Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town reminds us how easily we lose perspective. The play is set in a small middle-American town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its characters, Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, their son, George, and their daughter, Emily, live an uneventful, ordinary family life, until in act three, after many years have passed, Emily dies in childbirth along with her second child.
After she dies, Emily realizes that she and those she lived with breezed through life without any appreciation for its smaller moments, and she’s consumed with remorse. Moved by her anguish, the “stage manager” in the play gives her an opportunity to go back and relive one day to the fullest. Emily picks her twelfth birthday. She quickly becomes disillusioned, however, by the way the people she interacts with callously rush through the entire day. Right before she must leave, she yells at her mother, “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.” Then she turns to the stage manager and says, “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast.” Sobbing, she asks him through her tears, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?” He replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”
When I first read that play, I said to myself, I’m not going to become like that mother. So I pulled out my calendar and vigorously blocked out time to spend with God and the people close to me in my life. I did great, for about three weeks. Over time, the stresses of life and the monotony of one day after another dulled my resolve. I fell back into the same routine as before. I wasn’t ignoring people; it was just that the intensity of experiencing life wasn’t there. Then, coincidentally, every month or so it seemed, something bad happened—sometimes small, sometimes large—that helped me regain perspective again. After those events I looked into my daughters’ eyes as though seeing them for the first time. I listened to my wife’s words with greater anticipation. I prayed a little more fervently. I realized that this was not an accident. Even though my system for scheduling meaningful moments failed, God’s didn’t. Through every painful situation God allowed me to see that my life and the lives of those I love could end at any moment.
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