Make Something of Your Life

Man is the intermediary between creatures … he is the familiar of the gods above him as he is lord of the beings beneath him; that by the acuteness of his senses, the inquiry of his reason and the light of his intelligence, he is the interpreter of nature, set midway between the timeless unchanging and the flux of time; the living union … the very marriage hymn of the world, and, by David’s testimony but a little lower than the angels.[1]
— Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (15th century aristocrat, philosopher and Renaissance humanist)

Birth of the New Man - Salvador DaliIt was the day of my father’s funeral. We had finished the service and had just placed his remains in the columbarium when a man I’d known for over twenty years approached me, placed his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Jonathan, make something of your life.” He then turned and silently walked away. Needless to say, I was stunned beyond words, confused, and deeply troubled.

I can still distinctly remember looking out the hospital room window of the Behavioral Health Unit at the pot-holed streets, empty and dilapidated buildings, and old rusty cars of what I could see of that section of downtown Dothan. I can remember thinking it seemed a fitting reflection of my life: broken, hallow, decrepit, forlorn. My father was sick with cancer at the time; five months after being released from the hospital, he died. Part of me – a very good part – died with him.

There on the day of the funeral, then, someone whom I had genuinely loved and respected came face to face with me, not to proffer consolation, but to tell me to “make something” of my life. A bit more than six months later I would be back in the BHU of the local hospital … which is not to say his blow-to-the-gut comment alone sent me back, but that whole surreal scene within the episode of my father’s burial certainly factored into my readmission.

To this day I’ve not been able to free myself from the image: the words, the hand on my shoulder, the straight look, the silence in which he walked away … the deep and painful shame. “Yes, here I am, more worm than human, the scorn of humanity, an object of ridicule.”[2] But what does it mean, after all, to “make something” of one’s life? Ontologically, life is being, and so I am willing to suppose the possibility of becoming. What am I to become, though?

Does my life have meaning, value, purpose? Is life in general more than pot-holed streets, empty and dilapidated buildings, and old rusty cars; other than broken, hallow, decrepit, forlorn? I quite agree with the early-to-mid 20th century Russian philosopher, Semyon Liudvigovich Frank:

In order to understand this, we do not by any means have to go as far as the dominant natural-scientific understanding of the world demands: We do not have to view the world as a dead chaos, as a mechanism of lifeless physical and chemical forces… The ancient Greeks knew better than we that the world is not a dead machine but a living being, that it is full of living and animate forces. Happily … it is becoming clear again to the human gaze that the world is not a dead chaos of inert material particles, but something much more complex and vital… the world is a great living being and, at the same time, the unity of a multitude of living forces.[3]

No, scientific-materialistic evolutionism is utterly inadequate to explain the tremendous wonder of life in general and the nature of humanity specifically. Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) evolution properly focuses upon natural, biological evolution, but is “defective” in offering satisfactory explanations for “mental” and spiritual “experiences of a nonmaterial kind that are in another world from the world of” strict physicality.[4] Yes, the whole cosmos is shot through with the Mystery of Life unsubjectable to the microscope or physiological dissection, which brings me to my problem.

Looking back upon a failed marriage, failed writing “career,” failed ministry (into which I should never have entered), and being diagnosed bi-polar with depression, as well as anxiety disorder; with precious little money in the bank and no transportation, I just wonder how it is I might go about “making something” of my life. I’m certainly not so many particles haphazardly thrown into “a dead chaos,” but the complexity of it all overwhelms me while the vitality seems to escape me altogether. Success certainly seems to elude me, despite my most valiant efforts.

Gazing through that hospital window three-and-a-half years ago I quite frankly asked, “My God, what’s become of me? Who and what am I … really? What’s going to happen to me, and what am I supposed to do?” Well, I suppose the gentleman at the funeral gave me some sort of answer: “Make something of your life.” Ultimately, it is an equivocal, ambiguous and really rather chafing answer, “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[5]

Can we believe that each of us has been made in the image of God, according to the divine likeness;[6] that we each possess “royal dignity,” in the language of Nona Verna Harrison;[7] that “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing;”[8] that God “is our Father” and “truly is our Mother, who is all wise and all good,” who “wishes to be known,” and “comforts readily and sweetly,”[9] and is even now “making all things new?”[10] And personally, do I truly and fully fit within all this … assuming it is true?

Perhaps it is not, after all, the truth of the matter; to doubt is very tempting to me. It is very tempting to believe that, perhaps, Sir Charles Sherrington was right in surmising:

It would sometimes seem to (humanity that) he is merely a tragic detail in a manifold which goes its way without being even fully conscious of him. A lonely motive in a more than million-motivated construction whose whole motive, if it have one, is unknown to him except as alien to his own and his to it. Master of his fate? Around him torrential oceans of energy; and his own energy by comparison a drop which trickles down the window-pane.[11]

What am I to do? How am I to “make something” of my life? Really, I should rid myself of this vexing question, but it haunts me … it possesses me like some dæmon. Can I simply be and be content with my being without becoming? Would the Buddhist likely answer this query in the affirmative? The Eastern Orthodox Christian certainly would not; theosis,[12] she would say, is the goal of one’s life – that is, the participation in the divine nature in an ever-deepening, intimate Communion with God. Alas, this has eluded me, too, as well as the Wesleyan experience of instant sanctification and subsequent life of holiness. (I am by no means a candidate for sainthood!)

As I look up into the vaulted canopy of the beautiful night sky, splashed with radiant stars tonight, surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells of nature, heaven itself is dark and eerily silent. I cannot be a natural-materialist — the philosophy is bankrupt — and yet I cannot deny that so many of my prayers have gone unanswered, supplications I cannot myself fulfill. “You have not because you ask not,” so “ask and you shall receive” are two scriptures that have tortured me for years. Little wonder I am moved to inquire, “Is anyone listening?”

Yet I still find myself turning, rather weakly and despondently, back to the remaining shreds of my faith, hoping that the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor is right:

God knows that being problematic is just part of being human. Every one of us suffers from some thorn or another. Every one of us has a shipwreck or two in our past, and every one of us has days – maybe even whole years – when we are short, weak, insecure, and tactless. The good news is that none of that disqualifies us from serving God. On the contrary, those things belong on our list of credentials, because the fact that the church survives with people like us in charge is the surest proof in the world that Christ is alive and well and dwelling in us. How else could we have endured, either as individuals or as a people? God’s grace is sufficient for us.[13]

However, is God’s grace sufficient enough for me to “make something” of my life? I wonder … but, then, I still haven’t really answered the question of what it means exactly for one to “make something” of one’s life. Until I answer that question, then, I suppose I’ll simply have to go on living life, and it seems to me that’s something already, whatever the meaning or value.

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[1] Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, A. Robert Caponigri, trans., 3-4

[2] Psalms 22.6, The Inclusive Bible: First Egalitarian Translation (IB/ET)

[3] S. L. Frank, The Meaning of Life, Boris Jakim, trans., 47-48

[4] Sir John Eccles (Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology) and Daniel N. Robertson, The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind, 16-17

[5] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5, Lines xxvii-xxviii

[6] Cf. Genesis 1.27

[7] Nona Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation, 89-106

[8] Luke 12.23 IB/ET

[9] The Wisdom of Julian of Norwich, Monica Furlong, comp., 30, 2, 17

[10] Revelation of St. John 21.5; Note: the Weymouth New Testament renders, “I am re-creating…” which is probably more precise to the meaning.

[11] Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature, 272; cf. also C. S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” Christian Reflections, 65-66 in which Lewis observes, “We might therefore conclude that though the ultimate reality is logical it has no regard for values, or at any rate for the values we recognize. And so we could still accuse it of futility. But there is a real difficulty about accusing it of anything. An accusation always implies a standard… And while you are making the accusation you have to accept the standard as a valid one. If you begin to doubt the standard you automatically doubt the cogency of your accusation… If nothing is certainly right, then of course it follows that nothing is certainly wrong. And that is the snag about what I would call Heroic Pessimism – I mean the kind of Pessimism you get in Swinburne, Hardy, and Shelley’s Prometheus and which is magnificently summed up in Houseman’s line, ‘Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.’”

[12] Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature.

[13] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Perfect in Weakness,” Home By Another Way, 172-173

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4 thoughts on “Make Something of Your Life

  1. Good luck to you. You have a beautiful soul. I just feel like the society structure these days is not so friendly toward smart and sensitive people and beats the crap out of them.
    Perhaps ‘success’ and ‘making something out of your life’ is in searching, digging deeper, not necessarily reaching some set goal. It helps sometimes to just accept the journey as it is, all good and difficult.
    I hope you find peace and colors in all of it.

    1. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom and encouragement. As I continue my life journey, somewhat more difficult this week, I especially appreciate your positive, uplifting remarks! Blessings!

      1. I hope you can curse and wail with the difficulty and live it fully out, and then use it as a stepping stone to step on it, and reach higher. Let me know if I can help in any way, perhaps strangers can be most helpful sometimes as there are no commitments or prejudices.

        Interestingly, we had been discussing happiness and difficulties on this blog by Danish author Andrea if you want to check it out: http://andreahejlskov.com There were some good books mentioned there as well, like Matthew Crawford’s “The World Outside Your Head” or Bill Plotkin’s “Nature and Human Soul”.
        Hope you can see light in the darkness.

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