When I was a youth I looked forward to this time of year, when the snow was finally gone and I could ride a bike out to my grandparents’ house on Sunday afternoons. They lived a couple miles outside of town on Wymer Lake, and I would find them tending their garden, mowing the grass, baking cookies, or any of a couple dozen things they might be doing to maintain their little household during the weekend.
I would help them out for an hour or two, then grandma would take the coffee off the stove and the cookies out of the oven. The three of us would sit down at the dining room table and the stories would begin.
Looking back on those conversations now, I recall how many stories took place during the most difficult years of their lives, when they were raising a young family in the midst of the Great Depression. There was the farm they bought and then lost a few years later on Floyd Lake, Emmett’s leaving home to work on the Alaskan highway, little Jimmy keeping the whole family entertained with the antics of his invisible squirrel.
Their memories were bittersweet. Life had not been kind to their hopes and dreams, but it was full of unforgettable characters and unlooked for blessings. There was regret at the bottom of many of the stories, yet there was air of sweetness and even gratitude woven into the narrative of unfulfilled expectations.
Sitting there at the table with Mae and Emmett, they seemed content. They were past the point of expectation now, living mainly in the present and the past. Life for them had not been perfect, but it was good enough. I think they must have somehow taken in the lesson of Epictetus, who said “It is not things that upset us, but our judgment about the things.” This is the sort of wisdom that sometimes comes with age.
Those stories had a profound effect on me, which I am only lately beginning to understand. How much of my life today is due to sitting there at that table, ingesting their dreams and their sorrows, taking them in as if they were my own?
Carl Jung observed that nothing influences a child so much as the “unlived life of the parent.”
Human beings are story-telling creatures. We live not just in the present, but in the future and past as well, and our lives are interwoven into the lives of others: our real lives and our possible lives, interwoven with the real lives and the possible lives of others, and the threads weaving them together are named hope and regret.
The ability to imagine a variety of possible lives and to make judgments about those lives based on the meanings we find in them, is what it means to have a soul. It is also the source of moral responsibility.
If we were simply mechanical creatures, reacting to stimuli according to the laws of cause and effect, our lives would still have pleasure and pain, but they would not have meaning. Meaning comes from the ability to choose what we will do, electing to take that course which seems to us good or right or true.
The fact of moral responsibility is never so clear as when we are faced with difficult choices, when one of the paths laid out before us in our multiple possible lives is the path of self-sacrifice, when we are presented with the choice of acting for the good of another. The motivation for such a choice is always love.
I believe this is why Jesus said love of neighbor is the condition of eternal life, because to live out of love is to live as a soul. It is to live beyond the narrow confines of one’s body, beyond consideration of one’s pleasures and pains alone. But to live as a thing is to go through life reacting to events, driven by causes but never taking responsibility. A life bound to self is a life bound to death.
My father-in-law, in his retirement, would give free legal advice to those who could not afford a lawyer. One day his help was sought by the pastor of an impoverished congregation. When asked why he dedicated his life to the poor, he said: “You got to spend your life. There ain’t no saddlebags on a coffin.”
At some point, we all face that question: how will I spend my life?
None of us can flatten the curve of our life forever. We are all destined for dust. And the most important question we each have to face is not how long we can delay the end, but how we live our lives in the meantime.
I don’t know if I will ever see my grandparents again. That will happen, if it happens, only by grace and not by my doing. But I know my life is intertwined with theirs because they loved me. And if I am to live today, if I am to live as a soul and not as a thing, it can only be through loving others.
May 1, 2020