Lent is a season that brings us full face with the Great Paradox: To live, I must die. It is a supreme spiritual truth meant not to paralyze us, but to prompt us to ponder: “In dying, how should I live?”
In the last few years, the hanging statement, “Before I die I want to ______,”popping up on walls and billboards from Beijing to Brooklyn, prompts passersby to do the same.
Artist Candy Chang created the first wall in 2011 after the loss of a loved one to help her focus on what is important. Her wider hope was to create a space for people to pause, reflect, and share what matters most to them.
And share, they have.
Thousands of people have jotted their bucket list items on over 500 walls in thirty languages and seventy countries.
As one might expect, the want-tos range from the frivolous (“get a tattoo”) to the fanciful (“end poverty”); from the prankish (“punch a clown”) to the profound (“invent something”); from the horrific (“witness a murder”) to the heart-rending (“forget what it feels like to take a life”); and from the puerile (“not be a virgin”) to the poignant (“reconnect with my dad”).
Most express the desire for experiences and accomplishments, like “meet Justin Bieber” or “skydive” (numerous entries). Others express the longing to be happy, find love, or to become a star, millionaire, or professional athlete. On a wall in my hometown, entries include “buy a boat,” “marry my partner,” and “be cured” (of?).
Few betray the desire for a change in behavior or character, as does this refreshing example: “to love and serve my wife unconditionally.”
A Curious Visitor
That said, there is nothing wrong with most of these things. Many are decent and well-intentioned, some admirable and praiseworthy, and most I suspect—even the “buy a boat” variety—reflect a deep existential yearning.
Yet, with nothing but these walls to go by, an extraterrestrial visitor would be hard pressed to conclude that earthlings have any higher aspirations than to accumulate stuff, undertake experiences, and achieve emotional satisfaction during their fourscore existence.
If our ET was prompted to observe how we actually live, I fear his impression would be largely unaffected. And if he was further prompted to delve into our past, he would learn how little we’ve changed over the course of history. He might even come across the autobiography of a king whose catalog of achievements exceeded the ambitions of all but the most outlandish bucket lists scrawled on those 500 plus walls.
The Book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon’s quest for meaning. Imagining it could be found in self-indulgence and material gain, the king pursued projects, pleasure, possessions, power, and partying with relentless passion and purpose. And he succeeded. Not only did he amass wealth, complete projects, exercise power, acquire knowledge and bed women with unrivalled proficiency, he could claim without overstatement, “I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.”
You could say that Solomon was a man who had seen it all, done it all, and been it all. Yet, the sum of “it all” added up to be pretty weak tea. Instead of the existential satisfaction he had hoped to find, his action-figure life left him empty, despairing over the meaninglessness of human striving.
I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s introduction to Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s classic work, The Soul of the Apostolate (1961 edition). There Merton writes,
The great problem of the modern world is the problem of rush, confusion, preoccupation with all those endless and profoundly absorbing activities which alienate man from himself, distract him from God, and plunge him into a maelstrom in which it is no longer possible for him to retain his full stature as a free and rational human being, made in the image and likeness of God.
Bracing words, those, especially considering that Merton wrote them over fifty years ago. But there’s more.
Merton notes that the frenzy of our activity-driven culture, with its run-on list of have-tos, got-tos, need-tos, and want-tos, subjects us to a soft tyranny, that in its soul-crushing effect is little different from the hard tyranny of political despotism.
For “what does it matter,” Merton asks, “whether we are systematically brainwashed by a police state or more painlessly and more gently alienated from reality by the pressures of a society of consumers and prestige hunters if in the end the result is the same—the ‘loss of our soul,’ the loss of our integrity, of our freedom to seek God in meditation and prayer?”
Merton concludes, “Our great tragedy is the loss of that inner rest and peace without which we can hardly recover any awareness of the divine presence.” Pause on that for a moment; we’ll come back to it.
As I browsed the walls on Chang’s website, I wondered how I would fill in one of those empty spaces. What would I say is my most important want-to this side of eternity: write an apologetic classic, a la Mere Christianity; lead ten, twenty, a hundred people to Christ; launch a new “Great Awakening”…?
Several entries I came across were particularly thought-provoking, like this: “be a Christian.” I imagined it written by a believer who, acknowledging the yawning gap between his profession and practice, is moved to become a true Christ follower. Hmm.
Then there was, “know that my life brought glory to God,” reminding me that the true measure of my life isn’t what it says about me, but what it says about my Creator. A reminder I need too often.
“Be all God has called me to be,” was another reminder that it is not what I accomplish, but whom I become—a faithful servant of God, an image-bearer of his Son—that matters most. Another thing I am accustomed to lose sight of.
But when I read, “know God” on a wall in Baltimore, Maryland, I thought, “That’s it!” From Jesus’ lips we learn that knowing God is the stuff of “eternal life,” a life that begins in the here and now and continues for all eternity, a long view mostly lacking on the Chang walls.
Returning to Merton, the soft tyranny of action and distraction—things not lacking on those walls—turns our minds inward on ourselves, our situation, and how we can manipulate things to escape or improve our lot. Our resultant loss of tranquility is a “great tragedy” not of itself but, as Merton suggests, because it inhibits our awareness of, our intimacy with, our knowing God.
King Solomon learned that the hard way. After expending untold time, treasure, and talent to acquire all the world had to offer, he found that lasting significance is not found in something, but someone. The apostle Paul came to the same conclusion, albeit, on a different path.
Whereas, Solomon pursued meaning through materialistic achievement, young Paul (as Saul) sought it through religious advancement. Like Solomon, Saul achieved success with his star cresting high in the firmament of his religious community. But also like Solomon, Saul discovered it was success that failed to satisfy—gain, the mature Paul called, “loss” and “garbage.” Paul went on, revealing how he might have completed one of those “Before I die” sentences.
After trashing his former achievements, Paul writes that his Number One yearning is to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection”… to the point of “sharing in his sufferings.” It is a longing, he discloses, that is largely unrealized thirty years after his Damascus Road encounter.
Paul’s all-surpassing desire, after three decades of experiencing God in revelation and service, speaks volumes to the inexhaustible riches of the “in Christ” life. It also speaks to the uncommon vision and faithfulness of Paul.
I’m starting to think that before I die, I want to be a Paul.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Apostle Paul” painted by Rembrandt, ca. 1633.