Glass Cases

“The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I hope you’ll bear with me as a craft a dubious distinction. I want to differentiate between “value” on the one hand and “worth” on the other. Whether or not such wordplay survives past the end of this blog post doesn’t much matter to me; I just can’t think of another way to express what’s on my mind. If it strikes you as the literary equivalent of building sandcastles at low tide, so be it. But let me have my fun.

I’m not sure I can tease out this nuance without giving a relatable example and abstracting from there. Think of a custom-built acoustic guitar made by a famous luthier, one with a Brazilian rosewood body, the finish so perfect and lustrous you can see your reflection in it. Its value would be easy to identify: it’s whatever one would pay for such an instrument, likely several thousand dollars. Its worth, though, is somewhat harder to pin down. If a person buys such an instrument only to lock it in a glass case – to see but not to touch – if it is only used for its image, then its worth is the same as a photograph of the same guitar. A guitar is often made to be beautiful, yes, but more than that it is supposed to generate beauty and captivating vibrations. It’s designed to convey a beauty that is independent of its own existence. Its worth is in how it is used: it can play a song that will tickle your ears for the rest of your life, or it can be trapped behind glass – or worse, never taken out of its case.

This distinction came to mind when I was thinking about my mom’s recovery from cancer. As I prayed for her remission and recovery, I found myself oddly uncomfortable with finding relief in that. It’s easy to recognize as an abstract truth that we will all die someday, and my mother is no exception. Any recovery is only temporary. Whether cancer is her ultimate undoing or it’s something else entirely, dying will always be part of life. The value of  my mother’s life is defined by being alive, but her worth is separate from that definition. Her worth comes from how she touches and inspires the people around her. Her worth comes in how well she functions in the role God’s given her: to point to God and give Him praise.

Three nights ago was the first time I’ve ever laid awake in bed worrying about the future. A case could be made, of course, that the two tequila palomas and the can of Day Tripper played a role in my insomnia, but it seems to me that a milligram of worry is more discomforting than a stone slab of a bed. And worry is what I felt. Worry that the cycle of debt and repayment will be the only state I’ll know. Worry like I’m squandering my life and my talents. Worry that ten years from now everything will be the way it is now. It felt like being harnessed to a wall and told to run away from it.

Though it’s common and even natural to yearn for comfort and ease, it’s also the equivalent of a guitar asking to be forever locked in its case. There’s a famous quote from Lou Holtz: “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” I think he’s onto something, although I would amend it slightly. My worth doesn’t come from avoiding challenges or adversity. Nor does my worth come from overcoming adversity. My worth comes from how I handle those trials. Difficulties, setbacks, adversity… those are just words for the opportunity to play a captivating tune, and to point to God while doing so.

Olson

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