Not all stories have happy endings, but by the grace of God all stories may acquire meaning.
Face it. Told one way, our lives become tales of loss. Lost youth, loves, jobs, opportunities, integrity, health, family, friends, energy, vision, hope—there seems to be no limit to the variety of ways in which we experience loss. We live toward death, a daunting thought that takes on hard-edged reality each time we visit the dying, worship at a memorial service, or wait for medical test results.
How many of us have used the bit of doggerel that goes, “Life is hard, and then you die.” There’s truth enough in the statement, isn’t there? Little wonder we sometimes start to frame our personal stories in terms what we have lost or expect to lose.
My paternal grandmother, born in the early portion of the 20th century, might have done so. She grew up in primitive conditions on a small farm in Tennessee. When she was only a girl, her mother died, leaving my grandmother to care for her father and her numerous brothers and sisters. No doubt, she felt she had been set free, when she married my grandfather and moved to a farm of her own. Then came World War 1, the Great Depression, the death of an infant, World War 2, and later the burials of her oldest son and husband. In her extreme old age, she lost control of daily life, as illness took its toll.
Yet, she interpreted the story of her life not in terms of loss but as the tale of why she had mattered. My grandmother certainly experienced times of profound despair, but she did not stay there.
How did she do it? The longer I reflect on the matter, the more I think she practiced three core disciplines.
First, take up the task at hand. Spend little time or energy yearning for the past or future. Invest yourself in the persons and challenges of a given moment. Prepare a meal, walk the dog, comfort a child, pray, serve the poor at the local food bank, write a letter, wash clothes, visit the sick—pour yourself into the slice of time we label “the present.”
Second, dare to love. None of us loves perfectly, and those we love are imperfect as well. All love entails loss. Love anyway. If God, indeed, is love, then meaning is found in the act of loving.
Third, identify with the stories found in the scriptures and Christian history. My grandmother saw a bit of herself in the small and large tales of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. She knew in her gut what it felt like to be trapped between a pursuing army and the sea, faced by a giant, or exiled from the life you had known. She understood what drove the women to go to the tomb of Jesus to do what needed doing, regardless of the danger involved or what the men might think. Believing all the stories had meaning enabled my grandmother to hope her own story might as well.
Engage the present, dare to love, root yourself in the stories of God’s people. That’s how we define and find meaning in our lives.