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The burden and gift of living

A review of On Getting Out of Bed by Alan Noble

Life is hard. I’m not sure any three words better encapsulate what many people feel on a daily basis. The statistics are staggering. We are among the most anxious, most depressed, most stressed, most overwhelmed, and even hopeless groups of people who have ever lived—at least in the last several hundred years. Despite all the so-called progress we’ve made, all the advancements in science and technology, all the wealth and convenience and relative ease we enjoy, the fact remains: life sometimes feels like a burden too great to bear. Some days, it’s hard to even claw ourselves out of bed.

And life’s difficulties are not reserved for a select few. They are universal, and they are universally hard. Even for Christians, whether we like to admit it or not. That’s why Alan Noble’s new book On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living is so timely; because for many, the burden of living feels heavier now than it ever has.

In On Getting Out of Bed, Noble takes on a tender topic and does so with both candor and compassion, with sensitivity and sincerity. Life can feel overwhelming, but Noble reminds readers that “life is a good gift from a loving God, even when subjectively it doesn’t feel good or like a gift.” 

The burden of living

“There’s a kind of unspoken conspiracy to ignore how difficult life is,” Noble says. Like most conspiracies, this one diverts our attention from what’s plainly true. We can ignore life’s difficulties in any number of ways—by trying to numb the pain, by reframing them “as something romantic” or “heroic,” or by trying “to hide our scars from those closest to us and even from ourselves.” But sooner or later, the unspoken conspiracy will no longer hold. The truth emerges, the dam breaks, and we are forced to admit that “Life is far more difficult than we let on.”

One of the unfortunate realities about the moment in which we find ourselves is that our society is “governed by technique.” It’s a society that prizes maximum efficiency. We see this, as Noble points out, in our “time-saving technolog[ies], apps that maximize our workouts, drugs that drown out our anxiety, ubiquitous entertainment in our pockets, and scientifically proven methods for parenting, working, eating, shopping, budgeting, folding clothes, sleeping, sex, dating, and buying a car.” Of course, none of these things are necessarily bad, but all of them together have conditioned us to expect efficiency over inefficiency, ease over difficulty, now over later. And life just doesn’t work that way. Life in this fallen world is inefficient, difficult, and slow.

Our techniques will not deliver us from the burdens we bear as humans. In fact, when they fail to deliver it’ll send us down a spiral of shame. We’ll be left thinking that it’s our fault when we can’t move past the grief we feel or that there’s something wrong with us when the darkness won’t ever seem to lift. “If life doesn’t have to be this hard,” we think, “then it really is my fault that I’m overwhelmed or a failure.” This is the burden of living in the 21st century when technique is expected to solve every problem we face. And however we choose to “explain the difficulty of living in the modern world” or attempt to cope with it, we’re still “stuck with the reality that a normal life includes a great deal of suffering. 

The gift of living

But life in the modern world is not chiefly a burden; it is a gift. Despite the challenges, the difficulty, the heartbreak, the suffering, and the anguish that awaits us all, “life is good and worth preserving.” 

One of the stories Noble uses to illustrate this point is Cormac McCarthy’s heart-wrenching novel The Road. In the novel, a father and son struggle to survive at what appears to be civilization’s end. Facing unthinkable conditions, this father and son press on for survival because they recognize “the goodness of life,” even though their circumstances are bleak. Life testifies to God’s goodness, the father says, “even in a world with few other signs of goodness.” And the choice to go on living in the face of hardship testifies that life is good, that life is worth living. 

Think about our lives, and all the little joys—the evidences of God’s grace—we get to enjoy every day: “beauty, love, a good meal, [and] laughter.” What are these “but the means of grace through which God nurtures us?” What are they but gifts that testify to the gift of life and love of the Father? Sure, life is hard—it can be brutal sometimes. But Noble is rightly insistent that life is good regardless, despite all the pain, despite all the loss, despite all the hardship. “Life is worth living despite the risk and uncertainty and the inevitability of suffering,” because life is a gift. 

Noble’s plea

In his book, Noble is clear-eyed and plain-spoken about the burden and gift of living. Both are true. Neither negates the other. He stares the hardships of life in the face and names them, which is important for those of us given to “the conspiracy to ignore how difficult life is;” and for those of us who want to grin and bear it or tough it out. He gives credence to the mental suffering we all feel at one time or another. But he argues against the primacy of life’s inherent burden by reminding us that life is a good gift from a good Father who wants good things for us (Gen. 1 and 2; Rom. 8:28). And in that, he helps to redirect our focus to what’s most true: that life is a gift.

Throughout the book, Noble gives readers some important directives that are both sensitive and stern. Recognizing the difficulties that many face, he encourages readers to press on, to do the next thing God puts in front of us, and to do everything we can to claw ourselves out of bed every morning. “The decision to get out of bed is the decision to live,” he says. “It is a claim that life is worth living.” The world needs you. Your neighbors need you. Your friends need you. Your family needs you.

The importance of community and relationships, which includes our contributions to the community around us and the benefits we derive from it, cannot be overstated. And belonging to a community—really belonging—can be the difference between getting out of bed or not. So, if you do struggle to get out of bed in the morning, give those closest to you the privilege of bearing your burdens with you. Give them the chance to hold you up, to remind you “of the truth that is truer than [y]our deepest misery . . . that our lives are good even when we do not feel that goodness at all.” 

The bravest thing

In reading On Getting Out of Bed, I couldn’t help but think of a poem by John Blase that has meant a lot to me over the years. It’s titled “the bravest thing:”

“Maybe the bravest thing,
Is opening your eyes in the
Morning and placing your
Two feet on the cold floor and
Rising up against the gravity
Of the night. Maybe that’s the
Brave thing from which all other
Bravery flows, the brave to
Seek ye first. Maybe that’s the
Single thing God requires of you,
The spiritual discipline that takes
All your will to muster. Swallow
Down the fear, my child, and face
The dawning day for what the
Surface of the world needs most
Of all is bravery skipping and
You, yes you are the stone.”

Maybe the bravest thing we can do daily is to conquer the temptation we face each morning to stay in bed. Maybe the first step to bearing the heavy burden we feel is to stare the inevitable hardships we’ll encounter in the face and put our two feet on the floor anyway, recognizing that life is a gift. Maybe the first step to a life of faithfulness lies in the simple act of getting out of bed and doing the next thing God puts in front of us. In doing so, Noble argues, we’ll “bear witness to the goodness of this existence God has given us.”

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