I’ll never forget that moment.
I stood on a pebbled shoreline in my swim trunks, my toes drowning in two inches of water so cold, it burned. I’d taken a few guys rock climbing in the Canadian Shield, a topographical playground in North Eastern Ontario. The day was hot. Skinned knuckles, burning forearms, and sweat-streaked faces had earned us a refreshing swim—but that early in the year, the lakes have lost their ice cap but haven’t warmed up yet. At all.
As we arrived on shore a swimmer just emerging from his own polar dip warned us, through a shivering grin, not to let our chest cavity stay submerged too long. “You’ll go into shock,” he explained, chattering.
Watching the youth guys plunge headlong into the icy challenge a minute later, I was struck by their reckless abandon… and my immobility. I stood paralyzed, desperate to give it a try but losing an inner battle with voices hellbent on eroding my vitality.
“This is dumb anyways. You don’t have to do this.”
“That’s waaaaay too cold, man.”
“You have nothing to prove.”
“You’re getting too old for this. Let the kiddies play.”
I think it was some version of that last line that finally broke the siren’s spell. God whispered something then—no, shouted, really: You’re choosing to die.
I don’t want to die any more than you do, so I did it. I lunged into the icy water, high stepping until I was deep enough to manage a shallow dive, and threw myself under the mocking surface. I may not have anything to prove, but I have a lot to lose.
It hurt. A lot. Every nerve ending in my body screamed at me like a thousand violin orchestra screeching out of tune.
But I was alive. So alive. The risk, the pain, the stupidity, the victory—it was glorious.
The Bible teaches that death isn’t so much a moment as it is a habit, a habit of rejecting life little by little. Choosing bitterness over forgiveness is choosing to die a little. Choosing cowardice over courage is choosing to die a little. Choosing to cheat instead of being faithful is choosing to die a whole bunch.
I’ve thought about that moment many times since then. Especially on days like today, when I feel spent and want to curl up in a little ball to shut out the world. I’m not talking about rest and restoration, which is vital. I’m talking about the thousand little ways we pull the plug on good things, withdrawing our passion, withholding our best, and checking out without paying rent.
Not all choices feel as stark as the one I faced on the shoreline. Most days seem like slight variations of the same repetitive pattern, and it’s tempting on days like those to slip into an Ecclesiastes-esque pity party about the meaninglessness of life. I believe the book of Ecclesiastes has been included in scripture more as book of folly than a book of wisdom, much like some of David’s Psalms are authentic peeks at a soul in torment and darkness. Most of Solomon’s conclusions there don’t jive with the rest of scripture, which should tip us off that something is amiss. What was amiss, among other things, is that Solomon had made a thousand little choices to die a little bit at a time. When he finally looked in the mirror he concluded, to his horror, that life was a gaping void. But just because his life had become an exercise in chasing the wind doesn’t mean ours has to be.
It’s a tale more chilling than my little swim in the lake—that even the wisest mortals can be duped, one decision at a time, into trading their God-given life for an empty shell.
I will close with a quote I used last week, because I’m not done with it yet:
“But he who would be born again indeed, must wake his soul unnumbered times a day, and urge himself to life with holy greed; Now ope his bosom to the Wind’s free play; And now, with patience forceful, hard, lie still, submiss and ready to the making will, athirst and empty, for God’s breath to fill.”
~ George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
I choose life. What about you?