Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
I have a slight accent when I speak English. I have come to peace with that. It used to get under my skin when asked, “Where are you from, Ireland?” While the Irish do have their own winsome musical lilt, I would quickly correct that I was Canadian, the country touted for its pleasant English accent. And furthermore did you not know most newscasters in America come from Canada because of our easy-to-understand accent?” “Oh, so are you from Newfoundland or something, eh?” Sigh. The fact is, my first language was Dutch, which I am proud of, I just don’t want there to be a hint of it in my speaking.
I think back to when I was I was old enough to start school. My English was so poor that the grade-one teacher had to remonstrate with my parents to switch languages used in the home from Dutch to English. I still have this tiny memory of being lost in my new dream world called primary school. It all makes sense now.
Kierkegaard encourages us to look backwards to the past in order to come to a place in the now where our life makes sense. I guess looking back is like having this recall…we arrange the pieces of our lives like a photo album and we give meaning and captions to each photo. Most of the mental picture memories are good, but there are some we may not want to take out and handle. Those pictures conjure up in us feelings of regret or hurt or maybe even anger.
To take what Kierkegaard said logically a step further, simply looking back to the past and understanding it may not be enough; we need to find a way to make peace with our past as well. If I am to live fully in the here and now, I need to first be able to look back to the past, understand it, see how it shaped me or misshaped me, and then look forward to the future with confident eyes.
The other day I laughed out loud when I read a tweeted quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “I think somehow we learn who we really are and then we live with that decision.” I could have used that quote when I was twenty something! We need to learn who we are and then live out that discovery without shame. Not always easy. For not only have I been told that I have an accent, but that I am also endowed with a quirky personality. That too pricked against my pride of being a cool cat. I’ve never wanted to explore the truth of my ‘quirky me.’ But as I look back at how a shy dutch-born kid grew up in an army family moving about from place to place in Canada, perhaps that was enough to make me a little quirky. And I am at peace with what is true of me and so many other strange things left unmentioned!
I’ve given you a glimpse of my own personal ‘looking backwards’ to try and illustrate that Kierkegaard was really onto something. The ability to make peace and find meaning with our past, both the positive and the negative, enables us to function as, and forgive this religious word, a blessing to others.
This is living our life forward with the clear eyes of hope. What good is it to live a story line that is absorbed in the world of self? Doesn’t the greatest moment in life begin when you make the shift from self; from focusing on image, success and shifting your life forward toward significance for others? A healthy and oft’ repeated question begs us to imagine the day of our own funeral. As people are standing in the lobby with a coffee in hand, what would they be saying about the life we have lived? If it were my funeral and I could invisibly walk around and listen to the chatter I would hope to hear that I, Peter DeWit, made some positive deposit in their life and made someone feel loved, significant even.” That might give me some proof that I made the shift from self-focused success-based living (getting) to other-focused significance-based (giving) living.
In light of my recent reflections on my health and the word hope, admittedly I’ve had moments where I wondered if this slow growing brain tumor muffling my hearing was really happening. Like the man seeing his image speaking to him from the puddle wondering who the real person is, I wondered if what I was experiencing was a surreal dream of myself and I’ll wake up without any traces of this reality. Then there are times I get upset with this interruption to my regular routine of life. I don’t want to think about anyone drilling a hole into my head whatsoever! Yet, from ‘somewhere else’, maybe from within, I am reminded that all of this is not to diminish my faith, my future, but through it I can learn and will speak this new language. And though I speak it with a slight accent, this language called ‘hope’ keeps helping me live my life forward in the midst of uncertainty with peace.