Trimming the Tree of Opportunities, Cody Dunn
When our choices don’t turn out the way we hoped, we call the resulting pain and disappointment regret. But what about the gnawing ache we sometimes feel even when we wouldn’t change a thing?
Imagine standing at the base of a mighty tree – like one of the gigantic elms in Central Park – and looking up. Now imagine following the growth of the tree with your eyes – upward from the trunk, curving onto one of the main branches, along a smaller limb, and out to the tip of a single twig. There are myriad ways you could do this, each path leading to a particular endpoint and leaving thousands of others unexplored.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the paths we choose in life in much the same way. As children, we imagine all sorts of futures we might live into. As we grow, we begin climbing the tree of possibility. We pick a major and a career. We choose a place to live and a group of friends. For a while, it’s easy to imagine backtracking and finding a different route if the one we’re on disappoints us. But somewhere along the way we become aware that our choices, even our best choices, have constrained us. Because I chose to take this job, I’ll never know what it would have been like to work in that field. Because I moved here, I’ll never know what it’s like to be rooted there. We can’t keep our options open forever.
Of course, our choices aren’t the only things that constrain us. We have a limited amount of time to explore the tree of possibility before we die. Some branches are just too difficult for us to climb, though others might scale them with ease. Other limbs have been decreed off limits to some through unjust systems of oppression. And then there are the times when it feels like God takes a chainsaw to the branch we were about to step onto, sending it crashing to the ground with a sickening finality.
What’s interesting to me is that no matter how happy we are with our lives, we miss those branches of possibility – the ones that time and inability and injustice and divine pruning and our choices have cut away – in a way that feels a lot like grief. Even though we never experienced the futures those branches represented, the knowledge that we’ll never live in them represents a loss.
You might be tempted to call this sense of loss a failure of contentment. After all, why should we pay attention to things will never be when there is so much to be thankful for and so much still ahead? Isn’t it true that God withholds no good thing from those who earnestly seek him? Doesn’t he work all things together for our good?
It’s certainly possible that we might experience this grief as a sort of unhealthy fixation on lost possibilities that stems from bitterness or envy or entitlement, and in those cases we should be quick to acknowledge our error. However, it’s also a mistake to simply attack our grief with commands to cultivate gratitude. When we ignore the pain of losing the futures we had imagined for ourselves, we miss the deeper reality to which God is pointing us through that sense of loss.
I think that deeper reality has something to do with the statement in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God has “set eternity in the human heart.” Our very ability to imagine an array of possible futures for ourselves is an imprint of the infinitely creative God who imagined each one of us, and his intent was for humankind to forever explore the possibilities latent in the world he created. Yet now we live in a world marred by sin – a world where injustice and circumstance and frailty make our climb up the tree of possibility arduous, and death inevitably cuts our ascent short. But eternity lives on in our hearts, and so despite our awareness that life is short, we still wonder about the possibilities we might explore if we had a thousand lifetimes ahead of us. Dave Evans, co-author of Designing Your Life, has put it this way: “Every one of us contains more aliveness than one lifetime is going to permit us to live.”
As a result, no matter how much we flourish in the here and now, we will always be able to imagine more. The sense of loss we feel when we acknowledge this gap is therefore far more than a problem to be solved through efforts at contentment. Our grief is an invitation to worship the Creator who gave us the capacity to imagine, and a call to lament that there is something wrong with this world.
Yet for those of us who believe in Jesus, this grief is also an invitation to hope. Just as we grieve the death of another Christian with hope that we will spend eternity together with God, we can grieve the loss of our imagined futures with the expectation that we will have eternity in heaven to explore the possibilities we never tasted here on Earth.
For example, as a kid I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. My favorite movie has been Apollo 13 for as long as I can remember, and even a 3D IMAX showing of Gravity couldn't change my mind about wanting to go into space. I even remember putting my raincoat on over my backpack at the end of each school day in first grade because I thought it looked like a spacesuit. So you can imagine my disappointment when I hit a growth spurt in high school and found out I was too tall to be a NASA astronaut. While I'm still holding out hope that I'll win the lottery and be able to pay for a ride on one of SpaceX's shuttles one day, I'm really looking forward to spending a lifetime or twenty in heaven zipping around in whatever kind of spacecraft we’ll have up there. I'm sure there will be enough room for me.
The lost possibilities you're grieving may be much more recent and weighty than my childhood dream of being an astronaut, but the same truth applies. How do we grieve our futures that never were? With the hope that they will be in the age to come.
Where in your tree of possibility are you right now?
What lost possibilities do you need to grieve?
How might the hope of eternity change the way you think about those lost possibilities?