By Daniel D. Maurer
As any self-respecting Minnesotan can relate, the majority of my summers during my childhood were filled with trips to "The Lake."
It's always struck me as supremely odd that the citizenry of a State which prides itself of having "10,000 Lakes" would refer to their specific lake as "The Lake." That is until you ask anyone which specific lake they're talking about and they answer, "Oh. It's Lake So-and-so." Inevitably, the question that follows is: "Where's that?!" (Unless you memorize this list. And then you're still missing out on a good 9000 or so.)
Our Lake was Pearl Lake in Stearns County, Minnesota. Just south of St. Cloud in farm country, Pearl Lake was neither spectacular nor particularly scenic. Often in the summertime, we'd experience either an algal bloom encouraged by nitrate runoff or even a massive infestation of lake chiggers to cover any unsuspecting swimmer from head to toe with a rash. It was shallow, sandy, and surrounded with many cabins. But it was Our Lake because that's where my maternal Grandfather chose to buy a plot to build a cabin and a boathouse. He staked his claim out for his family, build the cinder-block foundation himself, and claimed a bit of paradise only a little over an hour from the Twin Cities.
My mother was a teacher and that meant she had a little extra time during the summers. Since screen-time in the 1970s and early 80s meant television—and only television—to which all kids seemed to gravitate toward back then regardless of the nice weather outside, she saw fit to remove the temptation. So she threw me and my brother in the red Ford station wagon and took us to the cabin. (I suppose that "The Cabin" could also qualify as a ubiquitous Minnesotan eponym, but I'll refrain from any further provincial commentary.)
We filled our time at The Lake catching frogs, fishing for sunnies, playing in the sand, jumping off the dock, boating and tubing. We'd play croquet and volleyball with our cousins and go to country flea markets. When our mother encouraged us, we'd even hoe the garden. It is the place where the majority of my memories with my grandparents lie before they died. Occasionally, I will dream of that place. And I'll remember how carefree life seemed.
There was one thing I seemed to do almost without failing every time I went up there.
I'm talking about the dreams a person has about life . . . wondering about what life is, how "I" came to be and why there is anything in the Universe at all.
Most importantly, I would dream of what I wanted to be and do in life. It was more than just what career I wanted. As a kid, that wasn't on my radar. The dreams were like a fluid reverie of what-could-be as I stared into the night sky where the stars reflected off the still waters. I thought of what I could be. Now, I know that all people have had similar experiences in their lives. It seems like I've heard friends share with me a time when all seemed to be right. They'd ask themselves the same question. Back then at The Lake, sitting on the dock and listening to the loons warble to their little loonlets swimming on the water, I'd ask what I thought everyone was asking themselves: What do you want out of life?
The answer to that question back then is the same answer that everyone else gives: a happy life, a good job, kids of my own, a "lake cabin" that's mine!
It never crossed my mind that this wasn't the most significant question of my life.
I've been doing a lot of thinking lately that asking ourselves what we want out of life isn't the most significant question. The reason I think it isn't is that every answer you get from people is basically the same. Yeah, every person has their own variation in the way they answer. But face it, we all pretty much want the same thing. We want to succeed, we want to be rich, we want to love and be loved.
A far more interesting question is more relevant to the human condition: What struggles do you want to overcome in your life?
It is the struggles and the difficulties we need to overcome that shape us, that define us.
Every obstacle we overcome makes us a better person and I believe makes us less focused within ourselves. From my own experience in addiction I see this through the lens of recovery. However, every person will experience loss, pain, abandonment, loneliness, selfishness, betrayal and want. The way that I respond to these shape and mold me far more than simply achieving a goal.
I'm not suggesting that we should seek out pain and loss in an exercise of self-flagellation or masochism. It's just that the struggle IS going to come. Pain and loss WILL come. It's inevitable.
How different would the world look if people—beginning with yourself—could choose the struggles we want to overcome? We can't, of course, always choose. Maybe that's why people never stop to ask the question. Certainly it's why none of us would instinctively think that the question is the most significant one. And no doubt it's one reason why people seem to never achieve "their dreams." It's because any dream life requires pain. No . . . scratch that. It's because any life WILL have pain, struggle, want.
Another lens through which I view the world is the cross. The cross is the ultimate symbol of pain, disappointment, and abandonment. The cross is what makes following Jesus unique. I respect any person's right to follow the faith they believe in. And I've learned much about many different world religions and a spiritual life, especially within addiction and recovery.
What is most meaningful to me about the cross is that I believe it confronts the single most significant question of our lives head on: Will suffering, pain, loss, and disappointment come? Yes. It will. For all of us. Our job is to lift each other up. Everyone. But we're not alone. The Infinite is with us, within our struggles.
So what struggles do you want to have in life to overcome? What pain are you willing to sustain to find purpose and meaning and value? Will you ask the question? Will you experience life on life's terms? Because to me that seems to be far more important than what the dreams have to offer.
The cabin is still in our family, but it's not the same. The once tiny cabins have been mostly replaced with opulent lake homes. Commuters use them as year-round residences. Our tiny, white, brick cabin with red trim seems out of place, like a quaint anachronism in a city surrounded by large, glass buildings. Maybe it's the same for anybody growing up—a time long-since past we're never able to recapture.
I believe that if we were able to recapture it though, that our lives would be far less interesting and far more self-centered.
We do not find the answer to the single most significant question in life in dreaming of what could be without the sacrifice it takes to get there. We find the answer through struggling and yearning for that-which-can-be in the inevitable, courageously venturing into places of loss and pain. We do this so that we can find our true selves in the other. We do it, because we have to.
Daniel D. Maurer is the author of Sobriety: A Graphic Novel and the co-author of Faraway: A Suburban Boy's Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking. He writes under his freelance moniker and brand as Dan the Story Man. If you would like to share your own story of transformation on this blog, please contact him! He reads all his mail!