Late last week, Ashley and I drove to Auburn to pick up our gently used pop-up camper (translation: temporary housing). After hitching the camper up, we decided to get some dinner. Well, what restaurant in Auburn has a parking lot large enough to accommodate a truck with a camper in tow? Only one I could think of was the Hotel Auburn, with its incredible Ariccia Trattoria, a dining experience like no other. Yes, we were not dressed for a white table cloth dinner, and we were towing a camper, but we had a babysitter at home, so lookout fancy Auburn elites, here we came.
We sat down to a good meal, and during dinner and old friend who lives in Auburn stopped by our table to say hello. We caught him up on recent developments and our coming adventures. Like others, he was absolutely floored. But, unlike most, my friend was less shocked by what we are doing as by why were are doing it. What could have been a five minute chat became a 45 minute conversation over chicharrones (fancy word for chitlins), braised beef cheeks, duck fat poached striploin, and crispy duck.
We talked of the winding paths our lives have taken to get us where we wanted to go –only to find the destination wasn’t as advertised — and the difference between happiness and true joy. We kept coming back to the movie, Chef, a wonderfully relevant and occasionally irreverent film that parses these matters out nicely. By the time the Italian donuts came out, we were neck deep in an existential deconstruction of the American Dream. With the recurrent refrain,
There has to be more to life than this!
In Chef, the main character is a gourmet chef who made it to the top of his career only to find it squeezing the life out of him. Before he trades it all in for a taco truck, this chef tells his girlfriend, “I’m so f-ing lost,” to which she replies, “That’s a good place to start.” That line (and in some ways, the movie itself) reminds me of the story of the prodigal son.
In the Prodigal Son, a father’s youngest son chases after his own happiness, indulging all that the world has to offer, and squanders his father’s inheritance. This son hits rock bottom, realizing that the trappings of the world had lured him far from the joy of his father. He decides to renounce all the happiness the world has to offer (hoping to work as a hired hand on his father’s farm) just for a chance to find his joy again. But it is the father’s words to his elder son after the younger son returns that drive the point home:
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.
(Luke 15:32.) What was lost now is found. What was dead has begin to live.
As Ashley and I visited with my old friend in Auburn, talking of how the simple joys of life too often die on the altar of our pursuit of happiness, it occurred to me, I once was dead. Dead to the world. Dead to my family. Dead to myself. Our conversation got me thinking about this grand and holy adventure Ashley and I find ourselves on in our journey towards transformation.
Only now, after walking away from everything I have worked my professional life to build, have I begin to live. The old me, the one who knew how to maneuver within the gears of the political system, who knew how to “get things done,” was lost. The old me, who built a successful law firm and who “made it” professionally had very little joy to show for it all. And, it was’t until I let that old me (who wasn’t fully alive anyway) die that I could begin to truly live. It wasn’t until I could surrender the pursuit of happiness that I could find true joy, deep and abiding. I have come to learn this is the natural order of things, this cycle of death and resurrection, of transformation and transfiguration. This is the true meaning of being “born again.”
And, it is all gift.