I don't often drive past the point of the 45 South exit on the 610 Loop, headed east. As soon as my car cleared the rise of that intersection I saw and felt a distinct change. The architecture of chemical plants and refineries loomed in the distance. Smoke stacks emitting billowy gray and white clouds of chemical burn off (or steam? ...harmless, I'm sure) came into sight.
Almost immediately I felt transformed to a different time. I now live, work, and spend most of my time in west Houston, but until the age of 11, my family lived in southeast Houston, amid the chemical plants (as I always called them). For my entire life my dad has worked at one of those chemical plants. As a child, it was a true source of joy when my parents would take my brother and me to the swimming pool at the club house in the chemical plants where my dad worked. I grew up thinking nothing of the gargantuan metal tubs (I still don't know what they're really called) that lined Highway 225 or of the pungent smells that filled my nose as we drove past them.
Today, as an adult entering back into that world I so rarely visit now, I was struck by how much that area still evokes feelings of "home" in me. It is an objectively unattractive area, nothing looks like it's been replaced since about 1985, and it is not a place where I would choose to live. But as a child I didn't even question those things. The lights and smells of those chemical plants meant I was home and to be honest, they were fascinating to a child's mind. The lights at night were pretty, like Christmas lights and the large cylinders, tubs, and towers with ladders and smoke were like scenes from a science fiction movie.
Last night I was reading about the spiritual virtue of simplicity and the author reminded the reader that Jesus teaches us to be like children: "Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). There are many inferences we could draw from Jesus' words in this verse, but the idea that resonated with me today was how accepting I was as a child.
I did not question whether there was somewhere prettier my family could have lived or why we lived where the air sometimes smelled so bad, or if chemical plants were bad for the environment. Those all would have been good questions, but as a child I simply accepted the fact that we lived where we lived. In fact, I was actually quite happy about it and embraced it for its full potential. There was a swimming pool?!?!!!
Do I have the same accepting and embracing mindset toward my life now? Or instead am I always questioning, always dissatisfied, always wondering how things could be better? I don't think there is anything wrong with asking questions and wanting to improve things. I actually think we are meant to do those things for ourselves and each other. It's just that sometimes circumstances in life are not in our control and the choice then becomes how we are going to live in our present reality.
I think that is what St. Paul means when, in the Bible, he admonishes slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). I don't think he's condoning slavery, but encouraging those who found themselves in that circumstance on how to live through it was grace. In life we will find ourselves in situations that we cannot control, like when a loved one becomes very ill with cancer or we lose our job and are unable to find employment for months or even years. Sometimes we will be in situations where others wrong us and wish to do us harm.
In every circumstance, we can choose to accept the way things are and make the most of them. That does not mean that the circumstances are good or even just, but they are reality and in what ways can we embrace them? How can we improve the quality of our lives the way they are right now? Are there relationships to be cultivated and enjoyed? Is there a place where unconditional love needs to be experienced? Can you make just one person's life better by showing them you truly care?
So many things in life are not within our control. The most obvious one being the way we come into this world. We do not choose our family, the location, or even the time period we are born into. We have no say in what we look like, our gender, our personality, or intelligence. God plants us in particular soil and the elements of our lives influence the adult each of us grows into. As an adult, we do have more choices, but we are still limited.
Life naturally goes through seasons and cycles. Sometimes it is difficult to fathom, but your life will not always be like it is today. Eventually you will work somewhere else, meet new people, have new friends, try new things, people you love will die and others will be born, you will move to a new home, there will be a new president, the city will tear down the library you've gone to for years. Will you embrace each stage of life? You don't have to love it, but can find something in it to love?
Jesus doesn't just tell us to be like children, he says that we must "change" and be like children. Our natural tendency as adults is to question, complicate, and feel dissatisfied with life. And with good reason; life is often difficult and frustrating. Therefore, we must consciously choose to simplify and to accept. And to be childlike in the joy, peace, and contentment we find in that simplicity and acceptance.