The Life We Have
The Lenten exercise this week encourages us to receive the life we have rather than focus on the life we might prefer. This advice sounds sensible and logical, but it represents a difficult attitude to maintain and a fairly complex theology to comprehend. We try to receive life as a gift, yet some situations are so clearly evil that we don’t know how in the world thanksgiving should apply. We don’t really want to blame God for the childhood abuse or the decades of illness or a horribly damaging marriage. But we intuit that God’s presence simply, always is. Psalm 139 tells us that we couldn’t escape holy presence if we tried. Still, we’d like to know why holy presence twiddled its thumbs while all hell broke loose. Some people feel—and understandably so—that God let them down by way of silence and inaction.
One participant of this retreat mentioned lately, and I concur, that suffering doesn’t automatically bring good results. Suffering in and of itself is not beneficial; it can lead to benefit depending on how we respond and on how others respond to us while we suffer. But let’s not bestow upon suffering inherent honor or glory. Let’s not perceive just any form of suffering as a special badge of righteousness. There is such a thing as true martyrdom, but a lot of suffering in this life has nothing to do with that. Horrible stuff just happens because people are cruel or thoughtless and because institutions and systems are deeply flawed.
We must also deal with the brutal reality that other people’s actions affect us, often regardless of how much we want to be involved. When people exercise their free will, sometimes they cause us much harm. Divine love does not swoop to the rescue like a pious super-hero. We exist in sticky webs of cause-and-effect, of handed-down family patterns, of others’ profound failure to love.
So we all live with damage; we all pay the price for others’ sins and weaknesses. We have no say over which family or country or era we’re born into. Our individual histories are attached to those of family, culture, and region. We are plopped into a grand play, its back story and characters determined before we even set foot on the stage.
How do we wrap our faith around this? How do we say thank-you for a life we did not choose, particularly if that life has been filled with pain and trouble?
It helps if, first of all, we understand just how expansive the story really is. It is so expansive that it transcends our favorite plot-lines—such as happy marriage / healthy children / successful career / perfect health / comfortable old age. Our imagined plot lines are limited and not very original; they don’t allow for anything to go wrong. And something always goes wrong.
It also helps to consider that Divine love has goals for our interior life. God wants us to be free—free of fear, of obsessive attachments, of the self-limiting ego. God wants us to be free—to dream outlandishly, to give everything away, to receive the universe as a vast adventure. Such interior freedom does not form in a vacuum of contentment. Our souls must be stretched and tried. We must delve into our own darkness and grapple with our stubborn inclination to resist God’s presence and help. Imperfect, hurtful life experiences provide the opportunity for the maturing of the innermost self.
It’s especially helpful to remember that nothing is wasted in a life that’s open to grace. God will take our past—whatever it is—and use it to equip us with specific strengths and passions. Henri Nouwen’s concept of the wounded healer grew out of this realization. The person who suffers in a certain way is able to help others who suffer in that same way. For instance, I was unable to give birth to children. I’ll always experience some grief because of this, but I will have a particular credential for comforting and encouraging other women whose lot in life does not include biological motherhood.
I suffered illness as a child, and that illness contributed to some deficiencies—physical and social. It also forced upon me an early learning of solitude and observation. Would I have become a writer otherwise? I don’t know. But I can thank God for how those gifts developed in the life I had.
Some people just naturally go with the flow and make the best of their situations. But some of us spend a lot of energy and too many years pining after the life we wished we’d had. On my worst days I tell God, “If I had it to do over again, I’d do every damn thing differently—so there!” I’ve wanted to be another person entirely—different face, different personality, different history. I consider this attitude one of my major habitual sins; it’s sort of a default position I revert to when I’m not living in faith, when I’ve been disappointed yet again, or when I’m quite tired of working on my interior life.
The ability to receive the life we have is a habit that develops out of long practice. I see it as a primary spiritual discipline. The best I can do on any given day—and perhaps several times that day—is say, “I receive my life today as a gift. I don’t make any judgments or conclusions based on today alone. I accept no guilt or responsibility for what is outside my control. But, Lord, help me respond to this day, this hour, with faith and grace.”