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.
22 thoughts on “Lisa Dye: What Happened to My Big Life?”
Robert, The mustard seed you sow in your comments on IMonk has grown into a tree with many branches each bearing its own fruit.
May God be praised
At nearly sixty years of age I cannot avoid the realization that my life has been an almost total failure, and that it’s too late and I’m too tired and debilitated to change that fact. I never really had big plans for my life, I never really undertook any big endeavor, I just drifted, and it’s landed me in a tight, uncomfortable, shrinking spot that I’ll be stuck in until death. I’ll just have to make do, and rely on God’s grace; that has to be enough. Amen.
Christiane, this is for you
That’s beautiful Christiane!
ChrisS, maybe this will have meaning for you:
““It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.”
Certainly it seems better to ‘let’ the Lord’s work be done than it does to ‘make’ the Lord’s work get done. I’ve done both and the former is where it’s at for me now. I’m open to almost anything but not seeking any grand schemes. Perhaps I’ll make a minuscule difference in the life of someone who will make a world of difference. Whatever the case, I just don’t concern myself anymore.
sometimes a life of prayer and contemplation refreshes how a person sees others, so something is going on in a life of relative solitude that is contributing to that, rather than shutting a person down in isolation from others. . .
Thomas Merton’s famous observation tells about this phenomenon which he himself experienced:
““In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
A valid point, however, I saw this more about serving God/serving others in new ways, including perhaps a small portion of that 70%. But again, your point is valid and should be kept in mind. Thanks (including for the Seinfeld reference)
Klasie , excellent observations and viewpoint. Yesterday at McDonald’s standing in the line , behind me a young woman with a 3 or so young girl was telling her little girl she could get a hamburger to go but she did not have enough for a “Happy Meal” which means she wanted the toy as much as the meal. I paid it forward for her and she was thankful. and the little girl got the girl toy. I felt so good not for them so much as the good feeling I felt , it was worth far more than the price I paid. I was privilege to have means and good fortune to be there, I do not think this event will change the world but it changed mine , at least for a day or two.
Story not about me but to your point. Do what you can, where you can , when you can if you can.
I know in my life I remember small acts of kindness thought the years that the people who extended the kindness or help did not think it was of any lasting import.
Damaris, that is the biggest struggle of my life. I have finally come to the conclusion is that “Draining, hard-working, demanding” along with daily meditations and practicing the sacraments is all that God is asking. Nothing more, nothing less.
I would change one sentence. “That is the constant tension of the Evangelical life in the context of modern philosophy”. I believe that tension is the result of modernism invading Evangelicalism. I don’t think it is a Christian tension.
Living quietly and simply has the potential to avoid or resolve a number of issues that life might present.
RDavid and Others , nicely written article and Rdavid I get your point and believe it to be valid . I would like to tie the article in with yesterdays article about privilege that got into a white privilege discussion and it was all good comments.
Without being critical of the article or your comments , these comments and viewpoints are from our privileged position of living in a society that has enabled us to reflect and ponder issues like the author brings up.
Is 50 the new 30 in 70% percent of the world or do they have more pressing daily concerns such as surviving and reaching 50 years of age. It is our privileged culture that has redefined age , are we guilty of something that we take our cultural paradigm. China and Indian combined have over 2 billion people, I do not think most of them are concerned about finding a new course of life, new challenges in their later years, they are concerned about having later years and making their life as good as possible. They do not have the privilege that we do.
I do like the point of the article, I especially can relate t the line, many people hold me in contempt , some I do not know that well, so I can check off that block.
Certainly our culture is more about self now than community, family, nation and what makes us happy. As Jerry and George said “not there is anything wrong with that”
I just pulled the 70% number out of my————–hat so it is a John Barry unverified number that may get some Pinocchio’s if fact checked , I do this in full disclosure that I may occasionally be wrong or state opinion as fact but I am at that point in my life. I am also at the point of life where I cannot find my car keys70% of the time.
The bells ring!! So true. The Great Commision would seem to propel us into the Great Life. Conquest and such but it’s all there in black and white. God chooses the foolish things. The mustard seed. Paul says to live quietly and simply. God was not in the storm but in the still small voice. Of course there are references to moving mountains and so forth by by and large those are the mountains of grief, mountains of violence, mountains of poverty. They get moved quietly, one grain at a time. They do get moved but not with much fanfare. Some are called to be the eyes or the mouth. The rest of us make up the sinews, the hearts and the livers. Important but unseen.
When you are young, both your vision of the future and your perception of your own abilities are outsized. But here are a few things to remember:
Some people peak very late in life, after what appears to be many failures.
Small acts at any time in your life mught turn out to be major in in their long term affect.
The best advice is to do the good thing in front of you. Doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or achievement. Whether it is rescuing that bee, or helping the person who dropped something, or paying for someone at Starbucks because they forgot their wallet, or introduce someone to a new author they wilp enjoy, or whatever.
Once we realise that a better future doesn’t depend on me alone, but on good people to do good things (even at the ballot box), then our existential angst can go jump in the sea.
When I was in my late teens/early twenties, a group of us were discussing our future ambitions. One said the hoped “to be a good friend”. At the time that seemed to me to be rather tame.
All these years later, I believe it was a high calling. And he *is* a good friend.
Brava! Lisa Dye, brava!
I add you to my list of favorite ‘badass women’ that includes as of today Sonia Sotomayor, Emma Gonzalez, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
I see change coming in a good direction. WHY?
Because there is a new freedom more powerful than the slavery of a fearful ‘negativity’ and it is awakening and there is a joy in it that celebrates hope as never before.
So BRAVA, LISA. for going forward in a good direction!
I agree, Ben. Great work, Lisa. I also have the fear that my “comfortable” (i.e., draining, hard-working, demanding) daily life may not be all God is asking of me. But how do I know? That is the constant tension of the Christian life.
> former cultural definitions of age no longer apply
So true. One is almost required, in one’s 40s, to start thinking of a Phase II, as many of the social and economic premises of one’s Phase I are almost certainly fading – and with some luck one still has the an equivalent block of years remaining to occupy.
> Keep challenging away!
Wonderful post. And let me say that your writing here now and in the past is in fact making a bigger impact than you may recognize.
That being said- I am there. One thing I realize, however, is that former cultural definitions of age no longer apply. In many ways, 50 is the new 30. People are able, or more willing, to do more later in life.
People who want to set new courses usually want to be challenged. For many, being made uncomfortable is what they are looking for. Keep challenging away!
“””Things are nothing like I planned as I stood on the precipice of adulthood looking to the future. “””
Never a truer word. One thing lift teaches: the Future is not what you expect. So much agony is experienced in what might happen… and that almost never happens [rather, something else, possibly equally as terrible, but still]. Perhaps I have a very dark sense of humor, but I’ve come to find a great deal of peace in that.
“””And yet, the sum of my physical labors and the minutiae of my midlife add up to something big to me”””
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.” Acts 13:36
Life is quick; the older I get, the smaller it seems
This is such an interesting and honest essay.
At first read, I seem to perceive two threads running through. The first is, ‘Living a life of small, perhaps mundane service is right and good, and that is in some sense what God requires of us. The second is that ‘These acts of service can be a comfort-place, keeping us from stepping out into something riskier.’
I fear the second thread. Personally, I don’t want to live a life of mundane-ness as a comfort blanket (emphasis on the fact that that’s a personal reaction).
Jung: ‘We must all do what Christ did. We must make our experiment. The man who avoids error does not live.’