Life is a losing proposition….it really is. I don’t want to depress you, but think of how many things we have lost in life and how many we will yet lose before more years have flown.
It starts early. You want to hear some real losers…go stand in the hallway outside the toddlers room in the east wing of our church as mother leaves her two-year-old there for the first time. You will hear all the agonies of the damned. Real loss.
Then on a September day I watch a little neighbor pass the church on the way to school —the brave and bright and bouncy look turning slowly into quiver and tear —what a loss. No more the carefree hours devoid of restraint and routine. Now it’s the programming and perspiration of real life. Remember the line of the little girl to her friend. Never learn how to spell “cat.” Once you learn that they just get harder.
Then there is the first love lost. The kind of thing the country western folk sing about. That first fantastic infatuation that was going to last for eternity. How painful it was when she/he/ tired of you in favor of the star quarterback or the cheerleader. Oh, the agonies of lost love. The end of the world. Life no longer worth living. There’s loss for you.
Leaving home for college? Lots of loss there. Loss of laundry service, well stocked refrigerator, old familiar private bedroom to retreat to, gas tank usually full. The seniors put up a brave front. Can’t wait to get away from home. Can’t wait for all that freedom to do as they please. But deep within there is grief as well.
The loss of youth and all those options when life begins to close in on you at thirty. Somehow that seems to have a fatal feel for many. Then come the middle years when the children do leave you for good. Real loss.
Occasionally you don’t lose them and that’s a loss as well. Audrey Foote writes, “Whose empty nest? I thought with only a twinge of irony as I looked up from the Times to see two of my children playing Mastermind at the coffee table, another slouched by the stereo replacing Vivaldi with Bono and a fourth bent over his math at the dining room table. A traditional heartwarming family vignette, except for the fact that apart from the youngest, age eleven, not one will ever again celebrate his or her 21st birthday. Like parents of the past, my husband and I assumed that when our children went off to college that it was an irrevocable break. It turned out to be merely a four year intermission.”
The losses associated with physical wear and tear. Bifocals. Muscles that don’t mind the mind quite like they used to. The age when anything new that you feel is most likely a symptom. Loss of one’s immortality as the realization creeps over you that you really don’t have forever.
Loss of that secret vocational dream. The growing sense that you are never going to quite live up to your early fantasy. Loss of one’s parents along about here. “He went as he would have wanted,” we reassure one another. “It was time for her to go.” But it is still a loss. Dad and Mother no longer a buffer between us and our own dying. Now we are the last generation.
Loss of one’s career in retirement, the demand that got us out of bed every morning and made us feel important and needed, that place to go to rub shoulders with other people. Here the grief can run deep and if unacknowledged, can work real malaise.
The truth is — life is one long string of very real losses. And I have become convinced that how well we learn to lose has more to do with the quality of our life than any other wisdom.
Because we can approach life as one long rear guard action in which we clutch and hang on to each gift as long as we can — the adolescent dream, the open options, the children, the fading ambitions. Some people do go through life walking backward like Lot’s wife, wasting precious tears and energy over something that can no longer be.
But it doesn’t work. Life has no reverse gear. The executive was asked how many of his employees were approaching retirement. He said, “They all are. Not one of them is going the other way.” Thomas Wolfe said it all, “You can’t go home again. You can’t go back to your family, back to your childhood, back to romantic love, back to a young man’s dreams of glory and fame, back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you.”
We can walk backward through life, longing for what once was, or we can learn the secret old Paul learned from his Lord, the secret of life as death and resurrection. And not just at the end of the line, but as the very truth about all life. Again and again Paul talks about death and resurrection as a way of life, as the pattern and dynamic by which we are to live our days.
He bids us look at life not as a given quantity which inch by inch we watch drain away until we drop, not as something which we lose more of year by year until we are but a shell of the vitality we once knew. Rather he calls us to see life as a continuum of death and resurrection, for each death some new ascent to fuller life, for each loss some new gain of greater living. So we move through death after death to ever greater life to the point when that final death comes, we hardly notice it when it happens.
There is first the dyings and risings of life’s seasons. To truly live means to constantly let go of one season precisely in order to move on to the next.
Right here is a place where our culture is in trouble. Young who are fighting to remain young and free and uncommitted, who refuse to grow up and assume responsibility for their existence, who recede into a quagmire of self-pity because the world won’t let them play any longer. A culture that constantly tells them in so many ways that youth is the very best place to be, doesn’t help either.
One man was exercised that his children seemed oblivious to the reality that life doesn’t arrive on a silver platter. They complained constantly that they needed bigger allowances. They didn’t want to make any sacrifices. One day he said to them, “Kids, you don’t know how good you have it. When I was a boy, I used to get up in the dark to deliver newspapers. I walked to school in the snow and rain, and after school I delivered groceries. Sometimes we didn’t even have enough to eat.” His children listened intently, seemed impressed, and finally the youngest piped up and said, “Hey, Pop! I bet you’re awful glad you live with us now.”
There are the young marrieds who having children, refuse to become parents in any real sense, refuse to accept that they can no longer come and go as they like, but are tied to the dribble and diapers, the cries in the night. As Michael Novak has pointed out, “The trouble with having children is that you can no longer be one.”
Then there is the so-called mid-life crisis which is often nothing more than a refusal to let go of one’s immortality. Rather than come to terms with one’s stage and age, one acts out by regressing to a younger mate and sports model.
The reality is that every stage of life has its own treasures and joys, and in a very real sense the best you is always yet to be. Didn’t you read the Time magazine article about the brain research which has proven that your brain power stays high right on through the senior years. And, if you exercise it, it actually gets bigger.
As I get older, I turn with great satisfaction to the words of Henry Jowett in a letter to a friend, “Though I am growing old, I maintain that the best part is yet to come —he time when one may see things more dispassionately and know oneself and others more truly, and perhaps be able to do more, and in religion rest centered in a very few simple truths. I do not want to ignore the other side, that one will not be able to see so well, or walk so far, or read so much. But there may be more peace within, more communion with God, more real light instead of distraction about many things, better relations with others, fewer mistakes.”
Barry Johnson tells of watching an older man playing with a group of children at a church pre-school. “Isn’t it a little different for a man to be working in a pre-school?” I asked. The director replied, “I suppose it is, but not for Bill. He sat in an executive suite at Ford Motor Company for forty years. But he knows what is really important. You know, some people really feel the rain; others just get wet. Bill’s a rain feeler!” Meaning, I suppose, Bill really lives where he is.
But you have to die to the sunshine to feel the rain, surrender one season to revel in another, you have to lose in order to win. Seasons. “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on..” writes the Apostle. And what is he determined to forget. Good stuff. His tribe and pedigree. Scholarship. Piety. Honors. I press on to what lies ahead.
We need to die to our seasons. And we need to die to our sins. A word badly mauled and mis-used in today’s vocabulary. But Paul is talking about “dying to the self.” So what is this kind of dying all about. It is a growing surrender of our concern for, preoccupation with the self, with its needs and wants and desires in the name of rising into a larger, fuller, self-transcendent existence.
We live in a couch potato culture of constant siren calls to indulge, to pity, to pamper the self. Many have abandoned the ancient wisdom that the goal of life is not to “perfect ourselves,” or to “get in touch with ourselves,” but to get beyond ourselves, in an effort to find something far, far greater in life than our isolated little egos.
Robert Stevenson understood this to be so when he wrote in the 18th Century that, “In every corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be a gainer, to forget oneself is to be happy.” The Apostle Paul understood this to be so. So long ago he wrote, “Christ is dead to self once and for all, and now the life that he lives is life with God. In the same way, you must now see yourselves as being dead to self, but alive for God in Christ Jesus… think of yourselves as raised from death to life…”
Real life that is vital and filled with purpose comes not as we are preoccupied with our happiness and self-fulfillment, but as we die to these and rise into larger life for God and others. And this is no one time thing. It is a life long dying and rising, something we are called to with each new day’s light.
And we need to embrace the death in our suffering, that we may live again and again in rich and full lives. Here too one must accept and let go in order to move on. It sounds strange to modern ears to hear a man speak of sharing suffering so as to share resurrection. Paul pens, “My one desire is to share his sufferings in growing conformity to his death, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” But those who have gone through it testify that it is so. Only as they are able to embrace their particular suffering as their lot in life are they able to rise to new levels of life.
The late Dr. Arnold Beisser in his account entitled Flying Without Wings tells of his search for new life and meaning as he came to terms with his disability and then transcended it…to practice psychiatry, fall in love, truly to soar without wings.
At twenty-four he was a medical school graduate and a nationally ranked tennis player. But overnight a devastating bout of polio left him paralyzed. Polio robbed Arnold Beisser of his strength, his athletic ability and almost his life. Yet he discovered in this unthinkable trap not only the expected sadness and despair, but wonder, delight, and the pleasures of every day living.
Near the end of his story he says this. “If someone were to ask if I would like to return to being able-bodied, my first question would be: ‘What would I have to give up?’ If someone were to ask Rita and me if we would like to return to her pre-rheumatoid arthritis situation, our first question would also be: ‘What would we have to give up?’ We have received some disguised gifts from each of these traumatic events. I do not minimize their very traumatic nature. Things happened that we did not want, that we fought against to keep from happening, things that were painful and disruptive. But they brought unexpected opportunities once they happened, and there was no way of turning back. In order to see the opportunities, though, you must accept what happened as if you have chosen it.
But I find I must have a reason for getting up in the morning, for doing what I am doing. I must be going someplace. The future that I move toward has only sketchy details for me. It is a future which I cannot fully comprehend, but which faith tells me exists, and which is worthwhile. It is not a future limited to my own destiny in my body and in my time, but something much larger. The whole universe revolves around something mysterious and awesome. But there are moments when all conventional terms pale in their attempts to describe what there is, for it is beyond peace, beyond joy, beyond tragedy, beyond comedy, and well beyond health and disability. It is life.”
There is something of the same spirit in favorite words of Henry Van Dyke. Let me but live my life from year to year,/With forward face and unreluctant soul;/ Not mourning for the things that disappear/ In the dim past, nor holding back in fear/ From what the future veils; but with a whole/ And happy heart, that pays its toll/ To Youth and Age, and travels on with cheer./ So let the way wind up the hill or down,/ O’er rough or smooth, the journey will be joy;/Still seeking what I sought when but a boy,/ New friendship, high adventure and a crown.
So life is made up of loss, loss of the seasons of life, loss of self with its demands, and the loss that comes with suffering. But there is also out beyond each of them, again and again, resurrection, new life. Let us learn it and live it.