The Mark We Are Meant to Leave
I have had some version of the same conversation a number of times over the past few weeks (over the years, I’ve learned to pay attention to this phenomenon—it seems to be God’s preferred means of provoking me). The conversations have all been, in some form or another, about the question of how a life is measured. Sometimes the issue has been named explicitly, other times we have danced around it more peripherally. But each conversation, in its own way, whether through an anxiety saturated with loss or with the exhilarated joy of hard-won wisdom, has been probing this question of questions: How do we measure a human life? How do I measure my life?
Is it by the familiar barometer of accomplishments? Do we point to degrees achieved, honours won, positions filled, stuff accumulated, bottom line bolstered, status attained? No, no, no we say, because we think this is the answer we’re supposed to give. We’re not supposed to be the kind of people who measure things this way. But we mostly live as though we are.
Hedonism is another ever-present option. We flit through life accumulating experiences that play well on social media, frantically attempting to prove that we are having the most fun, seeing the most things, going the most places, and meeting the most amazing people. And then, of course, cataloguing it all with the digital trail of photos and stories to prove that we have extracted the requisite pleasure to make our handful of decades on the planet worth their while.
Or maybe we could measure a life by the people we have helped. Helping people is a good thing, after all, and who would dare speak ill of it? Yet, there is no end to human need, and it’s easy for our souls to be ground down into the dust and despair of all that we are daily failing to do and be for others. There are so many stories of people whose lives are little more than a steady, grinding depletion for the sake of others that leaves them as small and hardened husks of humanity.
Perhaps a life is best measured by fidelity to a set of beliefs about God and the world? This is the view that many of us who grew up in churches of a very determined and serious sort inherited. Does a stubborn clinging to orthodoxy in the face of all enemies represent a victory in some sense, however pyrrhic?
This morning, I came across a marvelous essay by Christian Wiman called “Love Bade Me Welcome.” Wiman is one of my favourite writers. His words so often give expression to things that I am unable to understand or express (at least not as well as he can). The essay is fantastic, and worth reading in its entirety, but one line, in particular, stood out:
I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable.
This one line captures so many of my own struggles, as a person and as a pastor. As I’ve written about many times here, I’ve always had this nagging sense of the gap between our rhetoric about God/life and the reality of our situation. The fit has always seeemd a bit, I don’t know, off. I have always been drawn to those who can name this well (as Wiman surely can and does) and who can live and write and speak into the dissonance between what we say when we think people are listening and what we feel in the depths of our soul when there is no one to impress or convince.
Then, I became a pastor. And pastors are supposed to be “comfortable,” on some level, with big things like God and life and meaning and value. We’re supposed to be the ones who have at least something resembling an answer to the question above. We’re the ones that stand in front of people each week telling them what to give themselves to and what to avoid, who to help and why helping is such a good thing, what to believe and why it matters. We’re supposed to have some settled views on big questions like, “How is a human life measured?” At the very least, we’re supposed to be able to fake it better than others.
Yet, comfort is so elusive—for all of us, if we’re paying attention!—in a world such as ours where so many bad things happen, where human desire is so regularly frustrated, where doubt constantly nibbles at the heels of belief, where death constantly looms large over life. Measuring a life could sound a rather straightforward proposition, but it obviously isn’t. Who among us hasn’t felt the attraction of each of the options above? Who among us hasn’t said something like, For all that life threatens and takes from us, why bother with measurements at all?
In the end, of course, the wisest among us have consistently borne witness to the truth that human lives are measured not by what we have accomplished or accumulated or extracted or even given, but by how we have loved. This is surely the answer of answers, the one that incorporates, validates, and chastens all the options above, at least on some level. Loving well is what we were made to be and do in the world. We know this, right down to our marrow, I think. We know that love is the mark we were meant to leave, even if there are far easier and more convenient crumbs to leave behind.
We know that we won’t arrive at death’s door wishing we had written a few more words or made a bit more money or piled up a bit more stuff or sat through a few more meetings or visited a few more places or squeezed out a few more scraps of pleasure out of life, if this has meant neglecting or sacrificing the very people and relationships that had been entrusted to us to safeguard and steward. Or, worse, if we have refused to allow ourselves to be loved along the way. What good is all that the world could ever offer if the people closest to us cannot or will not say, “He was kind… She was good to me… he kept his word… she smiled when she said hello… he forgave freely… she was a picture of grace… he loved me?” Love bears all things, says the apostle Paul. And we know this to be true, no matter how many times we daily betray it.
How do you measure a life? Yes, by love, of course. Which probably says too much and too little. It is a word that sometimes seems too drenched in nostalgia and cliché to be useful. It can mean everything and nothing at the same time. But there it is. Love. It refuses to let us be, to let me be. For all my discomfort with life and its contradictions and frustrations and unanswerable questions and impossible demands and myriad stupidities, there remains this thing—this mystery, this reality, this divine presence and sacred charge—called love that stands at the centre of all that I see, all that I aspire to, all that I hope for, all that judges me and draws me forward.
Love does, indeed, bid us welcome. It is what were made for and it is who we were made by. It is the only measurement that matters when it comes to something as glorious and mysterious as a human life.
The image above is taken from the 2010-11 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is by Lil Copan, and is called “Anunciation.”