I share a name with Lieutenant Dan, a character from the film Forrest Gump. My mother has always teased me that we share a few more things than that: a soldier’s spirit, a love of glory, and a dangerous stubbornness. Lieutenant Dan is a soldier from a long line of soldiers. It makes him do his job well, but as events in the film unfold, you see that it haunts and crushes him. Now I’ve always thought that one of the best qualities of Forrest Gump is the way you see something new each time you watch; when I was younger I never quite saw anything of myself in Lieutenant Dan; he was a tragic but comical man who ain’t got no legs, but in the end makes his peace with God and moves on.
But watching the film again recently, I was haunted too by something he said after confronting Forrest Gump about his new disability: “What am I gonna do now?”
More and more over the years, I’ve admitted I share this with Lieutenant Dan: a love of glory. And it seems I have a lot of glorious things to be proud of. My time in London – six years all told – was one of great service in church. It was the time where I came of age as a Christian, knowing and tasting who Jesus is for the first time, throwing myself into community, serving and sweating beside brothers and sisters who really were dearer than blood out there – because we were all we had. Saying goodbye to one friend after the other, being the last man standing (in my big head anyway). The last year was a time of burnout, but I pressed on, and when I finally left London it was to a hero’s farewell.
And since London I’ve never quite been myself. I find myself thinking of it sometimes, and missing it. Sometimes I miss the brothers and sisters I left behind, but they’ve all moved on since, and to be honest I miss the feeling more, the feeling of being a hero, being in the middle of something bigger than myself, the feeling of knowing that my striving was worth something. Sometimes I’d get misty-eyed thinking of the rose-tinted flashes, sometimes I’d smirk as I recalled the times of striving, confusion and brokenness, myself adding the sound of whistling bullets and muffled explosions to give the thing a charming but slightly farcical feel, like an old ‘Nam flashback. But that was that. And I missed it.
Since then I’ve thrown myself into my new job as a teacher. I’ve flayed myself alive in the last year, and I still do it alarmingly regularly these days, even after a year of practice and preparation. I tell myself that it’s out of love for the kids, or maybe just the reality of the job. But more and more I realise that it’s because of London.
I miss it. I miss being a striving hero.
I had been afraid since I left London that that was it. My fighting days were over. What am I gonna do now? I’ve often wondered how it would’ve been if I’d died in London – how romantic, to end my life where I felt the biggest and greatest, and not see myself turn into what I feared: compromised, twisted, apathetic.
But God didn’t let me die in London and here I am, still trying to chase that old high. And only now, now that I have finished my first year in school, finished being a glamorous, celebrated, young, single, male teacher known for his care and diligence, and settled into being just another Mr on the staff – only now I finally realise what’s going on: I can’t run away from London. Because what I was striving and fighting for in London, and now in this school as well, was not always, or even mostly, to build the kingdom.
It was to fight against myself.
You see, I have always been afraid: afraid of not mattering; of being forgotten, sidelined; of not measuring up; of not being good enough; of failure. Afraid of being a loser and a screwup, and, what’s worse, afraid that people will know it.
And now I realise those fears followed me to London, and to this school too. Everything I’ve done was to satisfy and sate those fears. In fact most things I do are to satisfy those fears, be it girls, achievements, hobbies, drawing, blogging and writing, making videos, Facebook posts – all of it is underwritten by fear of not measuring up or mattering. If only I could achieve something great enough – maybe, just maybe, those fears would finally leave. Why do you think I’d wanted to die in London? To end it all while I saw myself great, not having to worry about making something of myself back home.
It’s a terrible feeling now, realising the fact that that fear will never go away, and because of that, nothing will ever be enough. Everything you do will one day go wrong, or crumble, or even the next day might prove insufficient. You’ll still be revealed as a nobody at the very end, no matter how much you’ve tried, how much you’ve postponed it. In fact part of becoming a man and leaving boyhood is this: to put down the sword of youth and accept that nothing you do will ever be enough.
Nothing you do will ever be enough.
Not enough to provide any more bread than for tomorrow; not enough to convince yourself for more than a day that you’re worth something; not enough to win respect from others for more than a day (or if you’re lucky, a year). Not enough for marriage, for work, for family, for friendships, for your relationship with Jesus. Nothing you do will ever be enough. And I think the day a boy truly realises that, he becomes a man. The rest of manhood is learning how to cope with that.
Now here’s where I’d like to say that’s why we need Jesus. And yes that is why – the first step to entering God’s rest is to know in your bones how much you desperately, desperately need it. But it’s not easy. Something in a man will never want to admit that he is, for all intents and purposes, on the cosmic scale, useless. No man wants to live his life around that truth.
And so we try and strive. Sometimes we become heroes for a moment, then slide into obscurity and confusion. Sometimes we turn ourselves into robots programmed only to achieve, and forget everything else around us. Sometimes we turn into monsters, ready to sacrifice anything and everything, consuming and eating everything in sight, all just for that high, that rush of being somebody. Nothing is ever enough, nothing is ever enjoyable, there’s always the next thing, always another excuse and another reason to prove ourselves.
That’s a battle all men will have to face in some form or another, at some time or another. And it’s a battle we almost always insist on facing alone. We rarely invite Jesus into it.
So I find myself asking again and again: “What am I gonna do now? What’s going to happen to me?” The time of glorious striving, the time of heroism, is not only over – in a way it never happened, because I wasn’t so much fighting to build the kingdom as I was to prove I wasn’t a nobody. It’s been a year now and I can roundly say I’ve failed. I still struggle with this fear – no, I’m terrified, and it gets worse over time. The more you try to feed these fears, the hungrier they get.
Nothing you do will ever convince you you’re not a nobody. Only Jesus can do that, but to be honest we’ll almost never listen to him.
“What am I gonna do now?” In the film Lieutenant Dan asks this just as he sighs “I was Lieutenant Dan Taylor.” To which his supposedly dimwitted subordinate replies “You’re still Lieutenant Dan.”
For the men out there who are afraid, who look back and wish they could be something again, then look forward again and see nothing but one, long, neverending test of what you’re made of: maybe, just maybe, if someone who knows us well could tell us our name, tell us who we really are, that would be enough.