When I was in school, English teachers all seemed to be cut from the same cloth – at least the younger ones. They must have all minored in psychology because they were always asking questions that were meant to get us in touch with our feelings. I preferred the old-school type of teacher who read Beowulf in Old English and knew Shakespeare as if she had been his contemporary – and, by the looks of her, might have been.
The younger teachers asked questions like, “How does this make you feel?” In one such “express your feelings” class, we were divided up and made to sit at tables with other class members. We drew cards that asked questions about our thoughts and feelings. The girl on my right (who was voted “Best Legs” by the senior class) was asked to state what she thought of the person sitting on her left (me). She said bluntly, “I don’t think of him.” Ouch.
When I was a senior, days away from graduation, another teacher asked us, “Do you know who you are and what you are going to do with your life?” I remember answering yes on both counts. I knew who I was and I knew what I was going to do. I was mistaken on both counts.
It’s been more than four decades since then and I’m still finding out who I am. That’s the thing about people: we are bigger than we realize. We are more than the sum of our material parts. An individual is deeper and higher and more expansive than anyone but God realizes. A life is really a “lifescape,” a Promised Land to be explored and subdued, cultivated and preserved.
In the course of living in this lifescape, I have sometimes crossed the same ground (perhaps a fear or an unrecognized talent) numerous times. It was too messy the first time I came across it, so I skirted it and let it be. But years later, I came upon it again, and at that time started cleaning it up. Now, years later, I’ve wandered into the same place, and have begun to cultivate it so that something useful can come of it.
This idea of a lifescape has been helpful to me, but many ancient religious leaders preferred the image of a spiritual ladder or staircase, ascending to heaven and to fulfillment. That image has the advantage of expressing the sense of progress conveyed in St. Paul’s words: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
If we imagine life to be a staircase ascending to heaven, it might be helpful to think of it as a spiral staircase. Even after making significant progress in life, we circle through the same issues. We cross, as it were, the same vertical plane. The problems we encountered at 20 are still present in some form at 40 and 60 and 80, giving us the opportunity, which we don’t always appreciate, of dealing with them again from another angle.
And it’s not just problems we encounter, but opportunities. Perhaps we failed to recognize an opportunity when we were 20, still didn’t know what to do with it when we were 40, but now at 60 are ready to take hold of it. At 80 we may actually understand the opportunity more clearly, appreciate it more fully and use it more effectively.
In life we don’t get do-overs, but we do get do-agains, though usually from a different position in the lifescape. It occurs to me that even nations may get this opportunity. For example, as a country we have circled back around to the race issues we dealt with (or failed to deal with) in the 1960s. Things left undone can once again be attempted. Opportunities missed can still be seized.
Whether we (as individuals or as a nation) utilize those opportunities depends on our openness to change and our willingness to receive God’s grace and rely on his help. Our willingness is often in doubt. Thankfully, God’s grace is not.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter
I love this metaphor of the spiral staircase. I have used it many times when teaching my philosophy students about Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Piaget. I love the fact that it’s a 3-D image, that it makes room for more than just linear thinking, that it envisions us making progress even though we’re revisiting issues we thought we had laid to rest long ago. But I also love your word “lifescape” and how you use it in this case to bring in everything we say and do along the way, and not just our cognitive development. This is the first time I’ve ever heard Paul’s words about “pressing toward the mark” in three-dimensional terms. Paired with Christ’s teaching that the way is straight and the entrance is narrow, we Christians tend to chart out life paths that do not leave room for growth. Your image of a spiral ascent is a wonderful corrective to that.
Thanks, Ron. It’s easy to forget what David said in Psalm 18: “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”
It seems to me that we’re all bigger on the inside than on the outside (like the shack in Lewis’ “The Last Battle”) Do you think the conquest of Canaan offers an illustration at this point? The Jesus-follower has been brought into a lifescape flowing with milk and honey and promised “every place your foot treads.” But taking charge of a life, like taking charge of a land, requires intention, courage, wisdom and strength. But we can subdue our lives and bring them under Christ’s control, cultivate them and enjoy what they produce. Then we can really say that “the lines have fallen to me in pleasant places,”
On another note,just bought “What Does God Do from 9 to 5.” Looking forward to it. – Shayne
I would’ve sent you a copy if I had known! But I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.
Thanks for giving us much to think about in your columns.