“All Is Lost…and All Is Not Lost”: An Introduction to Life Is Impossible by Nick Lannon

No one ever said life would be easy. But does your life ever seem…too hard? […]

Mockingbird / 3.21.19

No one ever said life would be easy. But does your life ever seem…too hard? Does self-help, strangely, not work? If so, consider Life Is Impossible: And That’s Good News, the new book by longtime Mockingbird writer Nick Lannon. It’s a slim work, biblically sound and buoyed by vivid illustrations from culture and everyday life. Read the intro below as a teaser.

Topics include: the storms of life, an Übermensch, the fetal position, fig leaves, Mike Tyson, and a miracle. Hang on to your hats:

Robert Redford is lost at sea. He’s about to die. I know, right? Not Robert Redford! Not the Sundance Kid! This paragon of strength and virility—I mean, look at those manly lines on his face—is the last person on earth we’d expect to find in this predicament. No one was better prepared for the voyage than he was…and yet he finds himself on the point of death. He’s curled up, crying and alone, like an infant back in the womb. He’s finally realized that the obstacles he’s facing are impossible to overcome.

I have bad news. Actually, it’s news that you probably already know…although you probably don’t know that you know it. Here it is: you’re just like Robert Redford. Your life is impossible. You can’t do anything you want to do or be anything you want to be. I know, I know…my mother was wrong, too. Olympic athletes and celebrities who tell us that we can do anything we set our minds to? Also wrong. But you knew this, even if only subconsciously. Ask all the people who didn’t win Olympic medals and who didn’t “make it” in Hollywood. They know it, too. And those are just things that are obviously impossible. Things that seem simple turn out to be beyond our reach, too. Try deciding to not be in a bad mood. Or to stop a case of the giggles. Life is impossible. That’s bad news.

But I have good news, too, and this you might not know: the fact that your life is impossible is actually good news. It’s good news because of the Good News (capital “G,” capital “N”) about Jesus. That’s what this book is about: the bad news that life is impossible, and the Good News that Jesus is the savior for those burdened with an impossible life.

There’s no better way to introduce a book about the impossibility of life—and why it’s good news—than the scene I described at the beginning of this introduction, the psychological climax of the nearly dialogue-free Robert Redford film All Is Lost (written and directed by J. C. Chandor). Redford stars as “Our Man,” an aging-but-capable mariner who finds himself lost at sea. Apart from a bit of opening narration and a screamed expletive when he realizes that all might indeed be lost, the only dialogue in the film is Redford calling out to a couple of passing ships for help.

The ships don’t stop. All is lost. All Is Lost is a film about ultimate powerlessness. More precisely, it’s a film about the powerlessness of human beings to deal with what life can (and usually does) throw at them. It’s about the impossible. At first blush, though, “our man” is anything but powerless. We first meet him as he wakes up to his sailboat filling with water. We watch as he assesses the damage and goes about fixing it, all with incredible calm and skill. I found myself thinking, within moments of the beginning of the film, “Well, I’d be dead already.” But not our man. And that’s the point.

All Is Lost is the story of an Übermensch, an almost superheroic Redford ready for anything…except the ultimate thing.

The ultimate thing in any sailing movie is, of course, a storm. But not just any storm. A storm that reduces our man to nothing. In a storm powerful enough, all the preparation, all the skill, and all the calm in the face of adversity just isn’t enough. Our man is as ready to face this storm as a man in a sailboat (albeit with a broken radio) could possibly be. He’s infinitely more ready than you or I would be. But it’s not enough.

It’s not too on-the-nose at this point to say that the viewer is meant to consider the situations in their lives in which their preparation isn’t enough. Chandor has said explicitly in interviews that his intention was to bring moviegoers to a place in which they were forced to come to grips with their own mortality. This is a story meant to force you to confront the impossibility of your life, the incontrovertible fact that, no matter how ready you are, there will be situations that you cannot control, things that get the best of you.

It is a natural human impulse, I think, famously capitalized upon by the Boy Scouts, to assume that preparedness can solve any problem. If you go into the woods with the right maps, enough food and water, and appropriate bug repellant, you should be fine. Analogously, if you go out into the world with the right grounding in philosophy, having read the classics, and with an appropriately dry sense of humor, you should be fine. Until the storm comes. It’s in the midst of the wind and waves that you realize your preparedness is insufficient. No one has put this feeling more succinctly than boxer Mike Tyson, who famously said that “everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” I’m writing this book for people like me, who thought they were prepared, but who then got punched in the mouth.

Christians ought to understand this storm best, because we know where it comes from. It should be no surprise to see it brewing on the horizon; we’ve been trying to protect ourselves from it since Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together in the Garden of Eden (Adam said, “‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid…’” (Genesis 3:10, ESV)). But what Christians all too often think is that they can be prepared enough—usually through things like spiritual disciplines and morally upright living—to survive the storm. They know the storm is going to be heavy—after all, there is no storm more powerful than God’s judgment of and wrath toward sin—but they think that they can ride it out, perhaps with a little well-timed help from Jesus. They’re wrong. That’s what this book is about. The storm is too vicious. Nothing can be done to escape it. In the face of the killer storm of the almighty power of God…all is lost. This is the story of the counter-intuitive freedom that comes from the realization that the problems you face aren’t difficult ones but impossible ones.

At the key moment in All Is Lost, our man is reduced to something like infancy, unable to affect his fate at all. He’s in a life raft, in the midst of the storm, in the fetal position. He has his hands over his ears and his eyes squeezed shut, like a child being told something he doesn’t want to hear. The announcement he’s hearing is God’s first word out of the storm: you’re going to die. Our man can no longer think of life’s problems as difficult. The truth is literally drowning him: his life is impossible. That seems like terrible news. All is lost. And yet, all is not lost.

“You’re going to die” may be God’s first word out of the storm, but it’s not God’s final word. The other thing that Christians know about the storm is that it ends. After all, Jesus announced that “it is finished” as he hung on the cross, guaranteeing victory to all who trust in him for salvation from the storm.

Our man’s rescue (in the film) is a miracle. It can be described in no other way. He drifts by accident into an active shipping lane but is unable to flag down either of two tankers, one of which passes so close to him that I thought he might just grab hold as it went by. Finally, he drifts out of the other side of the shipping lane. Grasping at straws, he burns his life raft in an effort to alert a third ship, but that doesn’t seem to be working either. The ship isn’t stopping. As he floats beside the burning raft, he even literally stops treading water, deciding to drown. He gives up. All is lost. Then, everything changes.

It is only when all of our self-salvation efforts are exhausted, it is only when we decide to stop treading water that we will call out for a savior who exists outside of us. That call is answered by God’s second and final word out of the storm: a calm sea, and a savior walking across the water.

First, all is lost. Then, all is not lost. Then, salvation. Then, the shadow of a boat. Then, a hand reaching down beneath the surface of the water. Our man is rescued, and so are we. When all is lost to us, almighty God proves that all is not lost to him.

This world—the one you see if you look up from behind the pages of this book—will tell you again and again that life is difficult. Too often, the church will join that chorus, claiming that the life of the Christian is difficult, too. I’ve written this book for those who—like me—set out on the Christian journey like Robert Redford in All Is Lost: prepared for a difficult ride and convinced that Jesus would be there to help when things got overwhelming. But life isn’t difficult. Following Christ’s example isn’t difficult. Both are impossible. Both will leave you—again, like Redford—curled up in the fetal position, calling out for help. That life is impossible is worse news than perhaps you were expecting…but it only throws the goodness of the Good News into sharper relief: God delights in accomplishing the impossible. The impossible work of God makes an impossible life good news: it means you don’t have to save yourself. God has done that for you.

Life Is Impossible is available now. You can purchase your copy through the Mockingbird bookstore (where the merch sale continues…we still have a few t-shirts left; get ’em while you can) or through Amazon. Happy reading!

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