“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. ” (Ps 90:12)
What do we want to achieve in this short life? A good comfortable life? A loving relationship? A good reputation? How about leaving this earth with a lasting legacy of good works? In First Things First, Stephen Covey, describes the meaning of life in terms of “to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.” One helpful memory tool he suggests is to see life in terms of physical (to live), intellectual (to learn), emotional (to love) and spiritual (leave a legacy). Being able to balance one’s life in all four aspects will thus define 'success' much better than simply struggling to make ends meet. All of us, consciously or not seek for meaning in whatever we do. Consider the following growth stages:
· CHILD: What do you want to be when you grow up?
· TEEN: What fun things can we do in life?
· ADULT: What does it take to make my first million dollars?
· SENIOR: How do I impart wisdom to the next generation?
As a child, we have innocent dreams about what we want to do when we grow up. As a teen, we fight boredom and think that fun things are far better than anything else in the world. As an adult, we grapple with basic issues of life like money, family, love relationships, work successes and social acceptance. As a senior, we would have traversed life, fallen through potholes and experienced various success stories. If only one is able to teach the younger generation to learn best practices and to avoid repeating foolish mistakes we have made. Question is, are these satisfactory in our quest for significance? Are they adequate in our search for meaning? Covey's paradigm is a helpful start. It forces the busy person to take a step back to reflect. While it has its usefulness, let me propose a biblical model and suggest that Ps 91 is another way to help us. In short, we search for meaning by joining together the dots in our own lives. We cannot be effective 'joiners' unless we are first healed.
Healing Our Past (esp bad memories)
The words of the Psalmist provides us two clues in our search for meaning. Firstly, he urges us to consider our days carefully by noticing the details of our life. The Hebrew word for ‘to number’ is [לִמְנֹ֣ות, manah] literally to count out the details. This same word is used in Gen 13:16 when the LORD promised Abraham that ‘counting’ his offspring is like counting the grains of dust. In life, we do not live our life haphazardly, as if yesterday is totally unrelated to today.
There is one common denominator from birth to our present state: our growing selves. Just because we do not understand our past does not mean they are not related to our present condition. In fact, many psychological problems are results of an unfulfilled past. The late Michael Jackson’s death reveals a troubled man, colored largely by his experience with his bad-tempered father, who abused him physically and emotionally. With this context, we get to appreciate his huge investment to help little children be healed and to make a better world for you and for me. The rising demand for psychologists and mental health-care reveals not so much about coping with external pressures and stresses we face day to day. Rather it is a need for inner healing. In fact, many deep problems are due to unfulfilled needs in childhood and youth. A child not allowed to be a child when young, will childish toys even through adulthood. An adult person's sense of insecurity can often be traced back to a turbulent teenage period. In the movie, The Dark Knight, we were given glimpses of how the Joker suffered under the hands of a cruel father, eventually becoming Gotham City's most dreadful villain, who tyrannized throngs of people. Each time the Joker kills someone, he will refer the victim back to his own past treatment. This first observation tells us that the clue for meaning is no use, unless it is seen with lenses of healed memories. That is where the verb 'teach us' remind us that we cannot do this search on our own. We need God. This leads us to the next clue, that with God as our guide, we can find the treasure of meaning in our lives.
The second clue for meaning is found in the later part of the verse. The Hebrew mind surrounding 'heart' is not merely on an emotional level. It represents the center of one's being, meaning all that concerns a person, whether it be intellectual, emotional or physical. The 'heart' is one whole being. Literally, as we consider our days on this life, we will grow wiser as we connect our past with who we are. By connecting up the various dots in our life, we will then be able to see a meaningful picture of our own sense of identity. This is far better than the worldly definition of our identity in terms of who we work for, or how productive we are in our career or relationships. The biblical patriarch, Joseph was able to do just that, to connect the seemingly meaningless blot in his life when his brothers sold him out.
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Gen 50:20)
Joseph did not understand what happened in his past, until he learned to number his days and to seek God for understanding. In other words, Joseph remembered what happened, not with an evil intent, but with a heart that is healed from above. This is something we all need: Healed memories. Sometimes we drive life forward so much that we forget that sometimes we need to reverse backwards to achieve closure.
Christian spirituality suggests an even more surprising paradigm. The way toward greater meaning is not in accumulating more stuff, but learning to live contently even with less. We have been inundated with calls to rise up to the next level of achievement. Society around us tempts us to strive for more materialistic goods and more social status. For students, it is the rush for more knowledge. For the salesman, it is more clients. In the entertainment industry, it is more flesh, gory, violence and heightened fame. Even in churches, more members mean more money for the organ. Christ's path to glorifying God is not accumulating more but to give up all, for the sake of God's kingdom come. All 12 disciples left him in his greatest time of need. His most loved disciple Peter denied him not once but thrice. Even the clothes he was wearing at the crucifix was torn in into shreds. He came with nothing and he left with nothing, except disgrace and humiliation. Using the calculators and spreadsheets of the world, this man from Nazareth is a bankrupt and a failure. Yet, what the man Jesus did in 3 years accomplished far beyond anyone else in the world, combined. He did so with minimal resources. He had no Internet, yet his gospel is transmitted all over the world, online and offline. He had no military might, yet his good news cannot be blown into oblivion by any formidable military might. He had not many friends when he died, yet his message has moved millions of people through the ages to follow his footsteps. He had no legal legacy to leave behind except his simple last words: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." These last words left behind a mark of humility that reflects the heart of God, of loving others more than himself. By his stripes, we are healed (Isa 53:5c).
It is tough to follow Christ's act. For those of us who plead for something more doable, perhaps, we can learn from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th Century American poet, who defined success as follows:
"To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you lived - that is to have succeeded." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
It takes a person to consider his days before he can make out meaning in his life. There is always meaning to be discovered. Let the Spirit of God dwell in our hearts richly, to help us consider our past. In doing so, as we join up the various dots of our life, may the process help untangle our past knots of unhappiness. Let us find healing for any bad memories. Let us find strength to reconcile broken relationships. Let us begin the path of fruitful living. The meaning of life is often not greater discovery of knowledge or larger accumulation of things, but starts with healing.
Consider our days well, and trust God to help us number our days, and to grow our heart in wisdom. Do that always, if not, at least once a week. Remember the Healer.