What is Life?

life

I recently celebrated my sixty-second birthday. Next month, I will draw my first Social Security check. The following month, my wife and I will celebrate our forty-first wedding anniversary. And early next year, grandchild number thirteen will arrive on the scene. I am now, without question, an old man, a cranky curmudgeon. I have seen a few things and experienced a lot of this thing we humans call life. As I comb through my past, I have come to the conclusion that life is the sum of our choices, held together by the mortar of luck and circumstance. As I carefully examine my life, I can see how certain decisions I made in the past materially affect my life today. For example, as a married, full-of-life, physically fit young preacher, I decided to opt out of Social Security. For the next seventeen years, I paid no social security/Medicare taxes on my ministry-related income. I leveraged the clergy housing allowance and other legal tax avoidance schemes in such a way that I often ended up showing no personal income on my tax return and paid zero taxes for the year. This went on for years. Not bad, right? My motivation was simple: as a die-hard right-wing Republican, I believed that the government didn’t deserve my money. In my mind, the less money local, state, and federal agencies had, the better. I thought, at the time, “Why should I pay real estate taxes? My children attend a private Christian school or are homeschooled. Why should I pay for the world’s children to be educated?”  When I bought automobiles, I purchased them through the church, thus avoiding paying sales tax. I expensed everything I could, with the goal in mind that I was economically starving the government.

In the late 1990s, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized, for the first time, that I was one day going to be where I am now, and that I would need some sort of retirement income. I also started having niggling health problems, and in 1997, after months and months of unexplained fatigue and pain, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. At that moment, Bruce-with-a-big-S-on-his-chest learned that he was not invincible; that life was a kryptonite of sorts that will, in the end, lead to my demise.

I opted back into Social Security and started paying taxes again, but this was too little too late. Fortunately, over the course of my work career — from age fourteen to today — I worked numerous “secular” jobs:

janitor, gas station attendant, short order cook, newspaper motor route, life insurance salesman, sweeper salesman, restaurant general manager, network manager, durable medical equipment supply office manager, dairy department manager, grocery stock clerk, workfare/court offender program manager, litter control manager/officer, building code enforcement officer, grant manager, real estate updater for an auditor’s office, farm worker, auto mechanic, cable box repairman, shipping and receiving, turret lathe operator, and numerous general laborer jobs in factories

These jobs provided enough work quarters for me to qualify for a nominal monthly social security payment of about $700. While this is not a large amount of money, retirement-wise, it will make a meaningful difference for us. Neither of my parents lived long enough to collect social security, so I have outlived them and will win the prize. Woo-hoo! However, I can’t help but think about how much better off I would be as a disabled, retired man had I paid social security/Medicare taxes on my ministerial income. The difference would be significant, but due to a singular decision made long before I ever had a thought about getting old, I am forced to live with the consequences of that decision.

I always made more money working secular jobs than I did working for God. The most I ever made income-wise as a pastor was $24,000. Most years, I made $8,000-$20,000 (including housing) pastoring churches. If it hadn’t been for secular work, government assistance, and Medicaid insurance, we would have been destitute. As it was, we were dirt poor for most of the years I spent in the ministry. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that things improved for us. Polly started working for Sauder Woodworking (she just celebrated her twentieth anniversary there) and our oldest sons started working jobs of their own.

It’s unfortunate, though, that I had decided as a young husband and young father to let “God” take care of our wants and needs. As anyone who has ever done this has learned, “God” loves keeping his followers in the poor house. Why, if “God” had backed up a Brink’s truck to our home and unloaded some of the “treasure” he supposedly has, we wouldn’t have “needed” him any longer. So, “God” kept us on our knees, ever begging for divine assistance. I sincerely believed that “God” would meet our needs and even throw in a few wants from time to time, so I accepted that our poverty was God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will for our lives (Romans 12:1,2). (Of course, I never asked Polly or our children what they thought of this arrangement I had with God. I was the family patriarch. End of discussion.) I wonder how different our lives might have been had I put the financial and material welfare of my wife and children first; had I built a career managing restaurants or working in government alongside my work as a pastor? Would we have been better off? Probably. But, who really knows for sure?

Have you ever thought about certain decisions you have made in your life and wondered how things might have turned out differently? I call this the what-if or would-of, could-of, should-of game. While we like to think that life would have been different if we had only made this or that decision, there are too many variables for us to know for sure how things might have turned out. For example, at age eighteen, I was madly in love with a twenty-year-old college girl named Anita Farr. For much of 1975, we had a torrid relationship — as no-sex-before-marriage Baptist relationships went, anyway. I was sure she was the one. However, our relationship didn’t last, and in late ’75, I packed up my meager belongings, hopped a Greyhound bus, and returned to Ohio. As I look back at this time in my life, I see two people who had similar personalities and dispositions. Both of us were quite outgoing, personable, and temperamental. I told Polly a while back, as we were talking about past choices, “If I had married Anita, one of us would have murdered the other and ended up in prison.” Our relationship was very much one of a lit match and gasoline. A year later, I enrolled in ministerial classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. My game plan, girl-wise, was to play the field. I thought at the time, “what a blessing from God, a dormitory filled with fine Baptist women!” Sure enough, I started dating a girl by the name of Peggie. After a few weeks, our casual relationship petered out and we moved on to other people. Next up for me was a seventeen-year-old dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. She was (and is) a beauty, but I had no thoughts at the time that she was a woman I was ready to settle down with. It was not long, however, before Bruce, the player, was smitten and in love. On Valentine’s Day in 1976, I proposed and Polly said “yes.” So much for playing the field!

Choosing to marry Polly — a choice I would make again — certainly changed the course of my life. On a hot day in July in 1978 at the Newark Baptist Temple, we stood before our family and friends (and God, or so we thought at the time) and pledged our lives to one another. We were two mutually infatuated children, ill-prepared for the pressures and challenges of married life. Six weeks after we married, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. Six months after that I was laid off from my job. This forced us to leave school and move to the home of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. So much for our “plans,” or God’s, for that matter. From there, my ministerial career and our married life took a completely different path.

I have written this trip down memory lane — one that will receive the voluminous treatment it deserves in my book — to illustrate how the many choices we make, along with external influences, materially and permanently affect our lives. I don’t believe in soul-mates. I don’t think for a moment that Polly is the only suitable woman on planet earth for me. She is, however, the woman I chose to love and marry, and together we have made a good life for ourselves. We have made a hell of a lot of bad decisions and wish we could have a do-over on more than a few things. But, on balance we’ve had a good life. The sum of our choices has led to where we are today. Hopefully, we have learned a thing or two over the past forty years, but I am confident that we still have a few fuck-ups left in our lives. Live and learn, right? Or, well, live anyway . . .

Do you ponder the decisions you have made in your life and how things have turned out for you? Do you wonder about how different life might have been for you had you made different decisions? Do you have a simple philosophy by which you govern your life? Please share your erudite thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

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10 Comments

  1. Wayne Beamer

    Hi Bruce,

    For a long time, I did ruminate about the past and what ifs… a lot. Over the past few years, however, I guess I changed. I decided that, at the end of the day, I got what I wanted. I got the girl who loved me like I always wanted and get to be with forever, I got stepkids and grandkids who love me.i have friends who teach me and care about me regardless how cantankerous I am.

    I’m lucky indeed. So are you, sir!

    Cheers!

    Wayne

    Reply
  2. Becky

    If I had associated the pain in my body with fibromyalgia a lot earlier, and had the serious pain in my jaw properly taken care of, I might still be a classical clarinetist. And possibly a pianist as well. Oh well! It is what it is.

    Reply
  3. Trenton

    I have come to realize that life is a lot of luck but also choices. Back when I was drinking the green drink(gross kool aid for anti vax xtian health nuts), I thought god was in control of everything and it went according to his plans. Well reality came crashing down on that notion once I started going to public colleges and getting out of the bubble that was my life at that point. There are things I wish I could do over but alas they are not to be. It sucks that my (mis)education through high school was at a small school with not enough resources and a highly controlled worldview. Needless to say I am now a believer in the gospel of personal responsibility. Life is what you make of it when you can and hoping for the best for the stuff not under our control.

    Reply
  4. ObstacleChick

    I did a lot of taking the bull by the horns in my own life because as a child I felt that I was at the mercy of other people’s sometimes poor decisions on my behalf. When I look back on some things that I could have done differently I realize I wasn’t in a position or prepared to choose otherwise. My 2 biggest acts of self-determination and self-preservation were higher secular education and moving far away from a needy, controlling family and the evangelical bubble.

    I have mostly accepted that my family did the best they could given their own limitations and circumstances, though I don’t think I will ever get over how pissed off I am about the fundamentalist Christian school they forced me to go to for 8 years. I had already been identified as “gifted” in the public school and would have been eligible for the magnet schools. But who knows how I would have fared – a big part of my focus on academic success was because I wanted OUT of the fundamentalist evangelical bubble.

    Reply
  5. StillSearching

    Hey Bruce – Do you think it would have been harder for you to stop pastoring if you had been making $70,000 – $100,000 or more a year, with health & life insurance, plus retirement? (This is a reality for some pastors in our denomination. I wonder how many stay because they just can’t afford not to?)
    I regret looking at my oldest child as if she were sinning against me & God, instead of realizing that she was displaying appropriate behaviours for her age and level of maturity.

    Reply
  6. Jen

    Happy birthday Bruce!

    I used to wish one or two things (out of many) in my highly controlled, very religious, and abusive upbringing had been different. But I came to realize that those couple of things were part of the glue that held the entire system together. Things could have never been different. My journey towards independence, higher education, and a healthy mind/body has been extremely rough, with a couple of bad choices here and there, but I couldn’t be prouder of myself.

    Reply
  7. dave

    An old man in the church I attended at the time advised me to quit my job at the ‘family business’ and move as far away as I could. I was fresh out of college, married with children at the time and on the cusp of a promising career in a growing and prosperous business.

    Of course I ignored his advice and choose to work the next 30+ in the ‘family’ business, believing the family business would provide for my family along with my brothers’ families far into the future and in turn would provide for my sons’ and their families’ futures.

    Of course, I was paid for my efforts. Which, in turn provided the food, shelter, education, health care and entertainment for my family. Of course, I was bullied and teased and ridiculed for being an ‘owners’ son’ and the misperceived silver spoon that came with it. Of course, as a owners’ son, I was held to a higher standard and thus worked harder and longer than most. I put up with all that (and much more) because in my heart I believed I was working for something greater, an offer of future ownership and management in the highly successful family business.

    That old man must have seen my delusion at the time he uttered those words. It only took me an entire working career to realize it. After the ‘family’ business as ‘acquired’ by my younger brother and a few others ‘characters’ outside the family, I realized that I was born on the wrong branch of the family tree. There was never to be an opportunity in the ‘family’ business for me. I had just worked at a ‘job’ for my entire career. I was no better off or different than the machinist and the warehouse worker or the service tech I spent over thirty years working beside.

    Due to other past decisions (some right and some wrong) I can’t untangle my life in the present to quit and move away. Although I wish I could.

    But I do wonder, most every day, what my and my family’s life would be if I was not so delusional in my youth and had taken that old man’s advice.

    Reply
  8. Michael Mock

    Well, I mean, it’s not terribly erudite but let me start with “Happy birthday!”

    And yeah, I’ve spent a lot of the past few years questioning choices and wishing I’d understood some situations better than I did at the time. On the other hand, I feel like I’m starting to get some things back under control, and I’m in a much better place than I could be — reasonably financially stable, excellent family life, a job that I don’t hate, some hobbies here and there and even a little bit of a social life. And having considered all that, I’ve come to an important conclusion:

    I really hate the phrase, “It is what it is.” I have never once heard that phrase used except in the context of a perfectly forseeable, easily avoidable bad decision or policy that we’re going to do anyway.

    Reply
  9. Tom

    There came a time during my senior undergrad year when I had to make a choice: law school, or seminary.

    I decided to go for law school. My reasoning was that people expect their pastor to be a plaster saint, and they expect lawyers to be unscrupulous S.O.B.s. I figured that on any given day I could exemplify either through my words and conduct, I’d rather have people mystified by unanticipated virtue than angered and disgusted by unanticipated vice. Thus, I ended up applying for law school and the rest, as it is said, is history.

    I’m now approaching 65 years. It didn’t go according to the game plan in a lot of ways. But I’d say that it played out better than it has for most: I worked at my dream job for over three decades and retired a few years ago with a generous (annuity) pension that goes up annually. My wife is a Nurse Practitioner who has built up a sizable 401(k). We will be resettling to the Portland OR area in a few months where we have purchased a nice townhouse in an area where a lot of young techie types reside, and plan on being very active with travel and other activities.

    As a final note, I’ve heard of a few mercenary religionist types who are going around and asserting that retirement isn’t “biblical.” That retirement is a Babylonian concept– not a concept of “God’s people.” All I can say is, “Fuck them. I’m going to enjoy life whether they like it or not– and they’re not going to skim 10% of what I’ve worked for.”

    Reply
  10. Brian Vanderlip

    I do not have the gray matter required to logically roll back the present into the past and see what lottery I would surely have ‘earned’. I have fantasized that the lovemaking I did not manage with a few teen girlfriends way way back would undoubtably have blown the top of my head through the clouds… Fantasy serves a smorgasbord, doesn’t it?
    My dad and mom taught me by example to hate myself, Baptist style. I have tried my darndest to remind my kids on a regular basis that they are loved and are remarkable human beings, that there is no greater love in my life than my ‘Rose’ and my ‘Dook’. The phrase, ‘I coulda bin sumbuddy’, is in my view just looking out the window on the dark side of the house. From another window, the light, the fields of gold, the all and everything there is, the every day lottery win of dawn. (But I still think of 15 year old Jan sometimes and Deb, necking all night, sweet bird of youth.)

    Reply

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