I’ve found that life presents a series of bizarre paradoxes. One of the more profound of these paradoxes is the desire of everyone to fit in. We all want to belong to something, to feel at home in it—whether it’s a family, a group of friends, a club. But simultaneously, we each like to conceive of ourselves as unique, not like anyone else. We want to be viewed as utterly distinct, completely unique, a one-of-a-kind beauty to be adored by the world. As long as I fit in. So it goes.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t deny this paradox. Rather, I affirm it wholeheartedly! It seems to me very Christian, that God creates each of us utterly unique and loves us as an individual, but He has simultaneously created us in His image, thus ensuring that we fit in because we are like every other human in this way. Consequently, I, too, want to fit in. I want to have friends, to be a part of something larger than myself, and to share a common purpose. But I also want to be known individually, with all my many weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
It’s these idiosyncrasies I was contemplating one day while I stood in my classroom on a Saturday morning. The fact that I was in my classroom on a Saturday at all is perhaps enough to make me unique. Who spends 50 hours a week in a place working and then visits it on Saturday? I do, apparently. But I had a reason. My classroom no longer felt peaceful; it was, in a way that is hard to explain, suffocating. Now, the room is quite spacious, so it wasn’t suffocating in any normal sense of the term—not, for instance, like being stuck at the back of an elevator filled with a dozen people. But again, in a way somewhat difficult to explain, the air felt stale, the space seemed smaller than its dimensions, and consequently the room did not bring me peace.
So, early on a Saturday morning, I made my way up to the school, entered my room, and began to execute a plan. About an hour into the process, books were stacked all over tables, I had moved furniture to my planned location…and I absolutely hated it. I faced a serious dilemma. Should I spend the next hour returning everything to the way it had been, to the room that felt stifling and without peace, now with two hours of wasted labor added on top of it? Or, should I double-down, embrace the chaos, and make more mess with no plan in hopes that all would turn out alright in the end? I chose the latter.
Initially my plan had been to move matching bookcases to the side of my desk that would leave me relatively hidden from view while at my desk, providing a sense of privacy that I thought would help me breathe in the busyness of the school year. But as I sat in the desk under that configuration, I really did feel like I was on that elevator. It had other problems, too. Thus, as I stood surveying the room, I began to rethink my ideas entirely. What if, contrary to my initial plan, I needed more openness, more visibility, and not less? I wasn’t sure, but something had to be done. And if I could rethink this particular configuration, then I could rethink everything in the room. So I did.
I spent the next hour touching almost nothing, looking at everything, and reimagining the room from corner to corner, floor to ceiling, and considering the possibility of repositioning everything I could physically move. Through the chaos of piles of books on the tables and the papers stacked on the floor, I began to find clarity. Shapes of furniture began to match nooks, juts, walls, like pieces of a puzzle. (Perhaps playing Tetris on GameBoy in my youth was valuable after all!)
As the vision materialized in my mind, the next step was to execute my new plan, but this was not easily accomplished. Moving a file cabinet thirty feet is no simple task, but a corner here and an edge there and soon I was waltzing my file cabinet step by step across the room to its new destination. Of course, every one of the hundreds of files had to be removed first, so those joined the piles of books now reaching like Babel to the heavens. It was fortuitous that my vision of my new room was in my mind, for I certainly couldn’t see much of the room any more in reality.
This process continued for several hours until nearly every piece of furniture, decoration, book, and file had been moved and replaced. But as the vision in my mind and the vision of my eyes blended into one, I saw a room that provided peace. It was once again a place where I could think, rest, and spend 50 hours a week working.
When students returned on Monday, the reactions were varied, but many immediately noticed the changes, even in minute details. Over the course of the week, several students and faculty members marveled at how well everything was fitted to the space. “I can’t believe that those bookcases are the exact length of that wall!” “Wow! That tall bookcase is the exact same height as the top of the white board!” And on and on, comments implying, and once even explicitly asking, if I the piece made to the dimensions of the room. “No,” I replied, “I actually received that bookshelf from my parents years ago because they didn’t want it anymore.”
But the more that I’ve reflected on this Saturday project, the more I realize I was wrong. The piece was made to the dimensions of the room; or at least, the piece was remade to the dimension of the room. But it wasn’t as though I had to alter the piece itself to fit the dimensions; rather, if it didn’t fit the dimensions, the piece would never have gone there to begin with. Instead, each piece was made uniquely, with its own dimensions and design, but it didn’t truly fulfill its purpose until it was properly fitted into the whole. And I suppose, now that I think about it, I’ve discovered why this project has brought me a measure of peace—because it taught me, once and for all, that I am a bookshelf.