To Be Too Conscious

 “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.” –The Underground Man, Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man; over-consciousness can drive us to despair, to depression, to step heavily through each day to the beat of Ecclesiastes’ moans of meaninglessness and futility.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man, but they stop short of acknowledging that this “sickness” has the power to shake us from a zombie-like going through the motions, to push us to fix our eyes on God and eternity.

There are days that I am tempted to give in to the negative side of this “sickness,” when thoughts of life’s futility beckon me to despair. These are the days when I am content with blindness, choosing to scorn hope, not having faith that my immortal inclination in the face of death, death, death is the most human of states because it points to the truest truth.

I bite my lip as I examine the broad order of things, people scurrying to and fro like ants, building houses and advancing careers and endlessly consuming, unconscious that one misplaced step, one turn of the steering wheel could propel them into eternity. I see them distracting themselves from over-consciousness,

knowing that it will pierce them,

knowing it will kill them,

not realizing that the death of the meaningless will birth a life of meaning.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness- a real thorough-going illness.

I am told that I think too much, that life must be lived, that the order of things is the order of things. I am over-conscious, morbid, in constant awareness of my own mortality, of the mortality of others, of the insignificance of striving and ambition and trying to make one’s mark.

I long for meaning in a place where people seem set on ignoring meaning, where people seem content in pretending, in trying to force meaning into promotions and white picket fences.

I almost give into despair, then real meaning calls: his name is Christ, and I reach out in feeble faith.  Real meaning calls, and for now, no one on earth can squeeze my hand in understanding.  But the time that we hoard and coerce and try to stop is insignificant; I will blink and be seventy and blink again; the dream will have lived its life and I will wake up, rub my eyes, and finally see.

If over-consciousness is a sickness, then I wish this disease upon everyone, confident that its ache might direct them to the deeper cancer that needs to be purged to save their lives. Death and history chug along, and the unconscious walk off cliffs into hell with smiles on their faces. I know intimately that over-consciousness can lead to depression when it turns inward, when it narrows itself into the claustrophobia of self-consciousness.

But I know that an over-consciousness that looks outward to the infinite Creator is a vivid gift, filled with joy. Its sharpness tells me that mortality is a distortion of the original plan. Its depth tells me that we are not a mistake, but crafted in the image of God, each of us one of his poems. And its constant pulse tells me that there is purpose, and that purpose is to pursue a life that joyfully sings “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

A Psalm of Life

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.


It has been three months since I left Vladimir, but the memories are still as crisp as ever, and the chronicle of my time there just wouldn’t be complete without a reflection on my favorite day of the summer, an enchanting, vivid trek to the outskirts of town…
I dedicate this post to the friends who shared this unforgettable experience with me.
It was our last Sunday in Vladimir. The waning summer begged us to one last adventure, a journey to the pond where the boggy grass squishes under bare feet, water pooling and the ground shifting with every soft step. We swam and laughed and ate, all the while taking photographs to make the moment seem less mortal. I sit on the shore now, muscles stretched, pond water soaking through my old pink t-shirt, and I think I am content. My friends jump into the water again despite the shiver that the setting August sun has birthed, and I resist until I see them crawl onto a mound of dirt rising out of the pond in the distance. From some almost-forgotten dimension, childhood pulls me. My blood turns to fiery life and some long lost, gleeful little girl says “now!”

I jump into the laughing water, crispness engulfing my raw, rosy body, and I am young again. At twenty one years I somehow find myself grey inside, aged and arthritic for my striving and chasing mirages, ambition clouding my vision and melancholy clouding my mind. But now, I race through the magic water, chilly breaths shooting ecstasy into my lungs, the sky breathing softly on my face, January-cold twinges in the brown, organic lake lighting my feet with tingles of life.

The island oozes odorous dirt and rotting grass into the deep water as I pull myself up. My heart giggles and I am transformed into the five year old eager to muddy my skin by any means possible, to feel the earth at its most intimate touch. I used to come inside on hot summer days, painted in brown, grinning, content and more alive than life itself. Mom learned not to be surprised by my need for the dirt, the sensory abandon to something that lauded life beyond rules and structure and trying to be good.

I fall here now in an old brown bathing suit and embrace the island, letting the muddy mixture massage my skin. The constraints of consciousness are broken and all is sharp, clear and stunning: He never meant for me to grow up into the fragile senility of sin. Surely I am in Eden right now, innocent and intoxicated with a love that is not diluted and distorted by days trod to the rhythm of Ecclesiastes, the hopelessness of being small and insignificant and aging by the day. Here, His voice boldly caresses my ears with what I’ve always known in a vague whisper, in a displaced, misplaced love letter: that I am nothing, and that my nothingness makes His love that much more matchless.

I stand up and grin and pick up a wad of my chosen weapon; earth crawls under my nails. The war begins, and soon grenades are launched and twelve hands are spinning in joyful mischief. Each splatter of mud melts my mask, and I become clean, shining and whole. I fall and bathe once again, pale white skin washed and renewed by lovely soil, chunks of the island tangling in my wild hair. All I have striven for is eclipsed in this messy perfection that hints at heaven. Beauty surrounds me, beauty is breathed into me and I am Eve before the fall. He colors me with deft painter’s strokes; He makes me beautiful, and no constricting dress or wobbly heels could compare to this lovely living wet earth. He adorns me with freedom, and I now know love from the eyes of a vibrant little girl, screaming “Daddy, Daddy, watch me!”