What Is Life?

tulipsWhat is life? Most of the time we are too busy even to ask the question, but when something happens, the death of someone we love, or perhaps the eruption of violence in our streets, well, the question inevitably crops up. Interestingly, we even ask the question when we encounter something exquisitely beautiful, a sunset over Puget Sound, early tulips in bloom. All along the journey, this is a question beckoning  an answer from us.

Maybe we could say life is the accumulation of our choices. Of course there are some things we did not choose: the family into which we were born, the love our parents did or did not give us, the economic circumstances of our early life. But most of life, for most of us, is surely full of choices, and the choices along the way finally stack up to make a life.

I fully recognize that some people are tragically trapped in circumstances that limit choices, things like intractable poverty, abusive homes, crippling disabilities, shifting economic circumstances. We must work hard to know better how to bring more choices into the lives of these people, but for most of us, making choices is a crucial part of defining life.

Psychologists and other social scientists like to say our choices are never quite our own. We are determined to make certain choices by our genetic map, the way the brain is wired, human evolutionary development. So a life, according to this thinking, is merely the result of neutral forces at work far beyond our control. There are philosophies (Lucretius’s epicureanism comes to mind, philosophical materialism is another) and religions (Buddhism for example) that counsel just letting go, lighten up, go with the flow, because there is nothing you can do about anything anyway.

I get all of that, but I don’t fully buy it. Common sense tells me that most of us do make choices and those choices determine the kind of lives we live. We choose whom we will marry, though that choice is about two parts rational and eight parts emotional. But it’s still a choice. We choose to go to college or not, and what kind of college we will attend. Those things matter. We choose a career path, what kind of work we want to pursue. All of these things add up to make a life.

I remember a moment of mid-life restlessness and dissatisfaction. I was grumping around about things, needing change or something, and someone said to me “only you can choose to be happy.” I was suddenly shocked into seeing that I had made my choices, and I should either get happy with my choices, or change them. Too often we are encouraged to think we are victims of circumstances beyond our control. Not so, I have come to see, at least for most of us, at least most of the time.

I have a good friend, a livelong clinical psychologist, who alerted me recently that some psychologists these days are talking about a psychology of gratitude or a trend in therapy called positive psychology. What happens to healing if we are encouraged actually to choose gratitude, goodness, happiness? Perhaps our choices can change things more than we thought.

But for me there is yet another important dimension to all of this. Listen to the way the Psalmist defines a life:

Lord, you have examined me and you know me.

You know me at rest and in action;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeying and my resting-places,

and are familiar with all the paths I take.

For there is not a word that I speak

but you , Lord, know all about it.

You keep close guard behind and before me

and place your hand upon me. . . .

God has our back, in other words. Suddenly the neutral, deterministic forces seem to grow smaller than we thought. Some will still try to say this is but an illusion, but the poet will have none of it: I know that God is palpably present, he says, in all my choices, my thoughts, actions, the paths I choose. God is close by guiding the way. Be alert for that presence, and life will be dramatically different.

The poet continues:

You it was who fashioned my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for you fill me with awe;

wonderful you are, and wonderful your works.

What is life? Well, in this view, each of us has been carefully, lovingly, attentively created. And that fills me with awe, fills me with love, with gratitude, fills me with confidence that my night, and the world’s night, will turn to day. This God wants the best for each of us.

Actually, here we are faced here with the biggest choice of all: Either this is true or it isn’t.  We’ve got to make that choice. To choose there is no God in and behind my life, well, that’s to take a leap of faith as much as to believe we are wonderfully made. As Augustine bluntly says, how we choose, doesn’t change God in the least. We are the ones who suffer the consequences of a negative choice. The gift God offers continues on, whether we accept it or not. But if we acknowledge and embrace this gift, with gratitude and love, yes, this changes everything we call life.