The shape of a life

How does a person decide which book to remove first from a stack to open and begin to read? It seems as if I should be able to provide a rational defense for an ordered choice involving an investment of hours of time, but absent the need to read a certain book to complete a project, I admit the volume is picked by movement of whim or gut or ease of access.


From among the books I brought back from Calvin, I first chose Jacobs' book (Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life). Don’t ask me why. Jacobs writes about many things, including the importance of the individual vs ecclesiastical narrative, the role of Protestant theology in the individual narrative and conversion as sight to see such narrative, the conveying of wisdom as an essential, or at least historical, component of storytelling, and the primal place of hope in narrative of the Christian life. All of it has set me thinking and could feed a blog for weeks were I a blogger that posts more often than my current once per month frequency.

I’ll pick one thing: life genre.

Jacobs writes about how there are different genres of life, just like genres of writing or genres of speech. By genre of life he means the shape of a life, the connection between the inner and outer life. He didn’t name life genres, as if we could quickly categorize ourselves like “ENTF“ or ”Autumn“ or ”Sanguine.“ But rather he suggests that there are similarities among certain people, across time, in the shapes of their lives and in the way they connect their inner and outer lives. These similarities take some imagination to perceive because time and culture cause these traits to be manifest in different ways. For example, a person with the inner life a medieval saint born in 1100 would look quite different than a person with the inner life of a medieval saint born in 1900, or 2008.

This suggests a compelling thought exercise.

I wonder now about role models and how at times I’ve thought historical role models may be less than helpful because clearly a person can’t superimpose one’s life on another from a different time and place and find a match or derive an action plan. I think of some historical figures I feel a resonance with but could never justify labeling them as my ”role models“ because of how badly my figure would line up with theirs, and even how little I really know about them.

Jacobs’ insight here gives me a huge imaginative boost, however. That person I think of from centuries ago or decades ago--how would that inner life of mind and soul look like today? (No, we’re not talking reincarnation.) Is this a life shape that feels a fit? Does it people my imagination with a communion of saints so to speak, providing camaraderie and insight as to why I do what I do or as to what is possible to do?

More importantly, does it help me see people in another light? Take for example the ”check-out girl“ at my local grocery store who is cool and calm even on Thanksgiving Day, who remembers to tell me they now have the product I couldn’t find last time I was in, who is a single mother managing to survive on that job in this economy. What shape is her life and what saint or heroine or queen might have been just like her had they been born into her time and place?