On Living and Warring
Years ago one of my sisters got lost for several days while hiking in the mountains. There was a massive search which culminated in her being rescued via a helicopter from the middle of a river several miles from where she had gone missing. Thankfully, she didn’t suffer anything more than dehydration and some trench foot from the experience. But when I spoke with her after it was all over she told me something which I’ve thought of often over the years. She explained that at several points as she wandered the mountains* trying to find her way to civilization she decided to give up. She was going to die on the mountain and that was just all there was to it. So she’d sat down to die and . . . didn’t die. Because you can’t just decide to die. It doesn’t work like that. After a bit she’d start thinking about people she loved and the reality that death wasn’t going to just take her on command would sink in. So she’d get back up and start moving forward again.
I’ve thought of that often over the years when I’ve reached a point in my life where I found myself saying, “I can’t do this anymore!” Because the truth is that it doesn’t matter how miserable I was, how much I wallowed in despair or how desperately I wanted to give up, my heart just kept right on beating and my lungs kept right on sucking air. The sun came up and went back down just the same. More times that I can count I’ve said “I can’t do this” but time always proves me wrong. I declare myself done and commit to refusing to help myself and refuse all comfort and then the moment passes. Something in me compels me to get back up and start moving forward again.
Recently I watched a movie called The Old Guard which centers on a small group of immortals who spend their time on earth fighting battles in support of what they believe is good. We learn that they’re immortals early in the movie, when they walk into an ambush and end up riddled with hundreds of bullets. They all lay on the ground with horrific wounds, dead. For maybe a minute. And then their bodies start to knit themselves back together into wholeness, literally expelling the bullets out of themselves onto the ground around them as they heal. And then they got up and killed the stunned assailants who shot them. And I’ll tell you, I have never felt so seen in my life. Because that’s exactly what it’s like. You take the hit – the wounds are horrific and painful and then . . . you heal. Even if you’d rather just stay dead. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something in me and probably you as well that just won’t or can’t stop going.
In the movie the main character has been an immortal for longer than anyone knows. And she’s tired of it. She’s spent literal millennia fighting battles on the side of good and against evil yet when she looks around her, all she sees is the sorry state of humanity. “The world can burn for all I care. I’m done,” she says to her fellow immortals. “We’ve done nothing! The world isn’t getting any better! It’s getting worse!” And boy, did I feel that.
And yet . . .
In the movie, there’s a very smart dude who has figured out the immortals’ secret. I don’t recall if they explain how in the movie, but something clued him off that these people have been around much longer than any mortals ever could be. And he went looking for evidence of their presence throughout history. There are old legends and myths to start, but with the advent of photography, he’s able to start assembling actual proof of their presence at various points in human history. Battles where they stepped in and shifted the balance of a fight away from some brutal dictator or destructive ideology. Times when lives were saved from certain death. And other lives were taken to stop them from doing worse than they’d already done.
The immortals had always come in, done their work and left. But as he searched for evidence of their existence in the past, this man who had figured out their secret would take the time to find out what happened in the aftermath an event they’d been involved in. What the people left behind had done with the gift they were given. He mapped out the connections between lives saved and the good those people – or their descendants – would go on to do. Inventions and medical breakthroughs and social movements and freedom won and even just simple lives of service to families and healing across generations. An entire web of goodness made possible by the interventions of these immortals.
When I watched the movie, I was very much in a similar state of mind as the main character. I had told a friend not long before that I felt like an old, battle weary general who has been fighting and leading in what seems like a never ending war and is just tired of it. He isn’t even sure the king isn’t crazy or is worth fighting for anymore. And yet, after a lifetime of warring he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. No other way seems better. So he just keeps following orders and leading the charge and half hoping that maybe this next battle will finally take him out. War – even when it’s “just” spiritual – gets old. And in the middle of a battle that seems likely to destroy everything gained in all the previous battles, it all starts to feel very, very pointless and reckless.
Like the immortals, I may recover from the painful wounds incurred in the battle, but they still hurt like hell. And even when you have full confidence that you’ll survive, it still takes commitment and resolve to keep living according to an ethos of service to God and man knowing that you’re going to get hit again and again and again in the process.
But when I watched the movie and saw the explanation of the impact of the immortals’ work over the course of time, it hit me, as it sometimes does, that as much as I sometimes hate my life and the constant warring that so often seems to engulf me, I love us – humanity – more. Much like the immortals, I have this tendency to drop into people’s lives in a moment of crisis, do what I do and then move on without seeing what happens in the aftermath. But I know that there’s a little girl in the slums of Bangalore with my name because her mother heard tales of things I, some crazy lady far away, did for others in her community. There are young adults in Pakistan who have full use of their bodies because of medical care I – sometimes with my readers’ help – helped arrange for them. There are people who didn’t commit suicide and others who didn’t abandon their faith and families that have held together because of something I said or did. Among other things. And Lord only knows the fruit of things I’ve done that I never even saw a hint of. It’s not stuff I go around banging my chest and bragging about, but the impact I’ve had on people’s lives is real. Even when I don’t see it or know about it.
For me to give into bitterness, to decide to quit and say it’s not worth it to live the way I have would be to say that the people whose lives I’ve impacted aren’t worth it. And I can’t do that. Of course they’re worth it. You’re worth it. I’m worth it. And so I carry on. So we all carry on. And really, what else is there to do? Even the immortals in the movie will die eventually. If we have to be here, we might as well use our time and whatever gifts we’ve been given to help each other out. Because there will be people coming after us who deserve a world much better than the one we get when those of us who serve God and each other don’t show up.
*Just a note – if you ever get lost in the wilderness, sit yo ass down. Don’t wander around. It makes you MUCH harder to find. If my sister had just stopped and stayed in one place when she realized she was lost, she almost certainly would have been found within the first 24 hours instead of days later.