This week, I learned more about life in five minutes than I have in 31 years. God and the universe gave me a precious and rare gift. A lesson so clear, so direct, so humbling, and so leveling that it shook and crumbled the weak foundation on which I had been living my life over the past few weeks.
My wife and I are in the throes of working full-time jobs while I am entrenched in the second semester of a Ph.D. program – all while raising our three-month-old baby boy, Tapley.
Leading up to this past Monday evening, I had the pedal to the floor trying to be the best Ph.D. student, the best at my job, the best dad, and the best husband I could be. I became so obsessed, that I started micromanaging my own life – even my so-called “free time.” I even stayed up late to make detailed, over-ambitious to-do lists for the next day.
I had started to believe in the human-created, material world-enabling illusion that I had direct control over my own life.
Archbishop William Temple once said, “your religion is what you do with your solitude.” It is clear, now, that my religion had quickly, and stealthily become myself.
Clear, now, because of a single laugh.
On Monday evening I arrived home from work at around 6 p.m. and quickly entered into the next bullet point on my to-do list, and my second life, being a Ph.D. student. I had a goal that I would read two chapters of a book on systems theory (and it is quite an interesting read!) before I even thought about going to bed.
Right when I got home, I mindlessly ate dinner, found my reading spot on the couch and started relentlessly plugging away.
Meanwhile, Tapley and my wife Erin had played, cuddled, and failed in multiple attempts to communicate with me – to which I nodded and stormed on with my to-do list.
Then, I looked up, and it was 7:30 p.m. – Tapley’s bedtime. I was not even finished with Chapter 1, when my wife said, “you should take a break.”
I mumbled some self-righteous thing and turned back to Chapter 1. Then, the miraculous happened.
Wedging itself between self-centeredness and the rest of my life was a thought: I had not held my own son that day.
I put my book down, and walked over to Tapley’s nursery where he was on his changing table getting ready for a bath. My wife saw me coming and quickly exited the room giving me some precious alone time with Tapley.
As I was looking down at him, he started acting in a way I had never seen over the past three months. He was squirming, contorting his face, and making gurgling sounds with a huge gum-revealing grin on his face.
Tapley had something he wanted to share.
As I started making some funny faces at him, all of his squirming and smiling built up and exploded in a big, amazing, and humbling belly-laugh.
Tapley had laughed for the first time…ever.
In my rush of excitement, I started yelling, “Erin! Erin! Come see this! He laughed! He laughed!” We quickly crowded around Tapley as he entertained us for 10 minutes just laughing, laughing, and laughing. Soon our two dogs came bounding into his room and as a family we enjoyed a rare moment of pure simplicity, pure togetherness, and pure love.
If you ever want a clear glimpse of heaven, watch a human being laugh for the first time.
As my wife put Tapley to bed that night, I had a few moments of solitude. In my solitude, I went back, sat down and looked at my systems theory book. Was my task-list, the symptom of my own worship of self-control, my religion?
Then, I stopped. I picked up my phone and re-watched the video of Tapley’s one and only first laugh. I re-watched it again, and again, and again. I saw it. I heard it.
In that moment, I was overcome with joy and crushed with humility.
On my last days on earth, I am not going to remember Chapter 1 of “A Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology” (although, really, it is a good read!). I am not going to reflect fondly over my salary, my job title, my piece of paper that says I am a “doctor.” I won’t weep over the moments of triumph from finishing an item on a to-do list, I won’t hope for my son to experience a sleep-deprived exercise of life planning. I won’t cherish my house, my cars, or that great meeting I ran.
I will, however, be eternally comforted by remembering that I saw a glimpse of what is come, of heaven, in my first child’s first expression of joy.
I will remember that had I not put down that book, that symbol of my self-worship, I would have missed this glimpse entirely and plunged deeper into my self-adoration.
This moment, like the sound of a fire alarm, got my attention.
What do you adore?
What do you live for?
Where has your illusion of control brought you?
The answers to these questions can be life-giving, as I have thankfully found this week.