Thoughts in the middle of a wakeful night can go down strange, irrational paths. After a night like this, in the welcome light of day, I’m either tremendously relieved, or laughing at myself, or both. But lately the world seems to be getting more and more precarious, held together by very thin threads, and some of these thoughts no longer seem irrational.
Here’s an example. What would we do if there was suddenly no toilet paper? It’s a humble unmentionable, taken for granted, but we depend on it. Say the entire world economy collapses, true to the dire warnings, and manufacturing ceases. Or there’s some sort of natural or man made disaster, and trucks can’t run. And even if they did, possibly the food trucks would get through ahead of the toilet paper trucks. That is, if there was any fuel left. You see where this is going. We are advised to stockpile necessities in case of a catastrophic event, but even those would run out eventually. Especially since those squeezably soft rolls have shrunk in the last few years. Have you noticed how narrow they are, and how much extra spindle hangs out the sides when you replace the roll?
In my parents’ childhoods Sears Roebuck, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward catalogs lived a second life in the outhouse as – you guessed it – toilet paper. You could customize your illustrations of women’s fashion or draperies by crumpling and re-crumpling the page to your preferred level of softness. But those catalogs are gone forever. This is the downside of online shopping. It’s left us with no toilet paper substitute in a disaster.
Here’s another train of thought, one that can overtake me night or day. I’ve already resigned myself to the truth that aging will gradually rob me of roles and abilities that I now have. Already the empty nest has redefined me, along with having grandchildren, and losing a job. A mixture of good and bad, altering me from what I was ten years ago. But at the core, I’m still me. I still want to have significance and purpose.
In my systematic reading of the Psalms I’ve reached Number Seventy-One. It’s David’s prayer for God’s help against his enemies who gleefully watch his strength slowly seeping away, and are eager to end his life for him. David laments his circumstances, then pleads with God to keep him alive for a very specific purpose:
“O God, from my youth you have taught me,
And I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
Until I declare your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come.”
As far as I know, nobody is lying in wait to end my life. My enemies are more along the lines of self doubt, fear of the future, and lack of trust in God’s ability to keep me useful. So David’s request grabs me. Don’t downsize me, God. Don’t minimize my ability to make you known to the slice of the world I inhabit, in the circumstances you’ve ordained for me.
I miss the energy and the limitless possibilities of my twenties, the sense of having lots of time to do lots of things. I don’t like this new feeling of needing to cram things in before I run out of time. And I don’t like bucket lists because I don’t want to think about the bucket. But an over-emphasis on squeezing in experiences I want to have, or focusing on having a place of significance in the world, isn’t the right approach. Instead I should recalibrate my thinking to the idea of leaving a legacy of service, love, and conveying God’s power to those who come after me.
John the Baptist comes to mind. When it was pointed out to him that some of his disciples were now following Jesus, he replied that Jesus was the bridegroom, and he himself was a friend of the bridegroom. Jesus was the one to follow. “He must increase,” John said, “and I must decrease.” John knew what was what. He fulfilled his mission to the end, spending his last days in Herod’s dungeon before he was beheaded. Probably not the ending he aspired to, but the one God gave him.
Back to toilet paper. Here’s the quote that, in some odd way, inspired this post: “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.” Indeed.
I can’t stop the unrolling. I can’t even slow it down. But in my dead-of-night wakefulness I have an opportunity to direct my tired, irrational mind toward the many needs of my family, church, community and world, to ask God to show me ways to be light in dark places. Because as my life unrolls, I want to make it count, down to the last shred. Like John the Baptist. And like Jesus.