Life in the Past Tense
It was at 8:56 p.m. that I experienced the all-too-familiar frustration known by anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant: having to serve someone who’s coming in four minutes before closing. I was sixteen years old and had only been working at Panera Bread for three months or so, but I was already accustomed to feeling the sincerest passive aggression possible toward customers that had not planned to eat at an earlier time than 8:56 p.m.
The couple that had come in was loud and oblivious, the two most common traits in customers that would typically make me mumble curses at the sage who decided that the customer was always right. This time, however, there came a strange and complex feeling.
After the customers took their time finishing their food, they apologized profusely for coming in late and thanked us for serving them. I felt something in that moment that I have not felt since. It was something like pity at their obliviousness, but also envy at how carefree they were, all while I was simultaneously annoyed and touched by their behavior. It was truly odd, and when I recounted this experience to my mother later that evening, she gave me a piece of wisdom that I doubt I’ll ever forget.
She said, “Knowing the subtleties of our own emotions is a huge step toward becoming well-rounded human beings.”
Just how mothers are able to know the exact location of that thing you’ve been searching for for hours, every once in awhile they’ll say exactly what needs to be said. Looking back upon a moment like this reminds me that so many of my experiences and memories that seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things have actually had the most profound impact on who I am today.
In truth, I often find myself thinking more about my parents than of them. And while I suppose that this happens to everyone who moves out of their house, I can’t help but feel that the distinction between “thinking about” and “thinking of” is an important one. When I lived at home, I thought of my parents a lot: I was afraid they would reprimand me for coming home past curfew. I was worried about their day was like when I was at school. Now, I think about how certain experiences with my parents have shaped me; or what parts of their parenting I want to make my own; or, by extension, what parts I will leave out.
I was speaking recently with a good friend of mine about our lives before Columbia, and when we came to the subject of our parents he said, “There are some people you don’t really get along with, and I just never got along with my father.” The way he said it was so matter-of-fact and earnest that I felt deeply moved and decided to try and attempt to dissect the subtleties of my reaction.
What I have come to realize is that self-reflection is a luxury that few Columbia students can afford themselves. One Psalmist insists upon the importance of taking time to understand this life when he writes: “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” 1 If there’s one thing I’ve learned since coming to Columbia, it’s that life events are more complex than they may first seem. The world in general is complex, and Columbia students often are expected to know so much about these complexities. In fact, the life of a Columbia student is more about understanding the logic and intricacies of the world around them than about understanding themselves as human beings.
But self-reflection is important because it allows us to situate ourselves in the story of our lives. Paul illustrates this importance in 1 Corinthians 15 where he defines and describes the Gospel, and he doesn’t stop until he includes his own place in the overarching meta-narrative of the story of God: “Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He appeared also to me.” 2
It is not enough for us to just reflect on our own stories. In order for us to “number our days” and gain wisdom, we need to see how our individual life story fits into the larger narrative God has written for us. If we can look back through the literary lens of the bible—the biggest and most important story of all—then we are well on our way to looking forward, with an eye toward our own purpose and our own place in the world. I don’t think the part we are playing in the Big Story can ever be fully known and understood until we are with God in eternity, but we occasionally get the privilege of confirmation along our journey— the unmistakable feeling that we are in the exact place doing the exact thing that we were designed to do.
While it is important to try to understand ourselves and the part we are playing in the greater narrative, it is equally important to understand the limitations that are a natural part of self-reflection.
Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians, writing, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 3 Although in this life we can get some view of ourselves as we are, we cannot know ourselves as fully as we are known by God. I personally find great comfort in the fact that God always knows me so much better than I could know myself; it means that He still loves us after knowing those dark parts of ourselves that we cannot see. God’s knowledge of us is truly a component of the “peace that passes all understanding.” 4
Some speak of the “peace that passes all understanding” with the attitude that we should just give up on even trying because some things are unknowable. This verse, however, is less of God’s version of “Because I said so” and more of a reassurance that when the world seems too complex, the peace of God surpasses our need to understand.
As a Christian, I possess an eternal perspective that keeps me from despairing over the futility of life.
As the Apostle Paul also writes, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” 5 The word “perplexed” simply means “without answer,” (similar to those “puzzling reflections in the mirror” he refers to in 1 Corinthians) which is a state that sends many people into despair. Paul knew what it was like not to be in the position of a non-believer, but he continued to find hope and strength in the goodness of God. There will always be times when we are “without answer” as we reflect on our lives, but our knowledge of God’s love and purpose for us can keep us afloat, with our heads above the waves of despair.
Nathaniel Wyatt (CC ’20), a native of southern Alabama, is majoring in Film Studies. He wishes he knew how to ride a bike and his personal hacky-sack record is 30.