Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts on my Thirty-sixth Year

Last week, I turned thirty-six. The last year or so - perhaps the last two years - have been filled with events that have given me plenty of food for thought.

First of all, I have had three friends, including one near my age, fight cancer. The husband of another friend has terminal brain cancer, and will eventually leave behind teenage children. A longtime friend at church passed on to glory last year in her nineties, while the wife of another friend died unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Several colleagues are with us no more, and and already this month, we lost two more volunteers in senior care that I knew and respected. As I get older, my parents’ generation has started to have health issues, and even those of my own age have had increasing signs that we aren’t what we used to be. I am feeling my own mortality a bit right now. None of us really know how much time we have left, but that fact is less apparent when one is a twenty-something. "For all the flesh is as the grass."

I have found myself re-evaluating a few theological issues as a result. It is easy to be sure what you believe as a young person with little life experience - and I probably have been cocky and self assured. Life and death experiences make much of that seem trivial and counterproductive. My family spent some time in a highly legalistic cultic organization when I was in my late teens and early twenties. My wife spent most of her teen years in a similar group. The focus was on searching the scriptures for an ever increasing number of rules to follow and enforce on others. If a clear directive couldn’t be found, it was inferred from texts taken out of context and often in contradiction its own plain meaning. All this to earn God’s favor, and guarantee some form of material and spiritual success. What naturally came from this was the attitude of “Thank God I am not like other men.”

My journey away from this mess probably started in earnest after September Eleventh, when I realized that these ultra-conservative sects resembled radical Islam with its crippling rules, emphasis on authority and roles, obsession with women's bodies, and intolerance of other viewpoints. The last couple of years have pushed me further away as a result of the pain, grief, and tragedy that my friends have undergone. In the legalistic world, their suffering is the result of some sin or failure in their lives. If I still followed that path, I should be blaming those suffering for their own pain, and calling on them to repent. Instead, I believe that I am called to lend them a hand and try to help ease burdens, rather than increase them.

On a much lighter note, my increasing age has been the impetus for me to take advantage of opportunities while I still can. I have always enjoyed physical activity, despite my short stature and utter lack of athleticism. My brother encouraged me to take up soccer at age thirty, and I have played on his league team since then with enthusiasm, if not exactly with skill.

More recently, my lovely wife talked me into running. Our goal was to run the Volkslauf together. For those unfamiliar with it, the Volkslauf is a combination run and military style obstacle course race put on by the Marines each year here in Bakersfield. So, in my thirty-sixth year, we ran it together.

Other firsts include my first ten kilometer race back in July, and the hike to Half Dome. I think it is fair to say that I am in the best physical condition of my life, despite a few creaky joints. I am grateful for every day that I am healthy and able to work up a good sweat. And I am even more grateful for every hike in the wilderness with my children.

I also should mention a few birthday gifts that may later be featured in this blog:

1. The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman

This book, written in the 1840s, tells of the young Parkman’s travels on the first third of the Oregon Trail. My wife found this for me in a used hardback edition. (This is our favorite way to collect books. We rarely buy new.)

2. What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland

I am guessing from the description that this book is oriented toward the avid, but not musically trained listener. It will be interesting to read Copland’s perspective on the art of listening to classical music.

3. We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing by James C. Whittaker

My wife found this at the library for all of ten cents. (We love bargains.) It is the story of the survivors of an airplane crash in the Pacific Ocean in 1942. It should be an interesting read.

4. Hatchet, The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt by Gary Paulsen

I read Hatchet some years ago, but have not read the others, which are essentially sequels. These quality hardback editions were a gift from my in-laws. Since these books are geared toward younger readers, I expect that I will be reading them with the kids. 


  1. 1.If only you could read and review bargain hardback books while running, you'd be all set.

    2. My tidy theology is much more amorphous than it was when I was younger, too.

    3. Mortality is definitely more real in the late thirties than in the twenties. But then, aren't we all kind of stupid in our twenties?

    4. I do like my thirties, but I have a daydream that in our later years, when kids are grown, we'll all have a Swanson-Jones-other-fun-friends gathering some weekend and enjoy a years-long friendship in person for once. :)

    5. Happy birthday! Loved the post.

    -- SJ

  2. We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing sounds REALLY interesting. Good pick, Amanda!

    Aging and facing death issues can definitely change theology (or solidify it). I was blessed with parents who thought as you do now about that group way back then. And when *I* asked to join it (I love rules!), they said no, citing the reasons you have given. They definitely helped shape the way I view the organization, although I can still find things to admire in it. Ultimately though, I have to purposefully steer away from it.

    The older I get, the more certain I am of God's sovereignty. Without that belief, life would have crumbled about a half dozen times by now. He is good always, even in our darkest hours and weakest moments!

    That all said, Happy Birthday again!

  3. I think "most" of my childhood is an exaggeration. I count 4-5 years. Mind you, it was from ages 13 to 18, so arguably more critical years.

    1. Thanks! I welcome corrections, as one set of eyes rarely catches everything.

  4. Happy belated birthday! Yes, I have often thought about how easy it is to feel invincible in your twenties. The thirties bring about more thoughts of mortality and, hopefully, more wisdom too.