We all have a vision in life—a way of understanding, interpreting, and evaluating the world, others, God, and ourselves. Of course, we had some help in creating these visions. This “help” came from our parents, our peers, the social contexts of our lives, and the unique ways we chose to determine how we will view and live life.
Our parents provided both positive and negative influences in the creation of our vision of life. And no doubt those of us who are parents have continued that mixed blessing as we relate to our own children. Early in life I learned from my parents that people are more important than money and things. That lesson was made clear not so much by what they said as how they lived, shared, and sacrificed. But I also inherited from them a racial prejudice that has taken years for me to overcome. There are still members of my family who continue to allow themselves to be poisoned by such an evil and twisted perspective.
Children, of course, begin associating with their peers by the time they are of kindergarten age. They also are exposed to other adults who help shape their vision of life. I learned some valuable lessons from the teachers I had in public school. But I also was taught that not all adults should be trusted with the education and molding of children who are so impressionable. I had three first-grade teachers. The first was a beautiful young woman I adored from the very first day of class. She was married and became pregnant early in the school year. Back then, women could not continue to teach if they became pregnant. So, we got our second first-grade teacher who was one of the cruelest adults I have ever known. She terrorized the whole class and even singled out one girl whom she paddled every day of school. When a boy in the class developed so many physical problems stemming from his anxiety of even going to school, the principal was forced to fire the teacher. I don’t even remember the third teacher we had that year. She had to be an improvement, but I don’t recall anything about her. Along with many other students, I had endured enough trauma, and I imagine my subconscious took a break. I wonder how many of us learned during those months that life can be cruel and dangerous. I also wonder what became of that little girl who was abused day after day and the little boy who developed ulcers, lost weight, and begged his parents to let him stay at home instead of having to experience another day of paralyzing fear.
We’ve all had some help in creating our vision in life. But the harsh truth is that, ultimately, we are responsible for the vision we create. At some point we must decide how we will both interpret and live the years that are ours on this earth. Some of us will have an easier time than others. Some people may be so marred by the vision they have had help in forming that, at least in this dimension of existence, they may not be able to heal. Or the healing they do manage to make may be too small for others to even see or appreciate. These changes may be all they are capable of accomplishing. For such people, I trust that God understands their struggles and remains committed to their healing. And I also believe that since none of us understand totally any individual (including ourselves); we should always respond with love and hope. We do not know how difficult the paths some people must travel to heal.
The late Jesuit priest and psychologist John Powell told of an experience he had as a seminarian. He lived at a seminary with other student preparing for the priesthood. Part of the seminary also served as a hospice for aged priests who were approaching the end of their lives. Powell went to the infirmary with some minor health problem and observed the caretaker putting two patients to bed. The first priest cursed the nurse, called him all kinds of names, and angrily pushed him aside. The second priest thanked the nurse for taking such good care of him and all the other men. He promised that before he went to sleep that night, he would say a special prayer just for this caring man. Powell said that in that moment he came to a realization that changed his life. He thought, “One day I will be one of those two priests. And I won’t decide then which one I will be. I am making that decision right now.”
Early in our lives we have the capacity to create and change our vision of life. But one day that vision will shape, control, and create us. And we may well lack the strength to change to any appreciable degree the vision we have created and embraced and which now possesses us. So, the important question is this: What is the vision we are creating and which will one day determine who we are, what we think, and how we live? Will we be positive or negative about life? Will we be “the glass is half empty” or “the glass is half full” people? Will we be selfish and greedy or loving and generous? Will we be paranoid and fearful or free and joyful? Will we be hardhearted or compassionate? Will we view life as an exciting pilgrimage and an unending story, or will we choose to homestead, build our walls, and wither in our small and pathetic little worlds? Shall we see life as a gift to celebrate or as a possession we must hoard and protect at all cost?
In the many years of pastoring I have observed that people in nursing homes toward the end of their lives didn’t just get the way they were overnight (unless there are mitigating circumstances such as dementia). They made their choices regarding their visions and identities over many decades. And it is extremely difficult for any of us to change our vision once it has possessed us. I won’t say it’s impossible, but I have witnessed over and over that is exceedingly rare to undergo such a radical transformation once our visions have hardened into mental and spiritual concrete. So, the secret is to form a vision which can mold, control, and possess us in ways that are life-affirming, liberating, joyful, and loving. But how do we go about finding and embracing such a vision?
As Christians we are invited to give ourselves to the vision Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.” This vision is upside-down and inside-out when compared to all the frantic, greedy, and sterile visions often embraced in our world. As we follow him and his vision, we can experience a conversion (which must be a continual and repeated experience) whereby God takes us out of this world and transforms us–and then God hurls us back into this world to see it through God’s eyes, to hear it through God’s ears, and to feel and love it through God’s heart. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful vision to give ourselves to? To give ourselves to God’s vision of us and of the world? And if God is anything like the Abba Jesus reveals, we are giving ourselves to Someone who is totally committed to what is best for us as we become the unique children of God we were created to be. God’s unconditional love assures us that we will never be shortchanged or stymied in developing our full potential. We will be gifted with unending stories as we partner with God in this life and beyond. When all is said and done and when we come to the end of this dimension of existence, I believe this is the only vision we can really trust. Why? Because such a vision is rooted in a loving God who is also an inexhaustible spring of possibilities with limitless horizons for each and every one of us.