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Life Unfiltered

Week of Monday, March 26, 2001

Kierkegaard is the master of the aphorism, and here is one of my favorites: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it can only be lived forwards.” I am not sure what Kierkegaard meant by this, or even where it is found in his works. But one morning at our faculty fellowship my friend Bill Newsome challenged me to explore what this meant after he tired of hearing me repeat it. Here's my best guess.

First the easy part. As human beings we have free will. We are, as Huston Smith wryly observed, “free agents” who form our lives by the choices we make. But there's a catch. Life does not present us with neat and clean choices. It is often very messy. So much of life is thrown at us at warp speed that our many micro-choices go almost unnoticed. They are incremental, perhaps even unnoticed, but they shape us nonetheless.

This speed and chaos of life force us to choose. That is, our life does not come to us prepackaged, mediated or filtered. It is like a one way street, or as Ortega y Gasset put it, fired at us at point blank range. “It does not ask, are you ready to get married, do you know enough to have children?” No, it barrels down on us whether we are ready or not, whether we are full of wisdom or foolishness, whether we are tired or rested. It forces us to make choices from the trivial to the transcendant, and often to do so on the fly, at a moment's notice. Moving forward through life, making those many choices, we form and shape our very selves.

Smith goes on to quote Kenneth Fearing:

Wow he died as wow he lived,
Going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and
biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die.1
I am no poet, but if I had to add a few more lines from my recent experience it would go something like this:
Blam he got stomach cancer,
Whomp that teenage maelstrom,
Whoosh more month than money,
Blast that stepmother thief,

So, life can only be lived forward, or for many of us, fast-forward. With life fired at us like this, it is often difficult to feel like you are making wise choices, or even making sense of life. What does it mean? Where's all this going? What's around the bend?

With the forward look necessarily fragmented and chaotic, these questions require the backward look. When we look backward over our past, perhaps we see the semblance of a pattern or direction, a sense of God's providential grace, the feeling of His fatherly care. So maybe Kierkegaard means that life makes sense, is understood, in the literal sense of the past chronology of my life, when I make the historical glance in the rearview mirror.

But we can understand “backward” in a figurative sense too. Maybe it means viewing life like a tapestry, messy and tangled on its underside, but aesthetically beautiful nevertheless when viewed right side up, from a different perspective. In a figurative sense, we interpret life from a uniquely Christian perspective, the way God does—as much as that is possible for sinful, finite people. In the Gospels much of what Jesus says can only be understood as very unconventional, “backward” or upside down wisdom. He interpreted normal situations from a different perspective—the last shall be first, self-denial somehow enriches me more than self-aggrandizement, gentleness and self control beat anger any day no matter how good the latter feels, faith is a sure bet over fear, giving is a better choice than getting.

When I was in graduate school I came across a prayer by Kierkegaard that I liked so much that my wife printed it in calligraphy. It now hangs in my office.

Herr! gieb Uns blöde Augen
für Dinge, die nichts taugen
und Augen voller Klarheit
in alle Deine Wahreit.

Lord! Give us weak eyes
for things that do not matter
and eyes full of clarity
in all your truth.
Therein lies the need for what Paul called “discernment” in Philippians 1:9–10: “And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more in real knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best.” We accept life as it is fast-forwarded to us in all its messiness, pray for wisdom, make choices as best we can, and then choose to understand it all within the context of Christian faith, hope and love.

  1. Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (San Francisco: Harper, 2000), pages 206–207.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.

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