It’s that time of the year again. The time when we look back and look forward and try to apply the lessons of the one to the plans for the other.
What did 2019 teach you? What do you hope to do better in 2020? What mistakes are you determined not to repeat?
To be human is to reflect like this: to stand at turning points or borderlands and ponder, to look back at the road already travelled and peer through the mist at the road ahead.
So what do you want to tell yourself? Or, to put it another way, what has life taught you thus far?
I recently fell down the rabbit hole of The Guardian’s ‘Q&A’ series, which asks celebrities questions about their earliest memories, their most treasured possessions and, usually, ‘What is the most important lesson life has taught you?’
There seemed to be a common thread in the answers to this last question:
‘To take chances and know it truly doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail.’ – Mandy Patinkin
‘That it doesn’t necessarily always work out as planned, but it’s still worth living.’ – David Harewood
‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ – Lupita Nyong’o
‘To care about the right things, not to worry about useless things.’ – Anna Friel
When asked, ‘If you could edit your past, what would you change?’, Jeremy Vine responded, ‘I’d stop my teenage self worrying about how my life was going to pan out.’
Young or old, male or female, black or white, they all seemed to think that the biggest lesson they had learned was not to worry so much. OK, to be fair, these are all people for whom life has worked out pretty well. But their paths to success have not always been smooth, and they’ve found that worrying has no power to prevent the bad things from happening, but only to rob the good things of their pleasure. Andy Murray was interviewed in the middle of this year’s Wimbledon, which he had not expected to be playing at after a hip operation at the beginning of the year. He said life had taught him, ‘to enjoy the good times, because you never know what’s around the corner.’
It sounds simple, right? Stop worrying and enjoy life. Yet if that is the advice of so many of our heroes, why are we living in an era of increasing anxiety?
Perhaps in part it is because the reason these people have learned it is useless to worry is precisely why so many of us do worry. As Anna Paquin put it, ‘You are not in control of anything.’
That thought can be totally terrifying. You are not in control. Of anything.
You can’t control the climate. You can’t control the economy. Even those supposedly in charge of politics can’t seem to control that these days. You can’t control whether or not you’ll have a job tomorrow, or a partner, or a home. You can’t even control your most basic bodily functions for very long.
We are weak and helpless, and we spend a lot of our lives feeling very anxious about that.
But it can also be a very freeing thought. If you think the responsibility for making all the right choices, doing all the right things – holding everything in your life, and your family, and your workplace together – rests entirely on your shoulders, that creates an incredible burden. Imagine if you could hand that responsibility over to someone else, someone who has both the wisdom and the capacity to bear the weight. Someone who could see and shape the future, who could guide your steps and support you when things got rough.
That has been my experience. As a Christian I believe that God has that wisdom and capacity. He is both able to carry all my burdens and worries, and trustworthy to lead me safely through whatever trials may come. I’ve been putting it to the test for several years, now, and have found it works.
I haven’t got the money, fame or success of those celebrities, but I don’t need it, because I’ve found the confidence and security that they have battled for by placing my hand, and my life, in God’s hands.
King George VI spoke of this same assurance in a poem he read out in his Christmas message in 1939, the first Christmas of World War II:
‘I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”
We don’t know what the next year holds, for good or ill. But we can step into it with confidence if we know that we are not in control of it, but someone trustworthy is.