Like hundreds of people, I watched the animated movie Soul this past week, and also like many people, by the end of the film, I was in tears. Without giving any spoilers away, I can say that I couldn’t think of a better movie to end 2020 on as I contemplate what this turbulent year has been.
The movie poses a question: Where do we find our life’s spark? It explores our human quest for purpose, how we look for it in hobbies, creative passions, social causes, jobs, relationships, and that undefinable “IT Factor,” that emotional oomph that could imbue meaning to our lives.
2020 challenged me to reevaluate where I find my spark for living. When I started writing these quarantine meditations months ago, I was in lockdown in New York City at the height of the first surge of the pandemic. I didn’t leave my block, didn’t see anyone in-person except my abuela. After beginning the year with so much anticipation of adventures and breakthroughs and even travel, I found myself sitting in my bedroom, looking out the window to a world that had shifted profoundly and unexpectedly.
I settled into new routines. I woke up, worked from home, wrangled my way through too many Zoom breakout rooms, and walked around my apartment until I became familiar with every nook and crevice. And I waited. I prayed and waited for change, for an end to the sufferings our collective community was experiencing. I waited for reunion with my loved ones. I waited for relief from sorrow as I lost people dear to me, like my friend Clinton.
I started the year with so much vision and hope for all I would do and be, but as the year unfurled, I needed to re-envision what truly sparks my life into vitality when all the things I’m used to relying on are stripped away.
Hitting a Wall
You’d think the easy answer for a Christian would be: “Well, Jesus is the spark of course!” That is true, but pat theological responses do not serve as a one-hit-wonder experience and then you’re set and stable. Internalizing that kind of truth requires a cyclical sort of wrestling because we continually need to work out what it looks like tangibly in our everyday rhythms, especially in seasons of heartache. For me, I spent months reacquainting myself with silence.
The buzz of the city eerily muted, I sat and heard my thoughts without censor. The silence almost felt oppressive at first; I didn’t want to be in this space where all my emotions were broadcasted so blatantly because there was less to distract me. Usually I would’ve added more activities to my daily schedule, more phone calls or work projects or something productive, but I sensed that God was providing me an opportunity that I may not have in the same way again, and I didn’t want to miss out.
In those pauses, I looked at my pre-pandemic life and wondered if I had somehow settled for a life far less abundant than what God wanted to give me.
The abundant life, “the good life” could no longer be dependent on me seeking comfort and convenience. My tendency is to fall back to what is familiar, and I have a low tolerance for discomfort. That threshold was tested and cracked open when even mundane tasks like grocery shopping now added a layer of stress to my life, a reminder of the privileges I took for granted before COVID.
When so many of my social interactions were mediated through a screen, I realized I could no longer leverage my relationships to feel satisfaction that I was a lovable and worthy person. I simply couldn’t be there for everyone in their struggles and make it all better. When I saw images of violence against black people on the news, I also acknowledged that the communal struggles of the pandemic had not magically dissolved the racial inequities in my country. I felt overwhelmed, tempted to retreat, and my often lapse into complacency reminded me of how I fall short of caring for others well–and the boundaries of my energy and empathy.
When I started lapsing behind in work projects, my motivation sapped, I finally had to confront what has always been a struggle for me: my limits.
The Sole Purpose
It was in the silences when I invited God to examine me that brought me into a greater awareness of my finitude. This is not a fun experience by any means. If anything, these dialogues with God expose all my idols, all the good things in my life that become fixations when the idea of losing them causes me anxiety. Like Joe Gardner’s love of jazz that becomes an obsession in Soul, my own loves-such as helping and caring for friends-can easily become life-draining when I identify myself by that and feel personally compromised when I don’t live up to my own expectations.
But as Joe goes on his journey of rediscovery, so God continues to carry me through mine, and a liberating truth reemerges: The spark of life does not lie in my output, but instead in my awareness and embrace of what I’ve already been given. Drawing near to God gives me a refreshed lens to look at my life and find value not solely in my daily activities and social interactions, but in the miracle of my very existence as a child created and loved by God. Because my identity is secured within that belovedness, I can live out of that awareness even if I don’t have what I want or the world around me threatens to steal my joy with its pervasive uncertainty.
My soul purpose is to love God and be loved by God. That posture compels me to love others, to learn how to love them better, not out of some sense of pure altruism or obligation to maintain my identity as a good person, but because as my late mentor Rodney told me: “It is in claiming our own belovedness that we are freed to see the belovedness of others.” And in a year of polarization and exacerbated divisions, to see the belovedness of others is a radical act fueled by divine hope. Through experiencing God’s unconditional love for us, we can reclaim a vision of redeemed human community where the hope of transformation amidst estrangement and wounding is always possible.
As I enter the first days of this new year, my heart is heavy with gratitude. 2021 will not bring this immediate changing of the world (especially as the pandemic is ongoing), but what I have found this past year is invaluable. I have found more peace in my humanity, in the very weaknesses I am so often tempted to hide from others, in the heartaches I’d rather ignore. That is where God met me last year.
I’ll remember 2020 for many reasons: for loss of friends, for rediscovery of my neighborhood, for the persistence of love, for the redefinition of work. But what remains is this: the spark to my life is not constantly seeking this “high” to give my life meaning. It’s not in me getting everything I want in the time I expect. It’s not even in me loving people perfectly or living out “my full potential.” It’s in seeking how to locate God’s love absorbed in my present life, in every interaction, virtual and in-person, in every silence, in every word, in every song, in every tear, in every laugh.
Fire in a hearth is not sustained by sparks, but by how it is fed and fueled over time. God’s love is a fuel that sustains my life, not in an abstracted, inaccessible way, but through the very personhood of Jesus and the active relationship I have with him. As I follow Him, that is where my soul’s hearth finds life, and that is what I will bring into the new year.
May your soul find the Source to fuel it continually into this new year, and may you enter 2021 with boldness, reckless hope, and an awareness of your inherent belovedness.