For me, life is a precious, sacred gift—to be respected and honored, appreciated and
cherished. I certainly see the point of view of those who see it differently, who believe it’s “a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and I even sympathize with their
perspective. But I’m convinced it’s far, far more than that. I agree with psychologist and
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl that life is meaningful—or can be. To me, the search for
meaning makes life meaningful. It’s my intention to get the most out of my life, to live a life
worthy of the gift of the life I’ve been given.
Life is limited. I have a finite number of days, of hours, of moments. As do you. I want to
live them all as fully and openly and deliberately as possible.
I go to life itself as Thoreau went to the woods.
“I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the
essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to
die, discover that I had not lived.”
When I die, as I surely will, and far sooner than I’d prefer, I want to have lived, to have
wrung out the sweet, acidic goodness of the ripe, juicy orange of life, taking in every
segment—the fruit, the pulp, the pith, and the zest, devouring it with an abandon that leaves the
juice running down my chin.
And though there are many valid approaches to life, I’m convinced that the best way to
get the best out of life is through being open to life and the wise lessons it offers, to experience as
much as deeply as possible, followed by reflection and contemplation, applying anything gleaned
to a continually refined spiritual practice, embracing life more fully as each moment passes.
I belie what Socrates said to be true—that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, that my
life is my great teacher—just as your life is yours—that the experiences of our lives can be the
raw materials for a masterclass on being and becoming, on life and living.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be. Like an unread book gathering dust on a bookshelf or a
class we’re enrolled in but never show up for, our lives can go unexamined, their lessons
unlearned, their wisdom ungained.
It’s up to us. We get to decide.
Life is like a Montessori school. We are allowed to go at our own pace, follow our own
path, pursue our own passions, to choose to explore and examine, to learn and grow and evolve
and become or not to. Life’s lessons are there, but we have to access them, we have to be active
in pursuing our own education.
Life is whispering wisdom to us. Are we listening?
Wisdom cries out in the street;
she raises her voice in the public squares.
She calls out at the busiest parts of the noisy streets
and at the entrance to the gates of the city she utters her words:
“You naïve ones, how long will you love naiveté?
And how long will scoffers delight in scoffing
or fools hate knowledge?”
This passage from the Hebrew Bible’s book of Proverbs claims that Wisdom cries out,
raises her voice in public places, but if she does, she’s still challenging to hear—perhaps because
of all the other noise.
If we are to hear—and not just hear but perceive—we must listen, And not only listen but
actively, mindfully, carefully listen.
Life is offering invaluable lessons. Are we learning them? Are we even aware of them? I
have to believe that I’m missing most of them.
Frederick Buechner said it best. “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it
is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell
your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key
moments, and life itself is grace.”
We have to practice engaged listening to hear what our lives are offering us. We have to
touch, taste, smell, feel, seek, search, look, explore, examine. Life is grace—but we must reach
out and receive that grace. Only when we seek will we find. Only when we investigate the
fathomless mystery of our lives will we be transformed by it—by both the mystery and our
investigation of it.
Examining our lives—listening to them, learning from them—is something that we can
all do. This practice doesn’t require a specialized degree or expensive training or even a high IQ.
We can start right now, right where we are in life. All that is required is a willingness, a
commitment, and a dedicated practice.
Spiritual practices are just that—practices, actions we take, habits we form—a way of
being in the world, an approach to life.
Our approach to life largely determines the quality of it. If we are active, open, seekers,
we will find. If we are careful examiners we will acquire wisdom, we will receive the grace of
life, we will experience its mystery.
It’s not automatic. It won’t just happen. We have to participate in this great learning
process. We have to partner with our lives in the way a reader forms a partnership with an author
to glean the gifts within the text that connects them.
There are many ways to learn. Some are better than others. Some will work better for us
than others. I must determine what works best for me as you must figure out what works best for
you. Only I can for me. Only you can for you. Others can help, can offer the gentlest of
guidance, but ultimately only we can figure our way through the maze of this most idiosyncratic
Confucius said that “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which
is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
Learning how we learn best is extremely helpful, but chances are we will learn by all
three methods Confucius mentioned—and many others as well.
The life of reflection, which is noblest, is the examined life that is well worth living. It’s
the act of bringing focused, mindful awareness and evaluation to our days and the ways in which
we fill them. By attempting to openly and honestly examine my life, I’m trying to practice a
particular form of reflection that will help me better learn life’s lessons, enabling me to access
and acquire far more wisdom.
But I’m also attempting to learn wisdom through imitation. When I practice compassion,
I’m imitating Jesus. When I practice mindful meditation, I’m imitating the Buddha. When I
follow the examples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Buechner, Thomas Moore, or any
number of others who have significant influence over me I am using the easy, low-hanging fruit
life lessons of imitation.
But because my ego is too often in control, because I can be defensive and stubborn and
resistant, because I can use justification and rationalization like a skillful old pro, I also too often
have to learn the hard way. When I refuse to openly honestly reflect, when I fail to follow the
great examples of others, what remains is the bitter elixir of experience—those ways in which
life bends and breaks and brings me low. These lessons cut the deepest, leave the most
substantial scars, etch themselves in the lines on our faces, and are usually bittersweet gifts we’re
only grateful for later—when looking back in reflection (because ultimately it all comes back to
And yet, in spite of these three great ways to gain wisdom, I still often fail to learn
anything at all. Or I take in only a small part of the lesson the masterful instructor of life is
teaching. And when it comes to certain lessons, I do this over and over and over—refusing to
learn, refusing to take the remedial class, remaining ignorant and arrogant and unwise.
But if we fail to learn a particular lesson life has a way of offering it to us again—and
again and again. And some lessons take a lifetime to master. I’ve taken several remedial classes
at the University of Life. I’m often slow to learn—defensive, stiff-necked, unteachable and have
to go through a particular class many, many times before beginning to gain the knowledge and
wisdom it offers. Not only that, but even when I’ve already learned certain truths and gained
certain insights from a particular lesson, I always learn more and gain new insights when I repeat
the class. Each time through the course, I bring more to it and can get more out of it.
But here’s the thing. I can learn if I want to.
Wisdom is readily available.
Life is a gentle but persistent teacher.
The only way I won’t learn is if I’m closed and defensive, militant in my ignorance,
convinced I already know the answer, already believing myself to be wise.
Otherwise, I am going to learn, to grow and evolve, to become a wiser, better, more
humble and loving version of myself.
That’s my heart’s desire (which, if true, will show up in the way I live).
So let the listening and examining and reflecting and imitating and experiencing and
touching and tasting and feeling my way to the holy hidden heart of life and the wisdom stored there begin.