I just happened upon “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything” by Linda Holmes. It struck me as Lenten in tone, in the sense of learning to choose one good thing over another and learning to live in the balance of healthy grief and letting go.
It also fits with what I try to articulate in my book about approaching cultural goods and literacy as a Christian. I’ll pull in some significant quotes, but it’s worth reading here in its entirety.
there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.
Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”
Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read…. It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.
I carry around with me distinct memories of conversations with wonderfully engaged people who decided Christianity was not for them because they deemed heaven boring. If it literally consists of throwing down a single crown then standing around forever in a white robe, I’d have to agree. I think we’ll be free to come and go from the throneroom. I think the new heaven and the new earth will include all the best of the current heaven and earth – anything made with lasting value. The nations will bring their treasures, and we’ll wander the stacks in the Library at Alexandria and the galleries of the Hermitage, hit homers at Wrigley Field, do a little restoration work then catch some improv at the Globe Theatre, kick back at a Chinese movie palace, have falafel with Tolstoy, and meditate in the stone garden of Ryoanji.
I could see Ryoanji becoming one of Augustine’s favorite thinking spots.
Best of all we’ll have the freedom and time to enjoy these places and artifacts in perfect relationship with others and to make more wonders together. And when they inspire us to the classic prayer “Wow,” we’ll know we’re heard and by Whom. Any time someone applauds our efforts, we’ll head back to the throneroom with that spiffy new crown, pausing to play pick-up games of frisbee with it along the way to give others credit where due, toss it in the pile, and sing a spell. The ancient Greeks envisioned a placid eternity without novelty. Jesus comes to make all things new.
What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.
The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.
It’s an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful.
This sort of aggressive culling heightens culture war tensions in the unspoken name of self-protection; we cannot categorically dismiss hip hop or sci-fi or romantic comedy without communicating categorical dismissal of those who identify culturally with the genre. Pretty much anything you can’t be bothered with has changed another person’s life, and the larger that mental category, the truer that statement becomes. This is why I believe that Christians need to learn this balance of being discriminating without being discriminatory. We follow a Savior who came to break down the dividing walls of Jew and Greek, male and female, and so on. Adopting this vocabulary of culling and surrender would be preferable to us slamming entire swaths of culture because we heard somewhere they fail to edify. We could claim our preferences for Pixar over Saw franchises as personal choice rather than holy writ and ascribe our inabilities to enter and understand the worlds of Persian poetry, Japanese anime, and Grey’s Anatomy to our limited human resources of time and attention rather than defensively portraying them as unworthy of them. We can make choices and lament our limitations without making the world artificially small and manageable.
If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.
We’re human. We are always missing relatively everything. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We can celebrate that there is so much to miss, enjoy what we’ve been given, and look forward to more.