We are a work in progress.
In my neighborhood while I was growing up, there was a hundred year-old school building that was damaged by a fire and left abandoned for many years. I loved that building—I loved the stone work and the arched doorways and the big windows and all of the memories that it contained. I attended a sprawling single-story brick school building that looked nearly identical to all the other single-story brick school buildings in town, and wished I could live in an era when buildings were constructed for form as well as function. When I was ten years old, I used to sit outside sketching this building and entertaining dreams of being an architect.
A few years ago, the city made the decision to knock down the old school and build high-rise condos there instead. So one day, I came back to the place I loved and found a pile of rubble. I suppose that’s what happens when you fall in love with something that’s not structurally sound. The wrecking ball of progress came, and it left a pile of rubble to remind me that things are not what they would have or could have or should have been.
In the same way, when the wrecking ball comes to demolish your dreams, it leaves a pile of rubble. Rubble that you once built brick by brick with your own hands. And as hard as you try to cover it up, you can’t hide the wreckage. When someone asks you about your work the day after you lose your job, there is no good answer. There is no way to avoid the awkward silence, the manufactured sympathy, the shallow encouragement, the unwarranted offers to help. It’s the same when the relationship ends, when the loved one dies, when the plans fail. Unless you are a brilliant liar, there is no way to hide.
It takes time to pick up the pieces, to clear away the wreckage piece-by-piece. For months on end, you get out of bed in the morning just for the purpose of cleaning up the mess. The change is incremental, and seems only to fluctuate on the spectrum between disastrous and not okay. Under Construction—Sorry for the Inconvenience is what your sign should say. Because sometimes knowing someone who is under construction is inconvenient. It’s not pretty, and it reminds your friends that life is disappointing. In a day in age where Google has become a verb, some of the hardest words for us to say are I don’t know.
Even when the wreckage is cleared away, you still have a void. A void caused by loss, the voidest void that can possibly be. In this void, you can become Miss Havisham—the devastated unchanging old maid in Great Expectations who was left at the altar and grew old in her wedding dress. You can spend your entire life camping out in the void. You once had great dreams, but now they’re gone, and no one can really blame you for never wanting to lift another brick to build them again. Your life became a great, big, nothing after the great loss you suffered, and it’s going to stay that way.
But then when you think about it, you can’t have progress without destruction. In order to build something new, you have to knock something down. Or at the very least, you have to dig a big hole. Once everything is cleared away, you can begin to see more clearly.
G.K. Chesterton makes a distinction between what he calls rational optimism and irrational optimism. Rational optimism is saying that something is good, even when it is not. Rational optimism is a big lie—our attempts to hide the wreckage in our hearts. Irrational optimism, however, is honest. Irrational optimism looks at great void and says I can build something new. He says: “Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform.”
Instead of choosing to be stagnant, you can choose instead to be an architect. [tweet this]
Like a building that gets demolished, sometimes beautiful things fall apart. However, change comes when we can love our broken hearts and help them to imagine again. We had the right to dream, to create, to envision something that never came to be. And now, even here, we still have the right to do it all over again.
In your construction site, pick up a brick. Then once you have put it down, pick up another one. In the face of devastation, re-design yourself. Maybe this, too, will someday be demolished. But we wouldn’t build anything if we let the fear of failure hold us back.
Years from now, stand back and look at your life. Look at the imperfections, the dirt, the parts that didn’t turn out the way you though they would. But it’s there—something you build brick by brick from nothing. In fact, you’re probably still building it. Still adding on, still knocking down parts and starting over, still fixing things when they break.
We are, and will always be under construction.
This post is edited from a previous version.