One Step at a Time

An excerpt from “One Step at a Time” by Barbara Brown Taylor from The Preaching Story, Cowley Publications, 1993.

“It takes a lot of courage to be a human being. I have been holding a new goddaughter this week, and she does not know that yet. Just seven weeks old, she has eyes the color of the ocean. Looking into them, it is easy to see that she does not know anything about arthritis or thunderstorms or depression. She does not lie awake at night worrying about her relationships, or her job, or her death. There is no fear in those sea-blue eyes. She sleeps and eats and sighs when she is full. Her world is as wide as her mother’s arms, and as safe. That is all she knows.

As my goddaughter ages, she will learn more. She will learn that bees sting and roses have thorns and that other children push and throw rocks. She will learn that having a fever is like being set on fire and that when your parents decide to move to another state, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. All of that is part of growing up. It is not the only part, by a long shot, but it is the hard part, and it is part of how we learn what it is to be a human being.

Year after year, we add to our experience of the world, pushing against our limits to find out what will budge and what will not, and gradually we gain a sense of our own power. We find that we can make certain things happen and we can prevent other things from happening; we can make friends and we can make enemies; we can say yes, and we can say no.

Some of us get so carried away with this discovery that we begin to think we are in control of our lives. We come of age and we decide what to be. We open bank accounts and make five-year plans. We take our vitamins and work out three times a week at the gym. We space our children two years apart and raise them by the book, and nine-tenths of the time it actually seems to work, enough of the time so we convince ourselves it is true: that is you just know that everything will turn out all right, that human beings really can take charge of their lives.

Until something happens. The income evaporates, the doctor finds a spot on the X-ray, the child’s grades go down and down, and it is like being trapped inside a fine automobile when the brakes fail. In a split second everything changes. One moment you are comfortably and safely in command of your journey, and the next you are being flung down the road in an expensive piece of machinery that will not stop.

“I’ve lost control!” That is what good people say when bad things happen to them. “I’ve lost control of my life!” I have said it to myself, but it is not true. Human beings do not lose control of their lives. What we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control of our lives in the first place, and it is a hard, hard lesson to learn – so hard that most of us have to go back to the blackboard again and again, because we keep thinking that there must be some way to work it out, some way to master the human condition so that there are no leaks in it, no scares, no black holes.

As far as I know, it cannot be done. Maybe that is why it is called the human condition. Like asthma or myopia, being human is a condition we live with – a splendid one in most respects- but one with certain built-in limitations. Some things will budge for us and some will not. We cannot fly. We cannot live forever. We cannot control everything that happens to us. That is the human condition, and it can be frightening, because what that means is we cannot choose all the circumstances of our lives. All we can really choose is how we respond to them, and that is why it takes a lot of courage to be a human being. “

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