One of the most important fill-in-the-blank tests of our existence is the answer we give to the question: “Life is…. “ Everyone has a response to this question. Those interested in theology wrestle with the question in deliberate and concrete ways. The question “life is…, constitutes, in fact, the primary question for the discipline of study.
But, most people do not spend a great deal of time pondering how they fill-in-the-blank. How they answer the question resides on the fringes of their awareness, part of the assumptive world underneath their daily consciousness. When we approach “life is…” from this non-reflective perspective, we fill in the blank non-verbally, through the things we value, the ways we act and spend our time and money, and the kinds of decisions we make, big and small.
Whether we answer, “life is…,” with reflective nuance or just unthinking action, the real test of our response occurs in our last moments of life. I had an uncle who, I think, deep down filled in the blank with “life is a cheat.” Although he had a loving wife, two healthy children, friends, a good career, a charming house, he found life unfulfilling and his last moments were painful to watch. He struggled horribly letting go of a life he never managed to fully live. Meanwhile, it seems my father completed the sentence “life is” … with “a gift to both relish and surrender.” In the last days of his life he sat in a hospital bed in a great deal of discomfort but spoke enthusiastically about the ideas in Winston Churchill’s famous 4-volume history, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which he inherited from my grandfather and always wanted to read and finally finished about a week before his death. Surrounded by his family, and visited by his best friends in his last two days, he robbed death of its sting in the end, releasing his grip on life to the Mystery he came to know as God, a Divine Presence he learned trust in good times and bad.
Both my uncle and father had wonderful and tragic things happen in their life. They had dreams realized and dreams dashed, led productive lives serving their family, community and nation. Both served in World War II, experiencing at very young ages the human potential for courage and selflessness, hatred and barbarity, mean-spirited narrowness of heart and mind and true transcendence. Both were men of faith and both died too young. One of their chief differences was this: they filled in the blank, “life is ….” differently.
As it turns out, answering the question of “life is” has become a commodity. In 1989 two brothers came up with the idea of creating a clothing brand that filled in the blank of “Life is …” with the simple word “good.” John and Bert Jacobs, who were troubled by the impact of the media’s obsession with negativity, started placing their half-glass full philosophy onto comfortable t-shirts. In two decades they have built a business that started in the back of a van and grew into an international operation with 250 employees and a projected income in 2012 of $100 million. Their simple affirmation of life on shirts and hats is represented by a smiling stick figure named Jake, who enjoys simple pleasures in life – hiking, coffee drinking, bike riding, fishing, sitting pleasantly by a campfire with an equally happy dog.
Pessimists and cynics, not to be outdone, soon countered with their own clothing line: “Life is crap.” This negative assessment of the gift of life is ornamented by stick figures doing things that go wrong – such as falling off a mountain bike into a tree, paddling a kayak into the shipping lane of a destroyer or having a bird defecate on its head. The idea for this company began with two Americans trapped in a pub in a uncharacteristic snowstorm in England. Over a few beers they exchanged barbs with an elderly Englishmen. “Don’t you hate it when things like this happen?” the elderly gentlemen said about the weather. “Sometimes life is crap, eh mates?” Thus was born yet another wrinkle on the philosophy of pessimism.
In the world of educational assessment, fill-in-the-blank tests are designed to evaluate our ability to recall a particular word or concept with only a few contextual cues. “The general leading the northern troops in the Civil War …” for instance, should surface in the mind of a history student the name of Ulysses S. Grant. The theory is that if you can associate the name to the context of the Civil War you must have learned at least basic knowledge of the American War Between the States. “Life is …” provides a completely different kind of fill-in-the-blank question. It invites the broadest context of all – our very existence – and asks the respondent to surface concepts representing our fundamental orientation to the human condition.
As the human quest for knowledge has evolved through the 20th and into the 21st century, the need for technical know-how has almost completely swamped the forms of learning most associated with helping us to fill in the blank: “Life is ….” Human knowing has been boiled down, like so much cabbage, to the technical knowledge needed for doing specific tasks or jobs.
So, perhaps the t-shirt industry is a wake up call for us all. We have to answer the question “life is…,” whether we want to our not, and life is, indeed, sometimes good and sometimes crap. But, it is also much more. Life is….
Exciting and boring.
Pleasurable and painful.
Fulfilling and disappointing.
Joyful and sad.
Inspiring and deadening
Profound and mundane
Filled with love and hate.
In a school of practical theology, you learn to embrace and celebrate everything that is good, true and beautiful, but you also look closely beyond the veil of what is bad, false and ugly. You learn to make distinctions that complexify your understanding of the world, even as you become more docile, even childlike in accepting a profound simplicity underneath its mysteries. You learn that death and loss are necessary aspects of a life well lived. You learn to risk more generously with the most precious resource we all have – our time – which can be squandered lavishly on people and causes that are deemed central to our truly discerned vocation in life. Theology teaches you how to answer “life is…” for yourself, and helps you learn how to help others answer the question for themselves. There is no more important form of knowing in these difficult times, and no more important question facing our lives.
C.S. Lewis once said he believed that on the other side of the grave each of us would come to realize that we had been in heaven or hell for our entire existence. What he meant was this: how we answer the question “life is…” ultimately determines how we interpret our experience of life from the beginning. Such is the power of the question. It can lead us to heavenly bliss, even though we have horrendous challenges, or make us feel like we are trekking through hell, despite a life overwhelmed with blessings.
I have always found this a disturbing idea. We aren’t sent to heaven or hell in this life (or the next if you believe in it), Lewis is suggesting. Rather, we choose it in the ways we interpret the gifts and difficulties entering our lives, in the way we fill-in-the-blank: “life is….” We can conclude our days either like my uncle or my father. The fruit of our lives is also tied closely to our orientation. Take, for instance, the founders of Life is Good and Life is Crap.
The two friends creating the company Life is Crap seem to have created successful business. You can get in on the success by buying a franchise and make money selling your own Crap. But, the Jacob brothers have done something quite different with Life is Good. They started noticing that people going through rough times had a strong affection for the clothing made by their business of optimism. Then they found out about 11-year-old Lindsey, a little girl with terminal bone cancer who became a darling of the media and always wore Life is Good apparel for interviews. “Before I was sick, I took my life for granted,” she told a reporter, “but now that I might not live as long, I want to make sure I enjoy and appreciate it every day.”
The Jacob boys were inspired again. They started Life is Good charities and festivals for children’s causes. They raised $52,000 the first time, $250,000 a few years later and $1 million in 2012. They continue to attempt to spread the message about the goodness of life in more durable ways than clothing items.
In selling their own fill-in-the-blank answer to “Life is….,” it seems they learned what theologian Miroslav Volf has considered one of the greatest fruits of a life of faith: learning to grow as a human being from the love of pleasure to the pleasure of love. Those who learn to truly love others discover that life is, indeed, good. Even when it is crap. My father learned this lesson well in his life. I’m not sure my uncle did. In the end, it made all the difference.
But, perhaps Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer have captured Volf’s insight in a more concrete fashion for our day and time. They wrote the music for the international blockbuster stage play, Les Miserable, and wrote a moving song for the main character Jean Valjean. One of the lyrics is a quote from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name: “to love another person, is to see the face of God.” When you see God’s face in our fractured world (whether you recognize it as such or not), it is a lot easier to say Life is Good.