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Life to the Full

Last night I spent some time with a group of young adults discussing John 10:10 and what it means to have “life to the full.”  What is Jesus promising in this passage?  Is it just a spiritual thing?  Is he referring to eternal life?  A quality or character of life on this earth?  What does it mean to say that Jesus came that we might have “life to the full” in a world where so many (including Jesus’ own followers) suffer tremendously?  Is fullness related to our material lot in life?  How?  And, more personally, how “full” are our lives really?  Is there a notable quality to our lives that is absent in those who pay no heed to Christ?  It was a very interesting conversation…

After last night’s discussion, I was very intrigued to read this piece by Pico Iyer in the “Happy Days” blog (a blog designed, evidently, to help people through the current financial crisis) from this morning’s New York Times.  The post is called “The Joy of Less,” and in it, the author talks about how he has come to appreciate a life of simplicity and contentment far from the frantic activity and anxiety that characterizes the lives of so many in the western world:

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people—and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.

I don’t know if Iyer thinks of the character of his life in Jesus’ terms or not (his spirituality seems eclectic, to say the least), but I obviously think he is describing a life characterized by a measure of “fullness.”  Learning not only to do with less because of circumstances beyond our control, but to embrace a life of simplicity as a fundamental recognition of how we are wired as human beings seems like an important part of what it means to have life “to the full.”  It’s a theme that resounds throughout the gospels (if not the lives of many Christians).  A full life doesn’t come by reading a slickly packaged 10-step program to becoming/discovering your potential; it doesn’t come by learning a set of self-help techniques; it doesn’t come via comfort and material prosperity; and, though I’m hardly well-qualified to pronounce upon this, it doesn’t even seem to come from a life free from hardship.

Fundamentally, a full life isn’t the result of a life that is “filled up”—whether it is filled with stuff, activities, accomplishments, strategies, or even people.  The full life that Jesus describes is at least partly characterized by a reorientation of our dispositions—towards God, others, ourselves, and creation.  A full life is one in which we are oriented properly in these four directions, where each of these orientations have moved away from being defined primarily with reference to the self and its desires. I think that wise people have always known—or at least been on the path to discovering—that the fullest lives are those that have learned the value of emptying.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think that the first Christians understood this promise in the context of the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that Jesus was saying the promise would be fulfilled. And that “life to the full” or having life “abundantly” (as it has often been translated) was probably understood in the way Jews, even today, understand the word shalom.

    I think the simplicity that the NYT blogger has in mind is an example of shalom in modernity. He contrasted simplicity with frantic activity and anxiety. The latter terms are certainly not the same as shalom and do not seem consistent with it.

    I think it is hard to achieve simplicity in our times. The choices that we have in a free, pluralistic society are themselves enough to cause anxiety and to cause some of us to resort to frantic activity.

    I do have a different perspective on millionaires and multi-millionaires than the NYT blogger. For many, with wealth comes freedom and less anxiety, a less frantic life. Certainly there are people at all income and wealth levels that are like the millionaires the NYT blogger knows. But wealth and income are not the determining factors in such lives.

    I think it is also interesting to consider Aristotle’s ideas about a full life or good life (these would be the same to him.) It is different from the Hebraic idea, but not incompatible with it. It too has influenced Christianity.

    And, I think it is interesting to consider Dion’s lines in Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Great God Brow: “I’ve loved, lusted, won and lost, sang and wept!” That too represents a vision of the full life. I think that the Hebraic idea is something like this, at least in its passion.

    Certainly, as you have alluded, the idea of emptying the self is an old Christian idea. I don’t think it is Hebraic. But at the same time, in the lives of mystics, after the emptying comes the filling (hopefully) and that filling satisfies every passion.

    June 13, 2009
    • The idea of shalom would definitely encapsulate a “full” life, in my opinion. I agree, shalom is elusive in our times. I think that one of our cultural myths (foisted upon us by eager advertisers) is that fullness is to be had by satisfying any and all of our desires (and probably even creating some new desires!). I think that at least a component of shalom would be the ability or state of being “at-peace”—the ability to see through the restlessness and acquisitiveness cultivated by the marketing machine. Of course wealth does bring a kind of freedom, but I don’t think there is a necessary connection between prosperity and shalom. I think that if our basic needs are met, fullness of life is possible with relatively little.

      I think Aristotle’s conception of the good life is certainly compatible with the Hebraic and Christian understandings of a full and good life. Moderation, wisdom, proper ordering of desires, etc… Who could argue with that? I think that fewer and fewer people in our culture bother actually thinking about what makes a good life. We have vacuous notions of liberty and freedom, but there seems to be no conception that some ways of living are objectively better than others. Everyone’s a “good person” these days, if only in their own minds.

      June 13, 2009
  2. Tyler Brown #

    “I think Aristotle’s conception of the good life is certainly compatible with the Hebraic and Christian understandings of a full and good life. Moderation, wisdom, proper ordering of desires, etc… Who could argue with that? I think that fewer and fewer people in our culture bother actually thinking about what makes a good life. We have vacuous notions of liberty and freedom, but there seems to be no conception that some ways of living are objectively better than others. Everyone’s a “good person” these days, if only in their own minds.”

    Aristotle also goes on to say that there is no way you can truly know if you have lived a good life until the last moments of your life. You can have an idea of how it is going to turn out but just like a sporting game, no matter what the circumstances, you can never truly say the team X has won at half the game time.

    Aristotle also does say that it can be harder to live a good life in certain aspects (some are easier) with the more money you have. While I agree with you Ken that wealth isn’t a determining factor, both the ease of complacency it provides and the emphasis on material items are factors that make it harder to lead a good life. Moreover, both of these are much more easily acquired through wealth.

    “And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.” This is very intersting because in my opinion you cannot rightly achieve something if you do not, or are not working towards it as a goal. A child can do virtuous actions without understanding what virtue is. Would this be enough to say they are virtuous? I would argue no. If happiness is coming and its not pursued it begs the question of whether the author is pursuing the right idea of happiness. The simple life and the Good life may have similarities but they are very very different.

    June 16, 2009
    • I disagree with Aristotle. I think we can know that we are living a good life before the gig is up, so to speak. I think there are rewards that are built into living well. That doesn’t mean that if we live well we will have lives of comfort and prosperity—far from it! Indeed, Christians are told to expect suffering, persecution, and all kinds of other unpleasant things because of their commitment to Christ. But they are also promised a deep joy and peace that transcends their material circumstances. The Christian life certainly involves a retraining or reorienting of our desires, but I firmly believe that in patterning our lives after Jesus we are seeking to emulate the one who was the exemplar of what it means to live a fully human life.

      in my opinion you cannot rightly achieve something if you do not, or are not working towards it as a goal. A child can do virtuous actions without understanding what virtue is. Would this be enough to say they are virtuous? I would argue no. If happiness is coming and its not pursued it begs the question of whether the author is pursuing the right idea of happiness. The simple life and the Good life may have similarities but they are very very different.

      Good point Tyler. I think you’re right. The idea of virtue (or happiness or Christ-likeness) as something that is actively cultivated or pursued presumes that we have at least some idea of what we’re after. On looking at the Iyer quote again, I think that last line has a certain rhetorical appeal to it—gee, it sure looks profound!—but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you scrutinize it a little.

      June 16, 2009
  3. renita #

    Like!

    June 18, 2009

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