Let us now be perfectly clear. Your life is not something from which you can stand aside and consider what it would have been like had you had a different one. There is no “you” apart from your actual life. You are not separate from your life, and in that life you must find the goodness of God. Otherwise, you will not believe that he has done well by you, and you will not truly be at peace with him. You must find the goodness of God and the fellowship of Jesus in who you are.
– Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
I woke up full of excitement, knowing that after my full day of work, I would be going skiing for the first time this season. I checked the forecast and packed the corresponding base layers, not at all deterred by the soaking rain predicted for that night. After sending a quick text to my friend Anna to share my joy, I went to the closet and pulled my red parka off of its hanger and held it reverently in my hands. I haven’t patrolled in almost two years, and the grief of losing this thing that I love has been heavy on me. I tucked the red jacket into my duffel and with a prayer of thanks, zipped it away.
I made my tea and finished getting ready for work, but just as I set my travel mug in its cup holder, I felt the tell-tale signs of my nearly-daily IBS symptoms: nausea, a cold sweat, and pain in my stomach that made it hard to walk back into the house. I was late to work, where I fought pain all day, making a conspicuous number of trips to the restroom and spending my lunch break curled around the heating pad I keep in my desk. But still, there was the hope of skiing, and I was determined not to let my stomach thwart me again. Even if all I managed was driving to the patrol room and re-stocking my pack, I wasn’t going home to the couch. I wasn’t going to spend my night bowing to my body.
So I finished my day at work and started driving south, trying to ignore the increasingly frequent cramps, until I was at a stop light and felt the dreadful swell of pain that couldn’t be ignored. My body got cold and I pulled quickly into a church parking lot where I vomited in a storm drain. I wasn’t winning, and now my only thought was finding the strength to drive home. I took some Zofran and called my mom, not wanting to be alone in the disappointment and frustration. I think I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn’t weak for going home instead of pressing on towards Ellicottville. Sick as I was, I still felt the pressing ache of shame.
Our early twenties are a sweet and grueling time of building our lives. It takes so much work to press into new communities and to gain new skills. My candidate year on ski patrol was one of the most physically and mentally challenging years of my life, but I gained an incredible set of physical skills and beautiful relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life. When I got that red jacket on my twenty-second birthday, I felt a profound swell of confidence and self-assurance that can’t be imitated or bought: It is exclusively the result of doing something difficult.
But what happens when the paradigm of “difficult” shifts? How do we maintain our confidence and joy when the mountaintops are things like choosing to go to work despite the pain, or even more challenging, saying “no” to things in order to care for our bodies? I have not done well with this. I want my old life back. I want life when I could still push through the pain and, in doing so, feel mighty. I have spent too much time pouting, but have struggled to know what a meaningful life looks like when so many of the things that brought me joy and purpose are out of reach.
I don’t have an easy answer here. I am building wisdom in each day of living this journey. I pray for guidance so that life might have all of its colors once more. The quote above has helped me immensely, and I believe that it has profound implications for all of us, especially as we face the new year with all of its promises of change and transformation. What if instead of changing our lives or some aspect within, we simply resolved to embrace, with unflinching commitment, our actual lives, just as they are?
For me, this means that I live patiently within the limits of my body each day. I am planning to go skiing tomorrow, and if my body can’t do that, I will prayerfully consider what else God might want me to do with that time. This is only possible if I believe, as Willard states above, that God has done well by me, and that his goodness is being manifest in my life as it presently is, even beyond our traditional conceptions of goodness. I am inconsistent in this, but I don’t know any other path to peace, and since it appears that my digestive system is going to be chronically dysfunctional, I am facing a long life of meaningless pain if I don’t commit to this work now.
Willard says that God “desires to dwell with you in your life and make glorious every aspect of it in the light of the whole that God has planned.” He desires to dwell with you in your life, and to endow your story with perfect purpose. My friends, your life, as it is, is ordained and brimming with purpose. Maybe the hard work is dwelling fully with our reality, and living with grateful contentment in our quirky, painful, glorious lives.