How often do you think of your life as a sort of quest or journey? Perhaps over the course of this “journey,” you make some profound discovery about who you are. Maybe you “find” love. Then, later, maybe you “lose” it. It might even be that you envision your moment of death as one of existential fulfillment when, as you draw your final breath on the Earth, you think–maybe even whisper dramatically–that you’ve done everything you were “supposed” to do.
Yeah, that only happens in the movies, I’m happy to say. Life might be a lot of things, but it is anything but a journey.
Most of what I’m going to talk about is going to be anecdotal and I don’t have many statistics or specific quotes to reference. This is primarily a discussion of my own beliefs and worldview that, admittedly, are still evolving and likely will continue to do so for the duration of my life.
I recently listened to a lecture by Tyler Cowen (an economist who blogs at MarginalRevolution.com) whose central premise was in pointing out problems with stories and their use in sharing meaning. The talk was at TEDxMidAtlantic in late 2009. You can view it here on YouTube. (Yes, I know I reference TED videos a lot. Deal with it.)
In line with Cowen’s description, stories can be most accurately described as (usually) arbitrary connections of events and circumstances that are designed and arranged in such a way as to be entertaining and/or enlightening. Indeed, some stories truly are enlightening and entertaining. Recountings of the successes and failures, trials and discoveries of those who’ve come before us (or, otherwise, who’ve done things we haven’t) carry a great deal of power to show how things work and don’t work. Stories however, leave out much information and even “true” stories are really only a version of the truth.
Of particular note, however, was Cowen’s reference to statistics showing that a majority (51 percent) of people characterized their lives as “a journey” when asked to do so in one word. Other popular metaphors were “a novel,” “a play,” and “a battle.” Cowen pointed out that few people responded, “My life is a mess,” which he said (and I agree) is probably the most apt appraisal of humanness.
I suppose, in a sense, life can at times resemble a story or journey but mostly in retrospect. People generally only remember the highlights and, even then, the highlights they tend to remember are the ones they believe shaped them into who they are at the moment of reflection. Stories, in principle, have certain characteristics: characters, for one, and a central plot. There is also virtually always some form of conflict that builds over time and finally climaxes before some kind of resolution is reached. While some peoples’ lives might be more story-like than others, the comparison is never a perfect one. A surprisingly high percentage of life is repetitive drudgery and not interesting material for a story.
It might be that our tendency to view life as a journey or story is a result of the prevailing conventions of thought in Western civilization that view time as linear, with the past behind and the future ahead. Time, of course, isn’t linear and nor is it circular as other though conventions suggest, but that’s a topic for another discussion.
When they speak about their lives, I often hear people refer to being at this or that “stage in my journey.” It’s as though the events and deeds of our lives have already been pre-determined and that we’re simply living them as we “move along through time.” Life, then, is effectively something that happens to us. Naturally, many wouldn’t characterize it in quite that way if asked but that’s essentially what’s being said and, ultimately, what this line of thought does–whether consciously or unconsciously–is allow people to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions, past and future.
The problem inherent to this philosophy is that there are things that have been that should not have been. Whether at the personal level or in terms of collective events involving entire civilizations, choices have been made in the past that were bad and the results were bad and whatever good might now exist is so despite–not because of–those choices. Granted, past events have significant bearing on the present and future but neither history nor life is giant row of dominoes falling in inescapable sequence. To believe thus is essentially to stop living.
What so many don’t realize is that viewing life as a journey actually undermines the concept of free-will. In other words, if everything that has happened was meant to be and was necessary for things to be the way they are (assuming we’re all at a place that we consider “good”), then suggesting that an event or decision could or should have happened differently means to take full responsibility for our actions. That’s a level of maturity not many people actually reach, I’m afraid.
Life is a mess. It’s unplanned and uncensored. It does not progress along a path, nor does it reach a resolution. In fact, probably the best description of what it means to live is simply “to be.” For those who walk with the Lord, our lives aren’t vastly different in principle from those who do not: the difference is that He abides with us as we go about our “being.” And whatever life is, it is not a story or a journey. A book that told of the events of anyone’s life exactly as they happened would be incredibly dull; that doesn’t, however, mean that life doesn’t have purpose. That purpose, though, is far greater, grander, and infinitely more complex than just a good story.