Like St. Teresa of Avila, I have a skull on my desk. Two, actually — one plain and one riotously decorated in green and purple. I think they’re funny; they remind me not to take myself, or the world, too seriously. When I have tied myself into knots due to some perceived weakness, or spent more than a minute brooding because I feel ignored, the skulls jeer at me with all of their teeth and whisper from the prophet Isaiah, “All flesh is grass … The grass withers, the flower fades” (Is 40:6-7).
In our high-stimulus society, keeping to an “all flesh is grass” philosophy can bring balance and perspective. It’s of a piece with something I’ve read about St. Bernadette Soubirous: When an exalted sister within her community would disparage the visionary of Lourdes due to her lack of stature or her poor education, Bernadette would say, “Move along, creature,” to herself, as well as to her tormentor. “Only Christ matters.”
“Move along, creature” is, like the smiling skulls — a fine way of reminding ourselves not to invest too much into our hurt feelings or our offense-taking. It reminds us that passing human stupidities and insults (I am redundant) ought not to command too much real estate in well-grounded souls. Social media has conditioned us to believe that everything we do, everything we think, every bit of umbrage we feel and every thoughtless slight offered by some stranger at a distant keyboard must be marked and then responded to by others — voted up or down in the virtual circus of chaotic consensus through which we waste so much time.
We moderns do take ourselves very seriously. We bore others with details of our diets, we fret over our retirement planning or our workout schedules. How much is too little, how much is too much? Will any of this ever be enough?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be fit, or to plan for some future day when (with any luck) all the workouts and investments have paid off and you’re ready to slow into retirement. But while we’re doing all that, it’s worth recalling a wry old Jewish maxim: “You make plans; God laughs.”
All our efforts to last another day, or decade, and to live in relative comfort, are contingent upon controls that, ultimately, we do not possess. How often have we heard that someone who “did everything right” in terms of diet and exercise suddenly succumbed to a heart attack that came out of nowhere? How many stories can we recite about someone’s life savings being lost to an unforeseen market turn?
Mostly, we are powerless over the vagaries of life. Rather than disturbing us, that reality should help Christians embrace a daily mindset of pragmatic surrender. Yes, we are responsible for ourselves, for our families, our bodies, our neighbors. We are spirit and matter and so, to a point, material considerations do matter.
But our lives are brief (“our years are 70, 80 if we are strong” says Psalm 90), and our control is, in-part, illusory. St. Philip Neri reminds us, “All God’s purposes are to the good,” and they ultimately prove themselves to be right and just. We tend to forget that when we’re stressing over schedules, taking our every mistake to heart or letting someone else’s rudeness ruin our day.
Which is why it is good to keep a smiling skull around — to help us laugh at ourselves as we remember that all flesh goes the way of the grass that fades and the flower that withers.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Her column, “It is good” appears biweekly at OSV News.