Click here to read the published version of this piece at the Presbyterian Outlook.
The opening line of Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar one: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven…”
Is this verse comforting? I think most folks would say so. It’s nice to be reminded that life follows a pattern. Seasons come and go. Challenging periods give way to times of ease. Life follows a natural rhythm that ebbs and flows between sorrow and celebration. Gratitude and respite come with the passage of time, for whatever phase of life in which we currently find ourselves assuredly will not last forever.
But recently, I’ve had to stop myself from reading the words of Ecclesiastes 3 through a fatalistic lens. I wonder if the seasons of our lives are really quite so fixed? Does time press us relentlessly from one life stage to the next as though we were on a conveyor belt, or do we have a bit more agency than that? I believe it’s true that God created a kind of world with structure and order that provides our lives with predictability, purpose, and direction. There are known factors that mark the passage of time in my own life. For example, it’s currently the heat of the summer in mid-July. The year is 2022. I’m 32 years old.
In her commentary on Ecclesiastes 3, Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Knowing ‘what time it is’ in one’s life is a central part of wisdom’s discernment.” Though I’m wondering to what extent this is knowledge I must passively accept, like spotting a clock on the wall and acknowledging, “Oh, it’s 3:00 p.m.” Or, alternatively, is identifying “what time it is” for me something that I can also actively determine and choose?
Maybe it’s true that God creates a world with ordered structure. Though maybe it’s just as truethat as an intelligent agent, I can provide form and shape to the seasons that guide my limited time on this earth. Perhaps to some extent, I actually get to choose the seasons of my life. Maybe I can even go so far as to namemy own seasons for myself! “A time to mourn and a time to dance?” so says Ecclesiastes. Maybe my life right now calls for a season of both mourning and dancing at the same time!
As someone who is finishing up a divorce, I’m learning that the seasons of my life are not, in fact, so rigidly predetermined. At any point, yes, you can hop off the conveyor belt! You can choose to reorient yourself in a new direction, set a different course for your life, and step into a brand-new season, a whole new phase otherwise uncharted.
As a newly-divorced person, I know what I’ve left behind. I walked away from a five-year-marriage. For the moment, I’ve left behind the traditional roadmap for homeownership and 2.5 kids. Those life benchmarks were neatly laid out for me consecutively one after the other, if I had chosen to stay on that particular path. Now instead, I’m turning to a brand new chapter in my life. Now owning a home and parenthood are no longer imminently on the horizon. Something else, yet to be determined, is coming up next for me now.
Ecclesiastes 3:6 echoes in my head: “A time to seek and a time to lose…” I think these words resonate well with the season of divorce. For me, my time to lose has become synonymous with my time to seek. What I’m stepping into now is a whole new season as a newly-single, older, and more mature woman. If a central piece of my wisdom discernment is to identify what time it is in my own life, then that’s the main question for my current process of self-discovery: What season of life am I currently in? And to what extent do I get to decide what it is and what it looks like?
Currently, one of my favorite podcasts is The Real Question with Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan. In each episode, Casper and Vanessa bring their own expertise and usually at least one entertaining pop culture insight to addressing life’s big questions. I love the playful spirit of enthusiastic curiosity Vanessa and Casper bring to their conversations. They often make me think about something I’ve been contemplating from a very different perspective.
For example, in one episode, Casper ter Kuile wrestles with the question of what the term “middle age” means for him. Like me, his life has also taken a less traditional trajectory, and he considers how this next stage of life for him can be marked by fullness rather than absence (e.g. absence of kids, absence of homeownership, etc.) In the episode, Casper ponders not just what he wants to do in this next stage of his life but who he hopes he will be.
Casper’s framing of the question as who he wants to “be” made a lightbulb flicker on in my mind. Suddenly determining what season of life I’m in feels far less to do with extrinsic factors outside of my control. When I look at Ecclesiastes 3, I read it now through a different lens. “A time to mourn and a time to dance” are states of being. Certainly, weeping and laughter are natural responses to external events, but I also can choose my responses accordingly. Times for weeping and for laughter don’t have to be thrust upon me without my willing consent. If I want to fall apart, I can fall apart. My grief is mine. My joy is also mine. No one can dictate what it looks like, or how long it should last.
In what season of life am I currently living? For me, this is predominantly a season of resilience, optimism, and the delight of self-discovery. This is a moment of incredible liberation, of “being” anew. And when I look forward into the future, I think about the words that I want to define the next few years of my life. I think of words like “stable,” “steady”, and “dependable.” With God’s help, I hope to be the kind of person that embodies a steadiness and dependability in this new unfolding phase of my life. I also hope to be able to share my experiences so that others might learn from my personal journey and feel seen and validated by what I’ve gone through.
For whatever season of life you are facing, step forward in hope. You can choose who you want to be in each and every one.