What Happened to My Big Life?
by Lisa Dye
The seed of the Kingdom, however tiny, however invisible or insignificant, is always growing, thanks to God’s tireless activity … He makes our efforts bear fruit beyond all calculations of productivity.
• Pope Francis
Recently, I listened to a woman named Esther Perel describe her childhood in Belgium, growing up the daughter of Holocaust survivors in a close knit community of other Holocaust survivors. In spite of her career in psychotherapy counseling others, she admits to a debilitating lifelong affliction manifesting as a chronic sense of dread. Surprisingly, she has also just as chronically believed she was destined to live a “big life,” a belief, on the surface, which seems antithetical to the dread.
At any rate, she had me at “dread” and “big life.” Forget that Ms. Perel’s fame has risen due to her observation of culture’s abandonment of traditional views on marital fidelity in a post-Christian world. (I haven’t listened to her enough to know if she’s advocating or just explaining.) Sure, I tuned in to see what the hooplah surrounding her was all about. One must understand one’s culture. But I couldn’t hear much past her description of her conflicted and ambiguous self … and well, myself too.
Perhaps Ms. Perel is not so unique in having believed from an early age that she would live a big life. That’s partly a function of a normal youthful narcissism and sense of invincibility. For people who are also Christian, or otherwise religious, the big life idea may spring from belief that the Almighty is unfolding a divine pathway for us. And we have the mistaken idea that divine is always big.
Whatever all of it arises from, it got me thinking. What the heck happened to my Big Life? Oh, and, if I am now a grown up Christian after a lifetime of trying to walk with Jesus, why this chronic sense of dread?
I know where the dread started. My youth, in brief, was incubated in a broken and alcoholic home. I could give the gory details, but I love my mom and dad, who walked through some dark and desperate seasons. We’ve come to forgiveness and accepted what happened even though it took several decades. Nevertheless, my early life was fraught with fears of abandonment, financial insecurity, shame, grief and yes, that chronic sense of dread.
At some point, around age eleven or twelve, I looked outside my cocoon, saw that other people overcame their fears and I began to plot. I would be educated. I would be industrious. I would be sober. I would be self-controlled. I would be confident and poised … outwardly, at least. I also ventured into my faith. The faith part felt purposeful and one-sided initially. I was looking for God, but in retrospect, I see now that God was drawing me.
By the time I was a teen, my naked interior life was a roiling turmoil of chronic dread, but my exterior emperor (or empress) was dressed for some kind of success. I expected it. I willed it to happen. I was ready for my Big Life. I had a scholarship to college where I might stay long enough for advanced degrees, then launch myself into a writing career and be a best-selling author. That was almost 40 years ago. Let me tell you how that worked out.
It didn’t. I married early, dropped out of college and went to work helping my husband launch a small business. I had my first of three babies while I was still mostly a baby and barely two years into marriage. I didn’t write anything except thank you notes and checks until ten years ago.
Today, a typical day or week for me includes above average food prep for particular family dietary needs, the feeding, cleaning and care of a herd of cats, a new coop full of chickens and a neurotic Labrador, a few hours a day at the office pushing voluminous amounts of paper, doctor visits and grocery shopping with my mom whose vision is in rapid decline, yard work, housework and helping out on a fairly regular basis with six grandkids.
Sometimes, because my tasks are so physical, I have difficulty believing that what I am doing is eternally helpful. Is the way up really down? I’m not sure where I heard that, but those words ring in my head all the time and I am currently clinging to them. Up is down. Down is up. The Big Life is really composed of many small things.
This leads me to digress to a little related family humor that came about from our shared fascination with the Netflix series Stranger Things. This sci-fi drama is set in a fictional Indiana town and involves a group of nerdy junior high kids, a secret government lab, a girl named Eleven who has supernatural powers, and an alternate dimension called the Upside Down. My husband can never remember Upside Down, so that has morphed into the Underneath, the Inside Out, the Backside In, the Over and Under, the Both Sides Now, the Ass Backward, and so on.
I’ve come to realize that I live in my own Upside Down, not the scary paranormal kind, but the spiritual kind. The ways I expected to impact the world or the ways I expected God to use me have eluded me. Instead, my very Big Life has come about in a multitude of seemingly small things.
Please do not misunderstand. I’m not complaining. I am not disappointed. It is a good life, even though I am tired. I’m just surprised. Things are nothing like I planned as I stood on the precipice of adulthood looking to the future. And yet, the sum of my physical labors and the minutiae of my midlife add up to something big to me … the vast majority of my time, most of my money and usually more energy than I think I possess. I have not held back in giving myself to what has been given to me.
I fought it for a time always thinking I was supposed to be doing something … well, BIG, but I have come to the place in life where I am content and doing what I have been given. Detaching from previous plans doesn’t mean wandering aimlessly. It means re-discovering what purpose God has for me in this season of life, even if it is small in the eyes of the world. Ultimately, it is what will lead to fruitfulness. I just have to remember its God’s mission, God’s criteria and God’s breath that develops and measures the fruit. For someone who’s read all those books on highly effective living and who’s addicted to her planner, this is the rub.
It’s no doubt the reason for my continuing chronic state of dread. Now that I’m in the second-half, giving-my-life-away, legacy-era of life, the thought of the possibility of coming to the end of an uninspiring, irrelevant life without impacting others with more than just niceness, frightens the bejeebers out of me.
Yet, this is part of the process. Jesus said in Mathew 10:39, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Getting to a small, scared place of personal loss comes before some type of transformation. When I set out to write this, I envisioned wrapping up a tidy essay by concluding that it’s okay for me to not have the big life I expected as long as I’m taking care of his people and his creatures. I won’t tell you I’ve changed my mind exactly. In fact, the world turns on those of us who attend to the details.
However, in looking at the preceding verses (Matthew 10:37,38), the opposite struck me. “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me: and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Here, I have been convincing myself that all my care giving is God’s work. Again, I’m not saying it’s not, but I realize that there is a certain safety and predictability and good feeling about small services that rescue me from the risk of reinvention.
In a recent conversation, my good friend, who both practices law and is almost finished raising seven children, said something that struck me. “My kids no longer welcome or need my parenting, even though being a parent has been my identity for over three decades. I need to find a new way to be relevant.”
Relevancy is the key here. It’s true that some people who live a big life in terms of fame or fortune are doing so because of what the world thinks is relevant. Maybe it is relevancy in music, sports, culture, business or politics. I just want to know what is to be the particular spiritual relevance of my life until I die? How am I to be accountable to God for the life and destiny he’s giving me now, post child rearing?
To have the Creator of all things say what is to make me relevant is frightening. No, I don’t think he’s telling me to ditch my family or my critters and go to the remotest part of the earth, but I can’t take refuge in them either. It’s easy to get into a rut of just doing what I have always done, either because I have not given it any thought or because I have thought about it and then rejected the effort and loss of safety that might come from preaching the Gospel with my life in a new and different way, especially in an apathetic or hostile world or to the chagrin of loved ones who expect me to remain predictable, reliable and convenient.
One of my religious gurus regularly riles me because he constantly challenges my comfort and inspires me to think carefully about what I am to do regarding certain controversies. It is difficult beyond belief to decide, but he pushes me to work out my faith with fear and trembling in a way I also want to do with others, including my kids, now that they are adults.
Once at a writer’s conference, Richard Peck, one of my favorite young adult novelists, said, “Kids will not forgive you if you don’t inspire them.” I would venture to say that people, in general, are not inspired by anyone who just makes them feel happy and comfortable.
We need the needling of prophets of all kinds. There are people in my life who need me to prod them and to risk their anger for the sake of God’s Kingdom. They need me to be a prophet who has first gotten small, detached from the Big Life ambition of my youth or caring too much what people think of me. They need someone who is on an upside down mission … a mission that doesn’t necessarily bring worldly success, and might well bring contempt. What looks like the disruption of sameness is often the seed from which true Big Life springs, something to think about while I’m in the chicken coop taking care of my ladies.
Yes, there are at least a couple of people I love who are about to hold me in contempt … all because I do love them.