Trying Too Hard
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When I was nine, my parents leased a horse for me at a small country stable outside Corvallis, Oregon. Cashmere was her name. The freedom to walk to the stable and ride her whenever I pleased was a new luxury and became the focus of my summer.
She was a young Arabian with a beautiful dark-bay coat, and she welcomed the strokes of riders as they passed her stall. She was also unpredictable and had her own ideas about how to spend her time when she was loose.
Every day I marched confidently into the grazing field, Cashmere’s red halter in hand, and called for her. Every day it was a struggle to get her to come. I’d spend the better part of an hour walking in circles, whistling, clucking my tongue, offering carrots, and shouting her name as she avoided me, throwing her head back and prancing away.
One day, after circling the field in sweaty frustration, I collapsed onto the dry grass and threw Cashmere’s halter after her. Why should I try so hard to catch a horse that had no interest in being caught? I closed my eyes to block out the sun and wondered if I should just give up trying to ride her.
When I opened my eyes, Cashmere was standing calmly in front of me, staring squarely into my wet eyes. I feigned disinterest to protect my pride. Then I screamed at her to leave, calling her a “stupid horse.” Still she stayed. I threw a broken carrot at her nose and missed, but she didn’t leave.
After that, I stopped commanding Cashmere and began listening to her. Instead of circling the field in an impatient fit, I sat quietly on the fence and drew in my sketchbook, ready with her halter and a pocketful of carrots. Eventually she would come.
There are moments in my life when I stop striving and relax. Sometimes I put the timer on for the pasta and just sit with a glass of wine and a book for those few minutes. Or I take the dog to the river and watch him run unleashed and then return to me, soaking wet, for a pat on the head and a biscuit. Some afternoons I lie down for a rest and awake disoriented, realizing I have drifted off to sleep.
But these are brief exceptions in a life defined by the effort to get everything right. I am trying hard to support three children who are almost adults, as well as a mentally ill relative who is just this side of homeless. At work I try to help my patients navigate the difficult world of urban poverty that they have been born into. At home I try to keep the house picked up and lose those ten extra pounds. I try to get along with my husband, whose baggage weighs as much as mine.
I know my life is good. My house (aside from the smell of wet dog) is comfortable and inviting. My children are loving and usually happy. My husband and I still hold each other close at night. But when the timer goes off, telling me that the spaghetti is done, I close my book and think about how far my savings would go on a Greek island: just a small room for me and a pile of books. I could let my hair turn whatever color it really is and let my waistline spread, my only company a few scrawny cats and some fishermen and the sound of the sea.
I work as a chaplain at a teaching hospital that offers charity care to indigent patients. On a daily basis I interact with the community’s poorest members, many of whom have no family, no insurance, and no financial support. I am a witness to the results of accidents, violence, social ills, unemployment, poverty, despair, failure, homelessness, and just plain old bad luck.
“Trust in God, but lock your car” has become my working theology. I strive to live in such a way as to avoid becoming like the people I encounter at work. I exercise, eat well, pursue a graduate degree, write thank-you notes, and never turn down an opportunity to preach or teach — always with an eye out for the trapdoor that might open underneath me. I realize that these efforts, though worthwhile, are only futile attempts to outrun entropy, and that by trying to control my life I am displaying a conspicuous lack of trust in God. I also understand that all my efforts in no way insulate me from suffering, loss, and pain.
The irony is, the harder I seek to rise above the human condition, the more obviously bound to it I am. With all of my foolish philosophizing and theologizing, I am merely sounding an off-key note in God’s symphony, like a rusty saxophone bleating out of tune.
Luke G. Heibel
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