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Monday, September 24, 2007

Wonderful Life

Sunday on our way to Quaker meeting for worship, my eight-year-old son began talking about reincarnation and all the different things we could come back as. His imagination had been sparked by the Indian festival we had been to the day before, which included large posters illustrating the concept of karma. After some speculation on whether it would be good to be an animal and how long a soul had to wait to come back again, Luke said that what he really wanted to do was live this life over. “I’d like to live, and then when I get near the end of my life, take a time machine back to the beginning and live my life over again. I could do it again and again.” I accused him of trying to be immortal, like Voldemort in Harry Potter. “No,” he said, he would be OK with dying eventually. “I just want to try making different choices and see how they work out.”

I was still thinking about Luke’s time-machine idea as I settled into silent worship. What choices would I revisit, I wondered. Would it be the obvious turning points that made a difference, like choice of college or major, or the little things, like in the movie Sliding Doors where missing a train changes a woman’s life? And speaking of movies, can we really evaluate our own lives objectively? In It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey needs an angel to show him how his choices have affected other people, something he could not see on his own. If I were to use a time-machine to test different choices, how could I be sure which outcomes were the best, not just for me, but in the broader sense? Would Martin Luther King, Jr. have chosen the path he did if he had been given the chance to compare it’s ending to a nice quiet pastor’s life?

This line of thinking brought me pretty quickly to the conclusion that I didn’t want to redo any of my choices. I’ve had a sense of God being at work in many of my decisions, even during the times when I wasn’t paying much attention to God. There seems to be something fundamental to my faith about trusting that I’m on the path I’m meant to be on, even if I wander into the woods every once in awhile. I also believe that thinking about other paths too much distracts us from appreciating the view from the path we are on. This was confirmed by an NPR story I heard once that said that people who spend too much time looking at too many options tend to be more dissatisfied after they’ve made a choice because they are still thinking about the other options, whereas people who just make a choice and go with it tend to be more satisfied.

Somewhere during these musings someone in our meeting stood up and gave a message about how God purifies us the way a silversmith purifies silver. (For those unfamiliar with unprogrammed Quaker meeting, we gather in silence to listen for God. If someone feels they have been given a message that they are meant to share, they can stand and speak.) The message, which was similar to this story I just came across, made me think about those times in our lives we might be tempted to avoid but which actually forge us into better people. It confirmed my sense that getting to redo our choices wouldn’t necessarily be a gift.

When I asked Luke if there were any choices he has made so far that he’d like to try changing, he responded that it would be interesting to grow up in a different family, like one with a brother instead of a sister. Later when he and his sister had a fight in the parking lot after meeting, I imagined sibling rivalry as one of the fires God puts us through. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I have to trust that learning to deal with it is making us all better people.

(For those who remember that I promised not to embarrass my children, I did get their permission for this one.)


Anonymous How to Cope with Pain said...

Thanks for this great post!

I had a very serious medical that lasted for about 3 years. During the time I was most ill, I was really ready for the "lesson" to end. But I learned so much. And I believe I'm a better person and better doctor because of that difficult experience.

I'm still not able to say I'm glad I went thru it, but I now see how that experience readied me for work that I believe God calls me to do now.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. It might be worth adding that it is not really helpful to tell people that they are being purified when they feel they are in the fire, but it's good to hear the stories of people who have come out the other side of it.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Philip Jones said...

I was sure you'd invoke the movie Groundhog Day in your cinematic parsing of this idea. If you haven't seen it already, you really should. In a sense, Bill Murray's character MUST live one day in his life over and over again until he gets it right. Not what Luke has in mind, but I think the movie has a message that's relevant here.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Nancy A said...

I was offered a job when I was 24, just back from working in Central America. It was teaching at a rural high school in a rugged woodland area. I turned it down because it was in the middle of nowhere and I wanted to live where people were.

Today, I live in a city close to that high school. From time to time, we have to drive up that highway, and every time I see it, I think about that job. The entire path of my life would have been different because of that one decision.

I think of that every time we drive by. Like your son, I wonder what it would be like to turn back the clock and experience the life I ended up not living because of that one choice -- just to see what it would have been and who I would have become as a result.

4:32 PM  

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