Dear Miriam, Sarah, Hanna, Eva,
For some time I’ve been thinking of writing to you about some of the things I have been learning over the past 48 years; a little fatherly wisdom which might be helpful along the way. I can’t say it will be particularly excellent wisdom, but it has largely been the basis of your formation and will therefore, I hope, be fitting for you.
So today I’ll make a start, and I begin with Life itself.
It has probably occurred to you that Hamish, our dog, doesn’t appear to worry much about the meaning of life. At least not from what I can tell. But, as you know, he occasionally does get bored, at times wanting to get out of the house just because he’s tired of sitting around. Which to me seems to indicate he has flashes of “there must be more to life than this”, even if it is limited to a doggy level of sensory stimulation. Most of the time he seems pretty content to devote his days to mindless slumber.
I’m guessing that 99.99% of all life forms on earth give no thought at all to the meaning of their existence. Most are incapable of doing so. Life follows established patterns, is passed on in reproduction, and runs out. As far as we know it is only we humans who try to make any sense of our presence and experience here, giving special attention to those things which are disagreeable to us physically or emotionally – pain, fear, loss, death.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!…Everything is Meaningless!” says Qoheleth at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes. And then he follows with a lengthy treatise exploring the meaninglessness of life. But in his closing words he still manages to come up with a Purpose Statement: “To sum up the whole matter: fear God, and keep his commandments, since this is the whole duty of man. For God will call all hidden deeds, good and bad, to judgement.”
It seems then that whether or not we fulfill our purpose is ultimately not exclusively ours to determine, and in any case is only established after the fact. In As I Lay Dying, Richard Neuhaus wrote: “We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of us the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well.”
Living well, if I read Qoheleth correctly, “the whole duty of man”, is to keep God’s commandments, which Jesus nicely summed up for us as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
When I was younger I used to believe God had a blue-print type plan for each person’s life, and it was our duty to try and figure it out before taking a step. Like a Giant Sat-Nav In The Sky, God had established the ideal route for my life – my career, partner, children, etc. – and all I needed to do was to be careful to listen to his faithful instructions along the way and everything would work out. If I got distracted or someone else was talking at the same time, and I ended up taking a wrong turn somewhere, well, God was capable of re-calculating the whole system and coming up with an alternate plan to get me to the places I needed to go.
I don’t hold that view anymore. Naturally, God may at times communicate about specific activities for specific individuals, more so for some than for others. But for most of us life is intended to be what we make of it by the decisions we take as we confront our individual circumstances with the wisdom we are given. God created us in his image and as a consequence, I believe, we are meant to be co-creators with him, given the liberty to have a hand in forming and shaping our world, and our lives in it. It means we let go of seeing ourselves merely as small children receiving from our Father’s hand whatever he gives us, and accept that we are intended to grow to maturity – to become adult children, having the freedom to make our own contribution, and taking responsibility for our actions.
St. Augustine is famously misquoted as having said, “Love God and do what you like”. The misquote has some tread on it too but, to be accurate, what he really wrote was, “dilige et quod vis fac”, which can be translated, “Love and then what you will, do.” And his point, if you read it in context, was that love should be at the root of all you do, for “of this root can nothing spring but what is good”.
Life is going to throw a lot of hard stuff at you; it won’t always be pleasant or make a lot of sense. Don’t try to force it to. Make your decisions as best you can, with good motives, and don’t dwell too long on them if things go sour. Own up, learn, and move on. Take joy in your talents and in your liberty to be creative with life. More than anything, whatever happens, be sure to maintain your respect and devotion for God in a way that is genuine (your heart, soul, mind, strength) and don’t flag in your service to others. Do these things and you should be alright.