Once in a Lifetime
I hear a growing amount of conversations about where people are in the various stages of their lives. It’s good to have a general framework – especially when wrestling with something that otherwise would be either a surprise or make you think you are alone. Some stages are predictable, natural and shared by many. Erik Erikson identified eight stages of life beginning with our earliest being whether or not to trust or mistrust and our last being the choice to develop wisdom. Shakespeare described the seven ages of man from childhood to mere oblivion.
I especially like a sampling of “Dominant Questions in the Decades of Our Lives” by Gordon MacDonald:
In our twenties, we ask:
What will I do with my life?
Around what person or idea will I organize my life?
In our thirties, we ask:
How far can I go in fulfilling my ambitions?
Who is a part of my primary community?
In our forties, we ask:
Why do I seem to face so many uncertainties?
Why are limitations beginning to outnumber options?
In our fifties, we ask:
Who are these young people who want to replace me?
What do I do with doubts and fears?
In our sixties, we ask:
When do I stop doing the things that define me?
What is yet to be accomplished?
In our seventies, we ask:
What can I contribute; do I have value in the eyes of others?
Does anyone know what I once was?
I appreciate David’s image of a prosperous life in Psalm 1. It is like one planted by a stream who is productive in every season. But I’ve also begun to think about the people who are late or even one-time bloomers. They don’t throw off fruit in every season and might even appear to be dormant and their lives uneventful. However, we know that sometimes a tree or plant will produce fruit only once. The entire life is spent preparing for that one moment.
The talipot palm flowers only once – between the ages of 30 and 80.
The Madagascar palm flowers only once – after it is 100 years old.
Clearly, I don’t mean the life of a prodigy who accomplishes everything when young and then fades. Alissa Quart’s HOTHOUSE KIDS: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child describes the pressure of being raised as a hothouse plant forced to grow at the expense of everything else in life: “We blast our developing fetuses with Mozart to give them a leg up in life. We park our 6-month-olds in front of ‘Baby Einstein’ and ‘Brainy Baby’ videos, whose bells and whistles are supposed to kick developing neurons into overdrive. We drag our toddlers to early-childhood ‘enrichment’ classes and subject them to IQ tests as preschoolers to ensure that they get the best ‘gifted’ education, if we’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers it or rich enough to pay for private schools and tutors.”
No, the few who often labor for years with little to show for it are examples of making a contribution that is only possible after a lifetime of preparation. I think of Winston Churchill whose path to leadership included many failures, defeats and detours. Caleb, while in his forties presses Israel to invade the land of Canaan, must wait until he is over 80 to take on the giants. Enoch started walking with God when he was 65 and then lived for another 300 years. They could not have done as young men what they were called to do when older.
Some people are flowering constantly and others are being invisibly held for a singular achievement. Moses was 80 when God selected him for the work of his lifetime. Even then, he could not see the eventual influence of his life. He could see the Promised Land, but he could not look 1,500 or 2,500 years ahead. How could he have known what he did would become the bedrock of whole civilizations and the people he led from slavery would change the world? His unfinished work started late in life will last forever. Along with the hardship and struggle God gave him in ways he could not predict what He had promised: fame, praise and honor.
Sometimes we are too quick to judge our own lives in the short term. We cannot see that far ahead to know. What we think of as unfinished or failed may well turn out to be remarkable if we live life in faithfulness – regardless of the lives of our peers. What we accomplish is often to ourselves and others a complete surprise.