Thursday, October 3, 2002

October, 2002: Oh Yeah, Life goes on....

Little ditty about Jack and Diane. Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland.  John Mellencamp’s popular song makes me uneasy. Whenever it comes on the radio as I’m making the bed or driving the kids to school, I stop and listen. And the refrain that comes shortly after that famous beginning always startles me. Makes me swallow hard. Makes me bite my lip and check to see if it is true for me yet.
            Oh yeah, life goes on,
 Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
            Part of me wants to believe there is no truth to the lyric at all — that life gets more exciting the older you get, with the golden years — not the teenage ones — topping out as the best. But another part of me hears the reality in the lines. There is something unequivocally thrilling about being young. I see it in my own children. My son, Liam, 4, actually starts to bounce when he is offered sprinkles on his vanilla ice cream cone, and Jacob, 7, yowls in delight at the announcement of a family walk to the park. Children’s developmental changes between birth and young adulthood mean that every year they’re doing things they’ve never done before, whether it’s riding a two-wheeler or catching a football or kissing someone for the first time.
And even if they’ve had ice cream with sprinkles or walks to the park before, they’ve surely not had them hundreds of times. They’re in their first round of these little treats. And that’s why it’s thrilling.
Parents have the privilege of some vicarious thrills. Listening to Jacob read his first book, beginning to end, would fall into the ‘thrilling’ category for me. And anyone with a toddler knows the oddly victorious feeling that comes from witnessing the first tinkle on the potty.
While experiencing second-hand thrills through my children is undoubtedly one of the sweetest parts of parenting, Mellencamp’s song reminds me I need to be careful not to allow these second-hand thrills to become my only thrills. My husband and I need to have thrills that are ours alone. And in the midst of a house littered with the socks, toys and grubby fingerprints of small boys, it can seem like personal thrills come few and far between.
Oh yeah, life goes on,
Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
 One reason that childhood and adolescence are arguably more thrilling than adulthood is that children are not allowed to stay in one place for long. First grade is replaced by second and J.V. becomes varsity. Change is a regular part of the life of a child or teen, and change automatically brings challenge. And thrills.
Adults don’t have the luxury of someone else moving us along. Whether or not we stay in a job that’s comfortable, but too easy, is our own decision. The ruts we often fall into — cooking the same spaghetti recipe every Monday, sticking with the same hobbies or exercise plan, even praying the same way we’ve always prayed — are ours to keep if we choose. While no one would allow a child to remain in kindergarten a few years because she doesn’t want to replace finger painting with reading and math, few question an adult’s choice of comfort over challenge. But the decision not to change or challenge ourselves is what makes the lyric of this song come true.
Oh yeah, life goes on,
Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
We have a magic marker sign, made by Jacob, taped to our pantry door. It says, “Holy Spirit, Help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus.” It’s decorated with three crosses, a couple stars and yellow zigzags.
That sign has become a prayer to me as well as a challenge. It’s also the closest thing I have to a rebuttal to Mellencamp’s refrain. By definition, you can’t be either strong or brave if you’re not doing something difficult. And conquering the difficult is always thrilling.
Jacob’s carefully drawn words of  “Help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus” remind me that living as a Christian should be thrilling, because Jesus’ way is very different from what is easy and ordinary. The sign tells me that during those times when I wonder if the thrills are fading, I need to delve deeper into what bravery and strength mean in terms of Christianity.
I know a couple who, in their early thirties, left stable jobs and took their two young children to Tanzania, Africa, for a couple years of volunteer work. Another couple I know — with five children — regularly opens their home to poor women and their children who need a hot meal or a temporary place to stay.  No worry about the “thrill of livin’” leaving anytime soon for these two families.
Every thrill starts with fear. The thrilling moment comes when we break through that fear — the moment we decide: “I’m terrified, but I’m going forward anyway.” 

And when this decision to go forward despite fear is applied to following the teachings of Jesus — to loving others, to standing up for justice, to serving the poor — we become both brave and strong. We become people alive with the thrill of Gospel living.