I’m in awe of the depth and significance of every person’s life story, though I can know only the tiniest fragment of any of them. It fills me with a sense of an immensely prodigal Creator, speaking constantly through the stories of our lives, and no one fully able to hear the tales.
I remember a line I heard in a movie I saw long ago. A woman was speaking with a new friend, who asked her why she stayed married to her husband, and she replied, “I am there to be a witness to his life.” The exact details of the scene are lost to me now, but those words linger in my mind. To be a witness to the life of another person strikes me as a humble, immensely significant thing.
Who can give witness to our life? If we’re lucky enough to have a long-lived marriage that continues in respect, intimacy, and affection, then we may have someone who can “be a witness” to our life. Who else but a spouse has the opportunity to know us so well, over a long period of time, from stories told of the past and experiences shared in the present? Who else is likely to know most of our secrets, yearnings, fears, sins, the goodness, the traumas, the sorrows and the joys that have made up so much of who we are. Who knows our story?
More and more I’ve been reflecting on the lives of my family, especially my mother, and of course my own life as well. When I think over the many experiences of my life I’m overwhelmed by an awareness of how much is encompassed in any single human life. Much more than we can ever fully share or another can ever fully know. (We don’t actually fully know ourselves, if truth be told.) Even a single lifetime is filled with more experiences, thoughts and emotions than we can count or hold onto, the full significance of it all impossible to grasp much less to convey to another. I wish we could, but it’s beyond our capacity. The only One truly witnessing our largely unknown lives is the Creator who made us, engages with us, and watches over us.
I sometimes imagine that God has dreamed us into being and sees all our stories playing out, a huge human drama on a vast stage. I imagine the whole multiplicity of human stories is like the hundreds of thousands of leaves on a tree, budding out and then falling away, never able to tell the rich depths of their individual short lives. Most of us, in our ignorance, fail to notice the particular beauty of a single leaf receiving light and water and air, the touch of insects and the songs of birds; surviving the oppression of heat, the rustling of wind and the chill of cold; the flaming out in autumn and finally falling, falling, falling to the ground. In the same way, most of us fail to recognize the singularity of a human life — of every human life.
I’ve been listening these past few years to the stories my aged mother tells about her life, the incidents that seared themselves in her memory (never mind the countless ones that are long forgotten), the feelings that colored them, the joys and sorrows that her heart and mind have harbored. As I listen I begin to sense the ways that the Holy One has moved through her, through those memories. I’ve heard her begin to recognize things she hadn’t realized before, and I’ve understood things about her in the telling that I’d never imagined.
These have been only the tip of a deep iceberg that is her history, her life story. It would be a humble, unremarkable life story to most people. She never made it onto the evening television news nor had a single newspaper account written about her. She never won a prize for anything. She survived a difficult childhood, grew up into adulthood, got married, had children. She worked her adult life raising and teaching her children, cherishing her husband, working in a factory to help pay the bills. Eventually she retired, and now has grown frail and old. But that sad catalog of a life is only the outward shell.
This is how it is for most of us: our stories are like those unremarkable, even ugly, rocks called geodes: if you break one open it’s full of glittering shards of great beauty. That’s the life of my mother. I believe it’s your life too. Remarkable beauty lies hidden in plain sight in every single human life. We will never see the whole of it, but we may, if we are lucky or especially blessed, find an opening and catch a glimpse.