Our phones notify us when we are running out of days, even minutes. Life doesn’t do us the same favor.
I am running out of life minutes. I know for a fact that at my age I have fewer minutes to live than I have already lived. Yet this is not a morbid thought, just a reminder to see what baggage I am lugging behind me. If I had all my minutes to live over, what changes would I make? What luggage would I leave behind? What luggage can I leave behind?
I would eat fewer beans and more ice cream. That’s not original with me. Let me say it in my words: I’d aim for more joy, less drudgery. Joy is peace dancing. Anything done grudgingly means I’m dragging a skid of bricks over a gravel road.
I would ask my parents more questions about what life was like when they were young, the challenges they faced, how they made decisions. But then I didn’t know what questions to ask. Now I do.
I was wondering the other day what my father’s feelings might have been when he stood on the streets of Moscow as a young man in the Russian military as a medic, away from his Mennonite community for the first time. The year was 1914. Did he feel the same way I felt when I moved into what seemed like a foreign country when I married? Does the quality of homesickness ever change? What would he have done differently.
I would live with greater passion. Passion was a bad word when I was growing up because it hinted at steamy liaisons in the dead of the night in some dark secret corner indulging in forbidden pleasures.
In Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, the psychiatrist is trying to learn why his young disturbed patient blinded the eyes of several valuable horses with a metal spike. He learns that, before the blinding incident, the boy occasionally took the horses at night and raced them on the shore, bareback and naked, at top speed. The boy tells Dysart, “At least I galloped. When did you?” The psychiatrist is forced to acknowledge that the boy did something he had never allowed himself to do—to gallop, to know passion. And he envies him.
In my book Border Crossing I confessed I had been too concerned about what people would think if I waved a banner boldly, or spoke out frankly on issues I was concerned about. I saw a lion behind every blade of grass, and not a Wizard of Oz Cowardly Lion either. So if I could do it all over, I would be less timid about speaking up about injustice, prejudice, violence, the chains of rigidity, the inadequacy of either/or answers. I would have written more frankly, more forcefully, more fiercely. I hope. . . .
With foreknowledge about writing opportunities, I would aim harder at freeing people from oppressive theologies. In other words, I would like to have been a “catcher in the rye,” standing at the edge of the cliff, like the fictional Holden Caulfield, freeing people from oppressive views of God.
Simply said, I would have studied more thoroughly how God relates to people and people to God. Some preachers, teachers, and their kin spend a lifetime enmeshing their congregations in thinking that chains their spirit. I would tell preachers their task is to free people from narrow, small thinking about God and how he works in the world.
Before they went into Babylonian exile the early Israelites viewed God as a local and denominational God, limited to their kind. In Babylonian captivity they learned that God was not limited to the temple or to them, but that God planned to extend his love also to the Gentiles.
I grew up with much the same concept – God was restricted to my family, my church, my kind, only to learn as I dared step further and further outside these boundaries that God was bigger, greater, and not someone I could limit or tame by my understanding. For too much of my life my understanding of God was much too restricted. I made him my size, a size I could handle with comfort.
I would have demanded less certainty about faith matters, for if we want faith in God reduced to something we can measure, caress, weigh, describe in concrete terms, we are the losers. The apostle Paul speaks about these matters as a “mystery” with great depths of wisdom and knowledge. When this mystery has been flattened, the transcendence of God dissipates and the awe, wonder, and transcendence is turned into lifeless words. If I had all my minutes to live over, I would tell people, “Your God is too dinky.”
I would be kinder to myself and less judgmental of others for being less than perfect. It sometimes takes a lifetime to realize that everyone has his or her own burden to bear. Forgiveness of self and of others is the bread of daily life, not the dry crust offered to the dog.
And yet, here I am, at age 87, nearly 88, having to say that my life was what it was. In Theodore Roethke’s words, “I learn by going where I have to go.” I learned by going where I had to go. I can’t change the past, but I can whatever minutes I have left.
And so I go into my remaining minutes, hopefully still learning. . . and learning.