Fundamental Questions

By JIM NICHOLS

During my years of college professor work, I often envied the students’ enthusiasm, naivete, and joy for life. I did look out from the front of the classroom, however, and be thankful that my life as a college student was in the past. Although life is good in many ways for a student, did I really want to enter back into the world of decisions about what classes to take and my career direction? That looks trivial now, but it was not then. How do I live away from my parents, the ones who have been my protectors? Did I really want to be early in my life figuring out some of the differences between males and females and (gasp) be back in the world of dating again? No thanks. Clearly, that age brings with it some blessings and problems.

When I was in my forties, the pattern appeared again. There were certainly some wonderful qualities to being a father, husband, and employee, but there were obvious difficulties. 

Currently, my work as a chaplain brings new friends who are approaching the end of life. Although they are sometimes struggling physically, mentally, or emotionally, many of them seem to have achieved a degree of peace that is admirable. They have not merely accepted their stage in life, but they are relishing it in some ways. 

As a matter of fact, I could not think of any age I might be that would not be this mixture of undesirable and desirable characteristics. I suspect you feel the same.

Many have spoken of the passages of life. One of the most influential for me is Franciscan priest Richard Rohr from New Mexico. Best developed in his book Falling Upward, he speaks not of chronology, but of ways of looking at the world and goals.

Briefly, Rohr suggests that the first half of life (although he does not put year boundaries on it) is devoted to surviving in the best sense. This includes building a platform for our lives, our identity. We build a home, relationships, a community. Seeking security personally, emotionally, and financially is important. He likens it to building a container for our life. This is all necessary.

The second half of life, he suggests, deals with the contents of the container. What skills and experiences have we put into our lives that we can now call upon for worthwhile results? How can we make sense of these contents to create and grow ourselves and others? It is time to discern what we need to keep and what we need to let go.

Rohr notes that many people do not make the transition from the first half of life to the second, despite aging. I can certainly identify some who, I think, are still stuck in the first part of container building even though they are no longer young in years.

I would layer on to this description some ideas from another author, Will Willimon. He suggests that for those of us trying to follow God every part of life should be owned by Him. I wish someone had leaned on me periodically to ask questions such as these.

  1. What is God doing in my life now?
  2. Where is God leading me in this time of life?
  3. What does God expect from me and to what tasks am I now being assigned?

A college student needs to ask these questions. A young dad or mom needs to ask these questions. When the children leave the nest, each parent needs to ask such questions. Moving into retirement they continue to be pertinent.

What is striking is that the same person asking these questions during a different season of life will likely get different answers. We do believe that God is working in our lives, do we not? Why should we expect God to work in the same way every year? Why are we (or our friends) surprised when our responses to what we sense as God’s will are altered (perhaps radically) from what our response might have been at a different point in life?

This is somewhat unsettling to me, but, I believe, accurate. It requires some more thinking. Perhaps we can come back to this topic, but it may come out differently at a different time!

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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