It is the morning of Oct. 4, 1957. As a senior in high school, I am on my way to a cross country meet in Ames, Iowa. Suddenly, breaking news interrupts the “Top 40:” The Russians had launched the first space satellite, the Sputnik.
I immediately know my purpose in life: to help the United States catch up with the Russians in space.
The next fall, I become a university student majoring in physics and math. In spite of hating physics and chemistry labs, I am determined to live my purpose of catching up with the Russians.
In my third year, I am taking a course called Quantum Mechanics. About half way through the course, I think to myself, “Maybe someone else can help the U.S. catch up with the Russians in space.”
Thus began my first great transition in life. It was hard. Later in life, I understood why it was difficult.
To be at peace, I needed to answer the three great questions of life. The three great questions and my answers had been as follows: Who am I? A scientist. What is my purpose? To catch up with the Russians in space. How am I to live? To work hard to excel in physics and math.
At the age of 20 I was lost. I could not answer any of the questions. It took a few years to find myself only to repeat the process about five more times in my life.
Being lost is a terrible feeling. A few times I became clinically depressed. My metaphor for these transitions is this. It is a nice day, so I decide to swim across a lake. As I swim, storm clouds start to gather, but I ignore them.
Later, the winds pick up and lightning cracks across the sky. I look back and I am too far out to swim back. I look ahead. That land is shrouded in fog. I have to swim toward an unseen and unknown shore.
Spiritual writers call this liminal time — a transition period, an in-between space. We are caught having to leave one place and seeking an undetermined other place.
As a spiritual companion, I have accompanied many people through this period. It can take years. There are many wide lakes. Yet when they reach the other shore, they receive the gift of being able to answer the three great questions of life with more clarity.
They realize the control they thought they had was an illusion. They are more open to grace. They are able — in 12-step language—to let go and let God.
Every Ash Wednesday, I ask myself the three great questions. My answers have been much the same the past few years. My last transition was from paid work to volunteer work, which some call retirement.
On the recent Ash Wednesday, the questions and answers were as follows: Who am I? A beloved adult child of God. What is my purpose? To love extravagantly. How am I to live? In every situation, do the most loving thing.
Although my actions are often inconsistent with my answers, the answers are clear.
If you are a person of faith or no faith, I suggest that you reflect on these questions. If you are comfortable with your answers, you are at peace. If you are not comfortable, keep swimming. Better yet, find a trusted companion to swim with. There is a shore that is more truly who you are.
After struggling through all the transitions in my life, I would like to say that I am done with them. I am sure that I am not. The deaths of significant loved ones or radical changes in my health will almost certainly come.
Yet I am confident that at least the answer to the first question will not change: I am, forever, an adult child of God. When I think about it, I suspect the answers to the second and third questions will need to be revised a bit.
I am already in a stage where my physical abilities are declining. They will continue to get worse. If I live long enough, I will be greatly dependent on others. I will need to add the phrase “and graciously accept the loving help of others” to the second and third answers.
I prefer to do things for myself. Depending on others will not be easy. I hope it will not be as hard as trying to catch up with the Russians in space.