Gather Your Seashells while Ye May
How Don’t Waste Your Life inspired a generation to limit theirs
It is nearly twenty years now since a strange tincture of fear and passion filled the hearts of my fellowmen and me. We heard the the cry of Don’t Waste Your Life, it took root, has been proven, and has been found wanting. Life, it seems, won’t be wasted, no matter how hard we’ve convinced ourselves it might.
I, along with hundreds of thousands of other college students from all over the world, listened as a midwestern pastor by the name of John Piper put something like the fear of God in us. His illustration of a retired couple spending their last years traveling around the United States and collecting seashells—and his call to not be like them, to not waste our lives—rattled us. His book by the same title circulates among the same demographic still, swelling the hearts and minds of young people who still fear their lives may only be mere drops in an ocean instead of the crest of a tsunami of change.
To waste a life gathering seashells has become the joke tinged with a little bit of fear that it might become us someday if we don’t stay sober-minded and radical at the same time.
Dare I call this a wasted life?
A few months ago my husband and I visited my family who live near the sugar-white sand of the Gulf of Mexico. He and I took off our shoes and ran down the beach to dip our toes in the clear and turquoise blue waters. We spread our fleece jackets on the ground and sat there for an hour. The waves reached the shore and faded back into blue, leaving behind an almost perfect line of cracked shells on the squeaky sand.
He gathered a few white and orange and speckled brown ones and put them in his pocket to keep. We listened to the roar of the water, the fishermen to our left, and the gulls over us, the squeak of runners on sand behind us. We magnified the Lord because he created all of it for his glory, but also for our good—because what is beauty if not the best good we can find on earth? And then we stood up, shook our jackets, walked slowly back to the dunes, found our shoes, and left.
The fear of a wasted life still rings in my ears along with the waves of the sea, but twenty years have not only aged me—they have matured me. Our collective parents (whose lives, our naïve twenty-something minds thought, were surely being wasted) are growing old now, surrounding themselves with trinkets and grandchildren and memories as long as they can hold them. Is this, we think, what we once thought of as a wasted life? This age, this wisdom, this seasoned life, better with age and tougher too, hardened by suffering, softened with blows, the ones for whom eternity grows sweeter still? Dare I call this a wasted life?
A radical youth is not an unusual or negative thing and we must not speak of it as such. The radical youth has given us Joan of Arc, Mozart, John Keats, Nathan Hale, Alexander the Great, Phyllis Wheatley, Alexander Hamilton, and the boy who shared his bread and loaves with the disciples of Jesus. History has taught us a strange surplus of courage is given in youth, before weather has rusted joints and time has not healed all wounds. If there is ever a time when life cannot help but be used, it is youth itself. This is also why history has taught us to run swirling endless spirals in the pursuit of its fleeting moments. Youth does not last.
Proof of Life
Soon, the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, the effects of age will begin to wear, tear, and crumble our bodies and the question of a wasted life will begin to pale in light of what Nietzsche called of the Christian life “a long obedience in the same direction.” We begin to realize the metric of a wasted life is not one we can understand or meet or exceed or check off. Rather, that life ebbs and flows and leaves behind a line of broken shells, proof we have been through the tumult of storms and high seas, turned smooth under waves, sharp against rocks, formed pearls within our innards, and then simply ended up in some beach walker’s pockets someday.
From dust we have come and to dust we will return. Dust is not meaningless though, nor has it ever been wasted. It is the effect of life broken into particles, touching everything around it, unavoidable. It is proof of life, not a wasted life.
That dust and those seashells tell us more about God and eternity than a lifetime spent chasing the illusion of an unwasted life. The angsty pursuit of meaning, making a mark, starting a revolution or finishing one—these often end in frustration when we find most of life is waking and sleeping and eating and rearing and love-making and love-giving and love-receiving. The life of faithfulness is not a wasted life.
Arriving on Eternity’s Shores
I often wonder about those retirees John Piper made an example of, forever memorialized in the hearts of Christian men and women as wasting their retirement years by collecting seashells. I wonder at the miracle of their marriage still, a rarity in our world today. I wonder if they had children, a legacy left. I wonder at the stories they might tell their grandchildren of the world they saw in their last years, after spending the whole of their lives serving one another and their small community. I wonder at their bulging pockets of seashells, broken or perfect, small or large, white, orange, brown speckled—proof of life, just as they themselves were. Proof of living, of making it through, of nearly arriving, and someday indeed arriving on eternity’s shores.
Cover image by Clint McKoy.