. Nathan and Hannah never imagined that when they sent them off to college, they would never have their children living near them again. When they said goodbye to them, they didn’t realize that they were saying goodbye forever. When they left, Hannah and Nathan never imagined that they would never come back.
But that’s exactly what happened. The Coulter children never came home. They left, fashioned new lives separate from their past, and started new. They were sent away because Hannah and Nathan thought that a college education would give them more happiness, but by the end of the book, it’s clear who’s happy. And it’s not the children.
Hannah and Nathan lived a very joy-filled life, and when Nathan died of cancer as an old man, he was content with the life that he had lived with his wife. His only regret was that his children had gone off into the world and had never come home again. He had sent them away to find happiness, but in the end, not only did they not come home, but they never found happiness. At the close of the book, all three children are still living their separate lives, slowly being consumed by the stresses of life- by rebellious, angry children, messy divorces, and countless women- and they are no happier than they were when they still lived with their parents. In fact, that was probably the last time that the children were truly happy.
What was the difference between Hannah and Nathan and their children? Why should the parents’ lives have been so happy, while the children’s lives were so sad? Education certainly didn’t bring them happiness. Their new lives all across the United States didn’t make them happy. Their wives and mistresses didn’t make them happy. They went out into the world seeking happiness, not realizing that they were leaving their one true source of happiness behind. Unfortunately, once they were out in the world, living their own lives, they didn’t know what it would have meant to come home. Afraid to return, they continued to float about the world, never setting down roots anywhere but always hovering just over the places where they were.
Hannah and Nathan had laid down roots, and those roots ran deep through an entire lifetime. From these roots, their children had sprung, but as they approached adulthood, they uprooted themselves but were never replanted. Instead they skimmed the soil below them, always ready to move on, to be blown with the wind to the next place. But without roots, they could not thrive. They were thirsty for love, but they did not know how starved they were becoming. They were also too afraid to pursue a solution. They were too afraid to lay down roots, to connect themselves to a place, a community, friends who would become family. They were sent out into the world to become well-established individuals, but they didn’t realize that the only way they could flourish was to admit to their need for others, for a community to sustain them and help them thrive. They were alone in the world, disconnected from it and reluctant to lay down the roots that would bind them. They didn’t realize that it was only by being bound that they could be truly free.
The story resounded with many of us, and I found myself thinking about it in my free time. The stories of Hannah and Nathan’s children stuck with me, and I found myself identifying my own unhappiness with theirs. Sure, I had not gotten married and divorced. I was not traveling from country to country on business, never seeing my family. I was not thoroughly unhappy with my career choice. On the contrary, I am very much in love as I prepare for my coming marriage, I travel a lot, but rarely outside the state, and I am incredibly happy with my choice of career. And yet I am still unhappy. Why?
As I reflected on my life, I realized something. Sure, my situation is not as dramatic as the Coulter children, but we share an underlying problem. We have no roots. The ground is not secure beneath our feet. We are haphazardly floating through life, afraid to settle down. But why are we so afraid?
That was the question that haunted me. Why am I so afraid? And what am I so afraid of? Hannah Coulter provided me with my answer. I’m afraid to lay down roots because I know that I’m going to have uproot myself in a few years and I know that this will hurt. Like so many other people, I assume that it will be less painful to just float through these next few years and not to settle down, only to have to uproot myself later. I am afraid of the sharp pains of separation, the needle jab that will signal the closing of one chapter of my life and the opening of the next. I am afraid to have to leave behind another set of friends, to become attached to a community that I will inevitably leave. I am afraid of that pain. I have exchanged the sharp pain of a needle jab for the steady throb of a headache. Rather than acute pain that lasts a few days, weeks, or possibly months, I have chosen a dull pain that will last for years. I have chosen constant throbbing, hoping that I will eventually become numb to it, because I am too afraid of a broken bone that might take a few weeks or months to heal. I have chosen one pain over another, but either way I suffer.
I’ve begun to wonder if I made the right choice. Is it better to remain distant from others, knowing that I will have to leave them in a year or two (or they will leave me before I do)? Or would it be better to just lay down roots, even knowing that I will have to uproot myself again in a few years? I’m beginning to suspect that I chose wrong. I have not gotten used to the constant heartache. If anything, it has only gotten worse. I’ve realized that my dedication to my schoolwork and job have been a way to prevent myself from feeling anything. I have assumed that if I keep busy, I won’t realize just how much it hurts. I have sought distractions in every direction, and yet I have never for a moment lost sight of the heartache.
I’ve begun to wonder if I need to rethink my approach to life down in the nation’s capital. Yes, it is temporary. Yes, I will graduate in a few months. Yes, I will get married and my husband and I will get an apartment together for a little while. Yes, I will move away from this area (hopefully) in a few years. Neither Andrew nor I have any intention of staying down here any longer than we need to. We both want to be closer to our families, and neither one of us is well-suited for city life. In a very real way, I have left my roots up north. For now, they remain with my family in New Jersey, though I know that one day I will lay them in whatever place Andrew and I make our home. But this arrangement has caused me a great deal of grief. My heart is in one place, while the rest of me is in another. My heart is torn, and I struggle to find solace. This year has been a year of transition. I’m completing my education, though my heart is not in my schoolwork, but my job. I have a Maryland address, but I don’t have a home here. I am living with a family that were strangers not that long ago, going to school with acquaintances with whom I struggle to connect. I am overwhelmed, and the task of making new friends is daunting. I’m also apprehensive, since I know that many of these people will leave once we graduate. I am shy and slow to befriend people, and I am reluctant to give myself to a process that I find extremely stressful, especially when I know that my efforts will be thwarted by graduation in just a few months.
So what am I going to do? To be honest, I’m not 100% sure. There is no easy solution, no way to avoid all pain. I want to protect myself from unnecessary pain, but I also want to ease some of my recent suffering. I want to lay down roots here, but I’m reluctant to do it in a place that has never, and probably will never, feel like home to me. But there is one thing I do know: even if I have no particular place where I can lay down roots, there is a much more fertile soil in which I can plant my roots that is not completely connected to a place. I can lay my roots in a Person, from whom I will never need to uproot myself. I can also lay my roots in a person, in the hands of a man who holds my heart, with whom I will start a life in just a few short months. Despite all the uncertainties that I am now facing, there are two things of which I am confident: my heart will always belong to Jesus Christ, and He has entrusted it to the most caring, loving man I have ever met. Even if I cannot put down roots in the place where I currently live, which I will leave in just a few months, I will always find a home in his heart, and for that, I am grateful.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!