• Aarik Danielsen

The Next Decade

I turned 41 last month, and my hands instinctively adopted a wringing motion.


Forty-one seized me by the shoulders and shook me harder than 40 ever dreamed. Perhaps this qualifies as a strange phenomenon; not for me. Thirty-one, supposedly quieter and more anticlimactic, felt critical in a different way than 30. These birthdays represent the difference between knocking on a door, then crossing its threshold, and standing in the center of a room, knowing you’re supposed to do something.


Each decade arrives with its own expectations, a to-do list of items you recognize in handwriting that doesn’t always resemble your own. If you traveled my Christian college circles, someone handed you a blueprint, hot to the touch like sacred writ. Your twenties involved gathering the pieces of a life: a calling, a spouse, perhaps a kid or two. Turn 20 and the clock starts ticking; turn 21 to give an account for how you spent that first year.


Your thirties—according to the blueprint—meant pouring wet concrete, sealing in everything you gathered. Stabilize the marriage; become a leader in your field; and, by God, bear those children if you haven’t yet.


 
The blueprint, of course, remains itself; the opposite of a living, breathing document. Its nature forbids adapting with your changing mind, grieving alongside your missteps or mishaps, taking a couple days off to question its own soundness.
 

The blueprint, of course, remains itself; the opposite of a living, breathing document. Its nature forbids adapting with your changing mind, grieving alongside your missteps or mishaps, taking a couple days off to question its own soundness. It only gives directions, and cannot abide words or phrases that make their own quiet demands: infertility, divorce, disappointment, packing up, and starting over.


Rubbing my eyes, I take a sober gaze at my twenties and thirties. I made passing grades by someone’s standards. But the pieces arrived on their own time, in haphazard arrangements.


Sifting the past two decades, I thank God for people, places, and things; for moments that brought clarity and definition in ways no blueprint ever could. Something else enters my field of vision, though, and the holiest work I can possibly do is to avoid looking away.


Within each ten-year span, I see milestones and millstones, people I loved honorably, and distinct bands of others I injured. My early twenties left a trail of wounded women, far more than an entire decade should hold. Entitlement and insecurity worked their way through me, making their presence felt in inflated gestures and red-eyed accusations.


In the name of counting myself among history’s greatest lovers, I promised what I couldn’t guarantee; and dressed down girls for failing to ensure my happiness.


Through those years, I also stepped hard on the toes of people who dared to love what I looked down upon. Taking my cues from the record clerks and purists in Nick Hornby’s novels (now, at 41, I see how he penned them as cautionary tales), I became a low-fidelity friend.


Declaring louder allegiances to artists than the people before me, I moralized rock music and independent films, leaving others little space to fill with their own means of delight. Push hard on someone’s loves and you push them away—this truth came home a little too late.


 
Sighing till it becomes my breathing pattern, I look around the newest room I’ve entered. Who will I hurt most in my forties?
 

In my thirties, responsibility and understanding failed to keep stride. I lived life as a spiritual guide yet lacked full-bodied definitions of authority and trauma, clear lines between when to listen and when to speak. I pushed ever-so-gently, but still bent bruised reeds till they drooped low.


Sighing till it becomes my breathing pattern, I look around the newest room I’ve entered. Who will I hurt most in my forties? Obvious candidates present themselves.


My son—so soft and stainless. Shame rarely settles upon a child all at once, like an ill-fitting suit to tug at and wiggle inside. Rather it beads up like sweat until the soul is soaked through. My words and very countenance hold so much potential energy—to raise the temperature a few degrees at a time, or create an atmosphere for him to relax into.


My wife of 17 years—the best person I know. A marriage this age often houses two people inching backward into their own corners, or flailing for relevance outside themselves. Without splitting the atom of your love into verbs, the drift is bound to come. Will I reach for myself or toward her?


And as I situate—ever uncomfortable, ever reforming myself—within God’s church, I envision causing damage every which way. Taking swings at the people who once taught me, flinching in the shadows of brothers and sisters who arrive to liberate us all from our heavy burdens.


Sometimes I eavesdrop as the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka calls George Bernard Shaw over to their table, buying him a round. Throwing their arms around each other, they sing, “I realize that youth is wasted on the young. Oh, I know that I have wasted more than some.”


Sitting back in my chair, I wonder What do more mature men waste?


Perhaps the work of my forties is shaking off whatever the damn blueprint commands, instead repeating four words as a creed: “First, do no harm.” What would it mean, at the death of this decade, to strain my eyes to find someone—anyone—I harmed? What would it take to live without leaving another ten years of emotional and spiritual scars?


 
At home and in the world, perhaps it involves embracing novelist Richard Powers’ words: “The only dependable things are humility and looking.”
 

At home and in the world, perhaps it involves embracing novelist Richard Powers’ words: “The only dependable things are humility and looking.”


Might I learn the lessons of Hornby’s opinionated young men—only in reverse, relishing my personal tastes and pet theologies without imposing them upon others.


As I tiptoe through the garden with God, tending the soil around my own soul, may I cultivate a theology that identifies—then identifies with—the least of these in every situation.


And let me disabuse myself of the myths I follow. Well-intentioned pastors and bad-faith actors tell us how often love hurts before it heals. There’s truth there somewhere—Jesus wounds like a friend. I’m just not sure it ever really works that way between you and me; my wounds are far too often faithless.


The pursuit of diminished harm doesn’t shy away from hard truths but elevates a truth too easily neglected. When Christ comes to bind up wounds today, he does so through his people.


Don’t let your eyes deceive you: none of these sentences end in periods, but with question marks. I cannot fathom looking back at 50 and finding a decade free from harm. But God give me grace enough to try.


And I want to avoid harm when writing to you. This week, author Shira Erlichman tweeted about “writing as an invitation for the unimaginable to appear, rather than writing as a way to prove that I know what I know.” Writing without trying to prove or imprint myself, I trust we will make space together for the unimaginable to appear, to grow toward healing, and not lean into harm.


People speak of certain inevitabilities—among them, the hardening of our hearts as we age. Somehow at 41, my beliefs feel quieter and smaller than at 31 or 21. And tonight I only know one prayer: let me become even softer, and live softly with everyone.



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