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life

Losing Myself

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Youths spend a lot of time finding themselves, but as I have aged I feel that I spend a good deal of time losing myself. I come to a realization about myself or the world I live in, and it causes me to re-evaluate my past. The trouble is, I don’t remember all my past. Moreover, whatever new truth I’ve discovered influences the events I call to mind, so that my re-interpretation of myself is never complete. Yet this incomplete understanding subtly shifts my identity. This process happens again and again until inevitably my understanding of who I am and what my core values are have drifted a long way from where they began.

Part of growing up is to become more fully who you are. (Some would say, “who you are meant to be,” but that implies an intention on someone’s part, someone who is not you, but is somehow responsible, at least in part, for the kind of person you become. While I believe in that someone, not everyone does, so to keep this as open as possible to every reader’s understanding, I will not insist on any sense of direction or destiny.) You grow into yourself like when you were a kid, and your parents bought you shoes that were a size or half a size too big, knowing that your feet would grow into them before another year had passed. And your feet did grow, and eventually the shoes even became too small if they were well-made enough to last that long. So too as you grow, you discover yourself and begin to flesh out the sketches of yourself that you’ve made: what things never fail to please you, what things you greatly fear, what things present a challenge your heart leaps at, and what things overwhelm you with their impossibility.

Then just as you become comfortable being who you are, you begin to learn more about the world.

I sometimes feel that I’ve outgrown myself, but I think it is more accurate to say that I’ve re-imagined my own memories so often that they are no longer true memories. They have become stories that I use to reconstruct my sense of self, and I’m not sure any more how true they are. Sometimes, when I check my memories against those of brothers or sisters who shared in the same events, I discover stories so different from my own that I doubt mine, and that doubt also becomes incorporated into my own sense of self.

Our common understanding of aging is that the old are set in their ways, so firmly themselves that they can no longer change. But I am beginning to believe that what really happens is much more complicated. Frightened at losing our identity, we cling steadfastly to the few scraps of self we are certain of while the rest becomes increasingly diaphanous and diffuse. Family members think they know us, but they do not see the vast balloon of self that floats overhead. They only see the thin tether that anchors it to the ground.

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God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life

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When Paul—called Saul at the time—encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him to go into the city and await further instructions. Then he revealed to Ananias that he had chosen Saul to carry his name to the Gentiles. Because of his reputation, the Christians at Jerusalem refused to accept him, fearing that his conversion was a ruse to infiltrate their ranks, so Saul went home to Tarsus where he spent many years not preaching to the Gentiles.

Some will read what I have just written and think that I have flatly contradicted myself. God clearly had a plan for Saul’s life. Bear with me.

Jesus told several parables about a master who leaves and later returns and demands an accounting of the servants he left behind. The early disciples evidently retold these parables in the expectation that Jesus would soon return and call them to account for what they had done after he left. In each of these parables, the master leaves no detailed set of instructions—no plan—for them to follow. He leaves them with a mission. The planning is up to them. For example, in the Parable of the Talents, the master gives each of his servants bags of money, then sets out on a long journey. He doesn’t tell them how to invest it or give them detailed plans about how to put his money to work. He leaves that to their abilities. When he returns, he finds two of the servants have doubled the money he gave them, and he elevates them to positions of greater responsibility. The third servant, however, did nothing with the money entrusted to him. He buried it and returned it to the master after he returned. He tells the master that he was afraid.

What was he afraid of? Did he fear punishment should he fail? Did he fear disappointing the master? The master calls him wicked and lazy, indicating that he regards the servant’s fear as an excuse for him to do as he pleases and not accept responsibility for the work needed to make more money from the money he was given. Because the master sees through the servant’s excuses, he rewards him with the very things the servant had feared: disapprobation and punishment.

None of these servants was given a plan for how to use the master’s money. That was their own part. The master’s part was to provide the money. Theirs was to put it to work. The success or failure of their work would depend on their own ability to make wise investment decisions. Two embraced that responsibility, and their efforts prospered. The third shirked it, and made no effort.

So it is with the life of every believer. God has a mission for your life. That mission always involves taking his name to other people and showing them his love. He may, as he did with Paul, give you a more specific mission, but the planning and work involved in carrying out the mission is your part. Of course, God may also give very specific instructions when a strategic part of his overall plan is especially crucial. He did that when he gave such specific instructions to Ananias about where and when to meet Saul. But for the most part he entrusts us with the mission and leaves the planning to us.

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All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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