Life as Gift and Call: a Few More Thoughts

Last week, in light of the story of The Old Man and His Grandson, we suggested a way of interpreting our experience. One approach is to see each experience as a gift and call to bring something to life rather than put something to death, and to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. I thought it might be interesting to expand a little on these thoughts.

In the story, it is the action of the child, with whatever degree of understanding it contained, that brought awareness to the couple.

We can mention a few examples. If we lose a friend, we cannot simply expect that the following day we will go out and form a new friend. As the story of Rapunzel intimates, the unfolding of friendship takes time and is built stand by strand by sharing what is within us. Yet it requires the same openness, vulnerability, and trust on the part of another. This reciprocity cannot be manipulated, but only received. We can be open to friendship, yet cannot produce it on our own. It is a gift. At the same time, with the gift of friendship, comes the task, demand, or call not to betray it. When someone honours us with the gift of who they are, it is important to respect that gift.

Similarly, if someone confides in us, tells us of their deepest anxieties and hopes, fears and dreams, they are entrusting us with the deepest part of themselves. This too is a gift. But with it comes the responsibility not to violate that trust. Or if someone close to us dies, it seems less of a gift than a burden, a sorrowful, lonely weight imposed upon us. But with this more shadowed “gift” comes the challenge gradually to recognize and deal with our grief, and the whole train of feelings and conflicts which it draws in its wake. Beneath the weight of sorrow may gradually emerge a sense of gratitude for this person and the life we have shared with them.

From this way of looking at things, every experience is a gift and call. This appears to be the pattern of human experience. We suggested further that this gift and call themselves have a pattern.

In the story, if the couple did not change their treatment of the grandfather, they would further hurt and sadden him, perhaps even kill his spirit. On the other hand, to respond to the challenge, as they did, would help to heal his wound, gladden his heart, and bring new life to his last days.

In the case of friendship, to betray a friend is to harm, diminish, or even destroy the friendship. To share more fully one’s inner life and outer life with the friend is to foster and develop that friendship, to forge a stronger and more lasting bond. Similarly, to betray a trust can be shattering to a person, whereas to maintain trust can help a person to grow. As I have put it elsewhere, if we become a safe place for another, or they for us, we offer a foundation to stand on and reach from. In a similar way, as we wrestle with the grief of a loss, we can become more aware of our various and even conflicting feelings, and gradually become more compassionate to ourselves and others, in a way that is life-giving.

The same underlying dynamic and pattern seems to be clear: either we bring something to life or put something to death in ourselves and others. We can either enliven or kill; create or destroy life. And this can refer to all the forms and dimensions of life, physical, emotional, mental, artistic, economic, political, international, etc. The basic gift and task concerns life and death: bringing to life or putting to death, even to the point of bringing something to life out of the many deaths in the midst of life.

We can recall again the words of Richard Rohr that suffering is either transformed or transmitted. Suffering is transmitted in destructive ways that may embody unfaced fear that flows into hostility. These readily seek to control, attack, and destroy others, and so are death-dealing. Transformed suffering, on the other hand, leads to kindness, compassion, and justice, which are life giving.

There may be a basic recognition that life itself is a gift, and that the understanding, love, and beauty that make life meaningful are gifts. This recognition shows forth in a life lived with an undertone of gratitude. I recall a humorous comment of a friend who was very difficult as a child yet had loving parents. His words were: “I’m grateful that my parents let me live.”

Gratitude has the same Latin roots as the words grateful, grace, gracious, gratuitous, which essentially mean thankfulness for what is freely given and is valuable. The corresponding word from the Greek, charism, has the same sense of gift, grace, beauty, and kindness, at first received, then shared..If life and its meaning are gifts, and felt as such, then there is an underlying tone of gratitude in our lives, which implies a recognition of gift. What is given rather than earned is then freely shared. The recognition of gift leads to generosity.

The opposite is resentment, the sense that the life we have received, and therefore we ourselves, are not of much value. This feeling of resentful insignificance leads to fear, including a fear that what is of little worth can only pretend to importance or look to things outside of self to give a sense of worth that is not felt from within. It further leads to a need to control, to dominate others and a world that are felt as threatening. It is readily expressed in hostility in feeling, thought, and action. This whole approach seems to be an attempt to prove a worth that is neither felt nor believed. It fails to recognize that our worth cannot be proven or achieved, but only recognized as a gift to be accepted and cherished, and recognized in some sense in all that is.

We have said before how a child will ask: “Where did I come from?” We added that a child is not looking for a technical answer, a lab report, but wants to be told a story in which they are given a sense of worth and belonging. The very question itself implies that we do “come from,” that we do not create ourselves but receive our life, which may later be felt as a gift or a burden. One former colleague suggested that if we think of ourselves as a self-made person, we need only look at our navel as a reality check.

As a child’s longing for a story of worth and belonging suggests, we have a tremendous yearning that the life we have received–and not fashioned–is a precious gift, a sacredness that extends to the unique life and self that is ours. In that case the underlying call is to recognize and accept that gift, to honour it in thought, word, activity, and life. It is a recognition of a corresponding call to honour that gift, not only in ourselves, but extending to all others and indeed to all that is, in appropriate ways.

May you come more and more to recognize your own sacred worth, to accept and cherish it, to be freed from the burden of proof, and to realize and live that worth in self and others. As a result may you more and more live a life permeated with a gratitude that flows into generosity, kindness, compassion, and justice.

Norman King
May 16, 2022