“I have lived.” These are powerful words when spoken to God in gratitude. Whenever I open the Bible on the altar here at Wayfarers Chapel, I always look up through the round window which stands over the altar and whisper a “thank-you” to God. What am I thanking God for? Surely for more than I could easily put into words. But primarily, I think, I am thanking God for having brought me to this moment in my life, where I have this ministry in this place. And in that thanksgiving, I am grateful for the journey as well. Whatever else may lie ahead for me, I have already lived a rich and rewarding life, and for that I thank God.
I was inspired to this theme recently when I was browsing through the letters of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. In one of them, he writes,
As we go to sleep, let us joyfully and cheerfully say, 'I have lived and have run the course that fortune gave.' If God should grant a tomorrow, let us joyfully accept it. He is most blessed, secure in self-possession, who awaits tomorrow without worry. Whoever says daily 'I have lived' rises to wealth.--Seneca (Epist. Mor. I, xii)
I have to confess that in reading this, I thought back to the posters you often saw on college dormitory walls in the 70’s, the ones with photographs of beautiful sunrises, and the words “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I was then of a skeptical bent of mind (still am), and I always thought to myself, “Yes, but by that logic, today is also the last day of my life so far!” But once I read this passage from Seneca, it occurred to me that we could also have posters of beautiful sunsets captioned, “Today is the last day of your life so far. You have lived!” And that too is an inspirational message. If you consider the life you have already lived to be full and complete in itself, then everything yet to come is an extra bonus. The life in which we daily say “I have lived,” is a life of gratitude.
A similar expression of gratitude is found in the words of Simeon, as we read them in Luke 2, “Now let your servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples.” In seeing the infant Jesus presented at temple, Simeon felt he had seen the coming of the Messiah that he had long been waiting for. Now he could leave content. It is an attitude open for all of us to adopt. Not of course that I want to depart from this life right now, or any time soon! But if this were the time to depart, I pray that I would find it within myself to go out in gratitude.
I have lived. This might seem to be a theme that becomes more appropriate as the years pass, but is it really? There was in the news a couple months ago the story of the passing of Mattie Stepanek, a young man who would outwardly seem to have had a tragic life. Coming from a family where many had died from Muscular Dystrophy, he too died from MS short of his fourteenth birthday. Yet within his brief life, he became a well known poet and peace activist. He counted among his friends former President Jimmy Carter, who spoke at his memorial service. To be sure, his passing is to be grieved; his family and all of us would rightly wish that he could have been with us longer. The point I wish to make, though, is that the fullness and completeness of a life is not to be measured in years.
One of the greatest errors that we are prone to as humans beings is to postpone to the future our fulfillment in life. We are prone to think that though we are not fulfilled now, we will be once. . . . Once we have earned this degree, or once we have gotten that job, or risen to such and such a salary level, or have gotten married, or have had a family, or have retired, or. . . But when any of these moments arrive, they rarely bring the peace and contentment we were expecting. It is the nature of desire that once we get something we had long worked for or long waited for, we are content for a while, but then we start to want more. However much you have, there will always be something you don’t have, and however much you have done or experienced, there will always be something you haven’t done or experienced yet.
If you’re like me, you probably have a long list of things you would like to do someday: places you want to visit, things you would like to learn, experiences you would like to try. It has been long obvious to me that I will never have time for all of what is on my list. It is tempting to try to cram in as many of these as possible, to live with a sense of hurry and the running out of time. But surely it wiser calmly to accept that I won’t get to it all. The other side of not having time for it all is that I will never run out things I will enjoy doing. I have lived a rich life already, and we will see how much and what parts of the list I get to finish. In the meanwhile, I am grateful and try to be open to the leading of the Spirit.
It is an illusion to think that satisfaction in life will come when we have satisfied all our desires. If you don't have "enough" right now, getting more won't necessarily help. Desires have a way of becoming insatiable when we make a habit of feeding them on what they want. The only way to have "enough" is to transform the way in which we desire. The antidote for restless, insatiable desire is in fact the gratitude of which we have been speaking, the gratitude that says “I have lived.”
The Buddhist tradition, too, has much to say about restless, insatiable desire. The Buddha referred to it as “thirst,” and saw in it the source of all suffering. The cure for this thirst, according to Buddhism, is not to be found by striving to satisfy every desire, but in perceiving the ultimate futility of such an effort. The cure for thirst is not to be found in attaining that which you don’t yet have, or in desperately holding on to what you do have so as not to lose it. The cure is to rest secure in the perfection of the present moment. There is Buddhist saying: “Every moment, perfect moment.” The enlightened thirst for nothing beyond what already is. If you read the accounts Buddhist practitioners offer of their first experiences of enlightenment, gratitude is a prominent theme. “Every day is a day of gratitude,” they say. As we found both in the ancient Stoic tradition and in the Christian tradition, here too in the Buddhist tradition restless, insatiable desire, the desire for more and more and more, ends only with gratitude for what is.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying live only for today. I am not saying do not plan for the future. There is a subtle but important difference between resting content in the present moment, and living only for today. Part of my experience of the present moment is remembering the past and imagining the various forms the future may take. Within the perfection of this moment I may well resolve to continue projects I started earlier and to complete them later. Within the perfection of the present moment I can aspire to learn and to grow and to achieve. Within the perfection of the present moment, I can try to become a better person, and I can work with others to make the world a better place. But my sense of fulfillment and completeness don’t wait for the completion of these projects. Fulfillment and completeness are to be found even in the planning, the working and the aspiring. Fulfillment is to be found in being open to the unfolding of life, and in the readiness to welcome whatever is to come.
For all of us today, this is both the last day of our lives so far, and the first day of the rest of our lives. I pray that we might be given the grace to lead lives lived in gratitude. May we all be at peace with the past, secure in the present, and open for what is yet to come.