It may be mid-life, or reviewing my life with friends over the holiday, but I've been contemplating these words of Jesus recently:
For what benefit is it, to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? (Mk 8.36)I usually think of these words as a challenge for those who are doing well, who "have the world." But the context is Jesus' telling his disciples of his imminent death, and telling them to "take up your cross" and follow. He's not talking to people who are doing well. Jesus is talking to people who are about to experience great loss and go from being celebrities to being outcasts.
We're accustomed to speaking of our "life" as the collection of accomplishments (or failures) and experiences and possessions and relationships that we have gathered so far. But these seem to me to be what Jesus says we may "gain." Maybe not the whole world, but our little piece of it, all we've managed to gain so far. And Jesus seems to be saying that our "life" is something different, something distinct from all we might gain along the way.
Like I said, this is usually seen as a challenge to those who might think they are great because they have gathered great accomplishments or great possessions. But I think it is a more powerful word to those who have not managed to gather much (or who have lost it all). Because just as our life is not made greater by all we might gain, it is also not diminished if our accomplishments and possessions and supporters are few.
This is different from the usual question about what we should devote our life to. Such as career vs. family (with family being the recommended choice). Or profit vs. a good reputation in the community (with reputation the recommended choice). One may certainly be a better choice than the other. But they seem to me to all be the "gain" Jesus speaks of as distinct from our "life." They are different choices of what we may wrap around ourselves. They may affect how others see us, but they do not truly identify us, they are not our life. And eventually they all fall away from us.
I think people get closer when they talk of our life as defined by our relationships. But it's not relationships with friends and family that truly define us, or make us who we are. I think Jesus made it clear that our life depends on one relationship, that the nature of that one relationship is our life.
Thus this on-going, existential relationship should be the focus of our attention. This is our life. Then we could perhaps speak like Paul when he wrote to the Philippians:
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.It's not so easy for those who have gained much to come to see it all as rubbish. But how do those words look if our pathetic gains already look like rubbish?