I commented on a NYTimes article last week, prompted by its headline: “Well into Adulthood and Still Trying to Figure It Out.” The article was a review of two t.v. series on HBO that I have never seen, probably never will see and really have no desire to watch. (I don’t have cable.)
But the news story grabbed my attention. It is not at all surprising that young adults haven’t “figured everything out” since that seems like an awfully high bar to attain! Actually, what garnered my response: the headline’s implcation that ‘figuring it all out’ is a possibility at all???
As I move into my mid 50’s, I’ll cop to still being a little startled by how much I don’t know and how troubling that lacuna can be. As a younger man, I expected years and experience to turn into more understanding. That an advantage of aging was attaining more and more what is needed to be known for “really living.”
Current examples of the kinds of questions that keep me up at night — or can seem like nightmares in their own right — include:
~ should I… could I… be more effective in ministry? Well, of course! Then how? Since I don’t have that answer, I often move on to: am I where I should be and doing what I should be doing in order to help the contemporary church increase its capacity to reach more of our neighbors? Another big question for which I can’t come up with an answer! So let’s try more local: am I being the leader that Old First needs? Are we doing what we need to as Old First? Sleepless sigh.
~ how could I deal more successfully with family… and humans more generally? It’s not so much that I expect them to be anything less than a puzzle to me. But I wish I had a better mastery of how I could be in relation to them. Too often and in too many situations, what to say or do is still the uncomfortable puzzle I can’t quite put together.
~ why am I single? I think I’d be happier if I had someone to be going along in life with me. It’s sort of lonely dealing with everything by myself (see next item!). But these days do I have or make enough room in my life for love? Or am I just too independent… or unable to truly trust enough to risk or enable deeper intimacy?
~ why do I let routine red tape and bureaucratic requirements throw me off kilter? Even when I clearly know some agency or institution has made a mistake, I rack my brain and torture myself: “Did I do something wrong, or fail to do something right?” (Self disclosure: I’ve been in a Kafkaesque fight with my mortgage servicer since June: they overpaid my property tax — almost $4000 when less than $400 was due. Ever since, rather than fixing their mistake, they want to transfer the fallout to my monthly mortgage payments).
Perhaps I’m fooling myself, but I think I could do a much better job at life if I had answers to questions like these! (Not to sound like Paul in the 7th chapter of his letter to the Romans, but, then, I must confess: even sometimes when I have the answers, I don’t do all that well. Sigh again.)
Still, I’m getting by without all the answers. In fact, I actually find it even more shocking how much I have given up expecting to figure them out!
I often share — sometimes unsolicited!!! — with all the younger adults around Old First my version of “the wisdom of age.” It goes something like this: “Wrinkles and getting tired quicker: not so good. But an increasing comfort with oneself: worth every year and every gray hair.”
For me, it turns out, a part of that increasing self-comfort is the ability to accept, even embrace, all that I don’t — and won’t — know. As I wrote in my comment on the article last week: “I guess I’m just destined to slog along as best I can more or less in the muddle — mired in all the unending unanswerables — until it’s over…”
I can — it turns out, thanks be to God — get by on my clues. I find reassurance in this tack in a comment made to the press many years ago by the late Leslie Newbiggen, the Church of South India’s first Bishop of Madras. A much smarter and more faithful man than I, Newbiggen had reconciled himself to “through the glass darkly:”
“By his mysterious grace, God took hold of me, an unbelieving, pondering person, and put me in a position where the reality of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, became for me the one clue that I could follow in making sense of a very perplexing world.”
Newbiggin is a personal hero of mine. It was his insight that just as Paul needed to translate the Gospel fairly radically in order to be successful in the the ancient Greek world, the church today needs to translate absolutely everything it says and does in order to make it intelligible to people whose vocabulary is defined by the secular cultures of the modern West.
So, I find confidence in his confidence that Jesus-clues are enough to go on. Even missing answers that feel essential, I can keep moving. Trying. Even being thankful: at least I have these clues to go on!
This is how these clues work for me:
When I have an choice — or perhaps better, when I recognize my choices — I try and side with what my faith tradition tells is Jesus’ way:
~ honesty even to the point of harshness.
~ humility that accepts that we are the creature, not the creator; limited, not perfect.
~ compassion, all the way to a willingess to forgive, others as well as myself.
~ generosity that flows from thanksgiving: God has in love acted first, doing all that we really need.
~ service that isn’t all that selfless, in as much as Jesus himself suggests its the way to find oneself.
~ trust: living in the knowledge that I’m better when I can let go of my penchant for self-sufficiency. And not only remember, but count on the whole village (even when I think I am doing it all alone).
~ faith that there’s even more support than the people I can see around me… ready to help even before I ask… that the universe itself has a certain benevolence.
Like the bread crumbs Hansel and Gretel trailed along their way, these clues may not be enough to push back the darkness and expose all the dangers of the forrest to the light of day and reveal a clear way. But they are enough, if I keep paying attention, for me to find my way.
O yea, one more smarter, more faithful person’s insight I draw increasing help from as I grow older and accept that I know less than I wish. In his 1952 “The Irony of American Life,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
In this season of Epiphany as well as in life itself, it turns out that aren’t as many “aha’s” as we might like or think we need… But there’s still Jesus; we can find our way.
See you in church,