The Common Good

The Middle of the Shelf

A few years ago, I was browsing a bookstore and wound up in the “Spirituality” section. While scanning the titles, I noticed something that struck me as ironic and funny.

Girl in a bookstore,  LIUSHENGFILM /
Girl in a bookstore, LIUSHENGFILM /

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At one end of a shelf was a book by an ardent and dogmatic atheist. At the other end of the same shelf was a book by an ardent and dogmatic fundamentalist.

Two books, same shelf.

And in many significant ways, two peas in the same pod, no?

The atheist and the fundamentalist needed each other as foils to sell their books and make a lot of money. They both had a vision of life that was black-and-white. Both thought they had infallible answers to life’s biggest questions.

Matching bookends indeed.

Don’t most of us live somewhere in-between?

Sure, there are times when we’d all love to have easy-to-follow answers to all the big questions. Perhaps that’s why those books are so popular. Their approach resonates with us on some level. But in actual practice, our lives are far different. We find ourselves most often living in the gray areas.

We inhabit the uncertain middle of the shelf.

Take parenting. There are many shelves full of books written about it. Scores of experts weigh in. Yet the first time you hold your child, you get that overwhelming realization that no matter how much you’ve read, no matter how many stories you’ve heard, you’re really unprepared for what’s to come. There is no answer book for everything.

Your child has a fever. It’s nighttime. Do you call the doctor? Do you take your child to emergency care? How do you decide? Are you making the right decision? Are you overreacting? Not doing enough? The books have suggestions, but a lot of qualifiers and subjectivity are involved. Often, the books give different and conflicting advice.

And it dawns on you: Parenting is a learning process. You listen to others’ stories and hear their advice, then go and do it the best you can in any given moment, understanding a little better with each decision that mistakes are made along the way.

Parenting isn’t multiple choice. It’s an essay, one that has to be rewritten and revised day by day.

The baby soon becomes a toddler and a teenager. The parent grows and changes, too. Everyone and everything evolves. And so must our partial solutions and temporary answers.

Life is lived in the middle of the shelf, full of moments of uncertainty and doubt that serve as first drafts for stories of love and grace, learning, and faith.

The books that I appreciate most are the ones that raise questions instead of trying to provide one-size-fits-all answers. The ones that avoid the extremes and plow the rich middle ground, creating space for growth.

I like authors who recognize that black ink on white paper can take us only so far. We have to escape the book binding and explore unfamiliar places.

As we do, we essentially write our own book of life, one that fits comfortably onto the middle of the shelf. There's always room there for another book.

For whatever reason, the author of life made the shelf very long so there would always be plenty of space in the middle.

Joe Kay is a professional writer living in the Midwest.

Image: Girl in a bookstore,  LIUSHENGFILM /

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