Let this be the year in which the meaning of life comes into much clearer focus.
(Yes, the pun came to mind first, but please read this with minute humorous undertones, as none are really intended)
These are my personal reflections which I hope you will also find useful. Feel free to share.
I understand that when people reflect about the meaning or purpose of one's own life, many different approaches occur. Some really take time and dig deep. Others don't feel they have time. They want to keep it simple because they have work to do. Every person falls along a spectrum. I can identify with both approaches. This is an attempt to state simply the deeper meaning of my own life, as it pertains to: relationships, community, health, career, and achievement. The goal of my writing is to build on the foundational observations of life; interpreting the meaning, motives, or purposes behind each; and applying my understanding of those to affect positive change in others' lives and my own life.
It is safe to say that I would be nowhere without my personal relationships--that is why I would like to address this first. Two aspects of relationship-building particularly resonate with me right now: intentionality and transparency. Every relationship is important--even those I don't think of on a daily basis. I'm at a time in my life when my family is more spread out, geographically, than we have ever been. Making the most of the time we have together is of upmost importance. First, we have to be very intentional about setting time aside to be with one another. This takes sacrifice. However, just being together isn't enough. We also have to choose how we interact with one another while we are together. People can be in the same room but be completely disengaged with the potential for bonding and communion. This is where transparency comes in. I am finding the more vulnerable I make myself--letting my faults and struggles be made known--the more likely I am to receive the respect, love and support every person so desperately needs (whether they admit it or not). I have to let go of my pride. The most important human relationship to nurture is the one I have with my wife. The longer we have been married, the more I realize the beauty of the design of marriage: we are two very unique people with sets of traits, skills, interests, abilities, goals, and dreams. Even so, we are one person; that is, we are meant to be one in purpose, one in mission, one in a very real--shared--life. Every little thing I do affects Allison, and everything she does affects me. This takes a mutual commitment to lay down our lives for one another. The problem with me is I tend toward selfishness. The selfishness which not only manifests as material concerns but also a hesitancy to communicate everything with her. This includes my goals for our life together, desires for our family, and also simply how I am feeling and thinking about things.
Essentially, I am coming to realize that we are not our own. When we were engaged almost 10 years ago, we went through marriage counseling with our pastor and his wife. We met for several weeks, but two words still stand out to me as the best advice I have ever gotten regarding marriage: SHARE EVERYTHING.
I think that very sound advice can be generalized to most other relationships, though with a measure of discretion. (Nobody except God--and perhaps myself--will ever know me better than my wife!) Allison and I now have 3 kids who are growing faster than either of us is comfortable with. As they mature, certain bumps in the road--accompanied by unexpected joy--happen which sometimes throw us for a loop. Sometimes we don't respond the way we should, but we are truly trying to take hold of the fact that we are called to raise, teach, nurture, and discipline our own kids. We know that is a calling because these three gifts have been so graciously given us.
As a public school music teacher, I have witnessed too many families who do not have this vision. It is hard on the kids. I as their teacher have to be very intentional about getting to know them. I also have to be transparent so they can learn to trust me as a person and a facilitator of their learning.
As personal relationships are strengthened, community can be built. Everyone is an individual and has something to share. My job as a music teacher is really a calling to see the potential in people, help draw it out, and facilitate the sharing process wherein each individual finds their place in the community of music-makers. I constantly have to exercise my creativity in not only demonstrating and teaching the music, but also in facilitating the discovery process. As an introvert, this can be taxing on particularly my emotional energy, but it is well worth the effort! I love seeing my kids enjoy working as part of a team to achieve something very worthwhile and fun.
If I was honest with myself, I have to admit I do not always have fun in my work. Challenges which oftentimes seem beyond my ability to overcome present themselves. These challenges, largely due to what I perceive as a culture shift, come by way of organizational changes, student misbehaviors, miscommunication, and my own areas for growth. All of these are amplified by some health issues which over the last few years have eroded my self-confidence. I have epilepsy. In 2017, I had brain surgery to correct my condition. For two years, I was seizure-free, but I had an absence seizure at school this last August at the beginning of the school year. Allison drives me to and from school every day. Don't get me wrong, it's great spending extra time with her and the kids (and she likes the routine to start the homeschool day with the kids), but I'm sure you can imagine the inconvenience of not having the same measure of independence. I have also been experiencing hearing loss since 2012. This year, it has gotten measurably worse--even in what was my "good" ear. The most frustrating thing is that nobody can pinpoint exactly why and how I am experiencing this hearing loss. I tried a couple different types of hearing aids, and nothing has helped.
A music teacher who can't hear! I experience frustration daily. The only way to get through each day is to optimistically adapt, experiment, and hope. Some days I do better than others. The best days are those in which student leaders become empowered and I can just get out of the way and let the music happen. I think I have been too "product" focused. The creative process is key. That is when people discover who they are.
This leads me to my culminating point in answering the question, "what is the purpose of life?" Of everything I could focus on this year, the most important thing to think about is what kind of person I want to be.
I think a good metaphor for life is a running race course. In High School, I ran cross country--a sport in which you compete as a part of a team against other teams, always trying to come out on top at the end of the 5k. I realize now the real battle was against the course obstacles, the environmental elements, my own fitness, and my mental resilience. Even runners on other teams could help me run my best race as I paced off them and got a shot of adrenaline with each one I passed. In the end, all that matters is that runners finish, HAVING RUN HIS OR HER BEST RACE.
So it is in life. There will always be challenges in building and maintaining relationships; finding and contributing to a wholesome community; growing in skills relevant to my career path; and balancing it all in faith. When the end comes, I want to be found faithful, having not compromised anything--especially relationships--for the quick, easy, selfish path. So what is the prize at the end of this race called "life?" What I want to see is the completion of a perfecting process:
"For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Now, I'll end with a Star Wars quote. (Don't worry, I don't think this is much of a spoiler). In the newest film, one of the characters recounts events from Return of the Jedi, "We had each other. That's how we won."
When the odds seem impossible in any situation, let's not forget we have each other. This is my 2020 vision: Nobody can go it alone. Let's not try. Let's not leave anyone--family, friends, students, coworkers, strangers on the street--to carry the burden of preserving their own life. I'm determined to be an overcomer. What that is going to take is moving beyond my self-pity, pride, and selfishness and being faithful to my calling with the strength God provides.
Let's not build ourselves up or tear others down for selfish gain. Let's work together to overcome this world with faith, hope and love.
This is the blog of Tyler Shepard, the Associate Pastor for Centre Union Church in Yeagertown, PA.
I hope you are encouraged and challenged to walk more closely with Jesus Christ!