For the life of me, I can’t remember the type of music that they usually play in a souvenir shop in Panama City. Something poppy, I would imagine. Breezy. Upbeat. I think they would play some light and happy tune to lift your mood as you milled around looking at shot glasses with beach scenes on them or snarky, inappropriate t-shirts.
I should remember the music, as I am no stranger to cheap souvenir shops in Panama City. PC, after all, was my family’s #1 vacation spot while I was growing up, and we never met a roadside shop that we didn’t like. As a child, I was mesmerized by the seashells, the beach toys, the brightly colored t-shirts that proliferated in these establishments. I clearly remember once getting a little jewelry box, lined in red velvet, with little white seashells glued all over it. I thought it was the epitome of class and sophistication.
The incident I’m thinking of didn’t occur when I was a child, though. No, I think I was in college when the music in the gift shop stopped. Maybe I was with my family, or maybe it was that time I had come down with some friends from school. Perhaps this was the gift shop visit where I bought those shorts with the writing on the rear (speaking of the epitome of class and sophistication), or perhaps I just got a pair of sunglasses or some more sunscreen. I can’t remember the details. All I remember is that the song playing over the speakers ended, and suddenly, I heard only words coming out. The words might have been put to some kind of beat, but all I recall was that I was immediately riveted. I stood there, transfixed, in the middle of the aisle, holding whatever piece of kitsch I had been mentally mocking, as I listened to a very unlikely message to hear in a Panama City gift shop. Here are the words I heard:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a —-ing big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of —-ing fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the —- you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing —-ing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing* your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, —-ed-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that?
That was it. No prologue. No explanation. Just those words. Clearly, the speaker’s cynicism reflected his belief that those things were not really life. Clearly, he felt that these trappings of life were ultimately meaningless. But…who was he? Thankfully, I remembered the words clearly enough to relate them to Greg later, and have him identify them for me. Apparently, those words were spoken by Ewan McGregor in the opening of the movie, Trainspotting, which goes on to give the viewer a grim and unflinching portrayal of drug use (clue: the speaker doesn’t choose life; he chooses heroin). For me, though, those disembodied words pouring out of the speaker served as an accidental indictment of the emporium of junk in which I was standing. It made me think, “What am I doing here?”
That question was not just about me standing in a gift shop, either. Ultimately, that moment served as a microcosm of many other times in my life where I have been suddenly awakened to the meaninglessness of my actions. Inevitably, I will get myself all caught up in a situation–maybe the details of a big event, maybe some kind of relational drama, maybe just the minutiae of daily life–and I will let those circumstances take over my thoughts and emotions. I will let that situation consume me, stress me out, and otherwise distract me from the greater purpose of living.
And then, something will come along to open my eyes and remind me that I’m getting consumed by something that doesn’t really matter. Usually, though, my wake up call doesn’t come from a Scottish actor playing a heroin addict.
Usually, it comes from Scripture.
You see, when I read the Bible, I find “Choose Life” to be a major theme. It is stated explicitly by Moses:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed…
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life…
The prophet, Haggai, elaborates on the theme in a different way, when he explains the feelings of frustration and futility felt by the Israelites after the exile:
“Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:5-6).
The reason the people are so frustrated, according to Haggai, is because they are focusing on the wrong priorities; they are building up their own houses while neglecting the house of God. They aren’t choosing life, and so they are haunted by feelings of futility and meaninglessness.
Jesus drives the point home when he asks rhetorically,
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Jesus’ question reveals the stark and humbling truth that I can go through my whole life, and even be “successful”–and yet miss the entire point. How sad would that be?
Paul continues this underlying theme in such commands as,
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is yourlife, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
Together, these Scriptures form a chorus. They tell me
Choose life. Choose something better than what is all around you. Choose to spend your precious minutes on things that matter. Choose a higher path. Choose eternal significance. Choose meaning. Choose purpose. Choose love. Choose God.
Every day, I try to choose life. Often, I fail. Often, I don’t even know what that means. (Is doing laundry “choosing life”? Well, I don’t know, but I do know that someone has to do laundry!) But sometimes, I do see it.
I will look at my kids, really look at them, and be filled with love and awe.
I will try to help someone.
I will take two seconds to admire God’s creation and to thank Him for it.
I will work at something with all my heart, as working for the Lord and not for men.
And in those moments, I will think, This is life. Surely, this is what Jesus meant when He said He had come to give “life to the full.” Surely, life can’t get any more full, more satisfying than this.
In such moments, I am reminded that I don’t want to spend my life in the equivalent of a Panama City gift shop, thinking about useless junk that doesn’t even matter. Life has so much more potential than that. I want to choose life, and choose to live it to the full.
How do you choose life?
I would edit that word, but I’m pretty sure that it means “drinking,” when used across the pond.