In one sense, every day is created equal. In another sense, this is wholly untrue. Every day contributes to the trajectory of your life. But certain days change it. Take them away, and things look different. Much different.
And how you respond in the face of these moments largely determines the shape and substance of your life.
As a kid, connect the dots was my fave. I preferred worksheets with more dots and multiple shapes. With all these worksheets, the point was to include enough dots to uncover the picture accurately. It’s not that the space between the dots doesn’t matter. The white space carries you from dot to dot. The dots however bring the picture to life. Miss one, you’re guaranteed to change or distort the shape.
So it goes with your life.
Certain events have profoundly shaped your life’s worksheet. These are your dots, they connect your life’s narrative, giving it shape and substance and meaning.
The day you met your spouse. The day you changed careers. The moment you gave all of your life to Jesus. All great examples of moments that altered or entirely changed the path of your life.
Remove any of these, your life looks profoundly different.
You could also call these inflection points, moments that forever change your life.
Some of these points are self-imposed. While still drenched in fear and unknown, they also come with more positive feelings of exciting, anticipation, and general optimism. Your wedding day is a good example (it should be, at least).
Others are imposed upon you. Losing someone you love or being diagnosed with cancer are examples. These are devastating moments wrought with grief, possibly despair. Ones you can’t avoid, I’m afraid. Suffering is part of the deal. All of us will have at least one painful dot on our life’s worksheet, one we didn’t ask for and would give anything to remove.
So, what’s with the childish connect the dots parallel and geeky inflection points jargon?
I assure you we’re doing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You see, everyone now and then, you run across someone who’s painted a beautiful portrait with their days. You wouldn’t at all put words in Jesus’ mouth, but you figure if this person doesn’t hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” your efforts are an exercise in futility.
It’s not that “Well done, good and faithful servant” implies moral excellence. It’s certainly not that success or status or accomplishments play some role. Or any role at all. No, the ones whose lives are worthy of imitation walk with integrity and act with compassion. They understatement their impact on others. They believe, against the darkest of odds, that love wins. They’re for people, all of them, even the folks they might call enemies.
And although you know the portrait you see is beautiful, your not sure how such a life came to be. To understand the “Well done” life, I think you need to understand some things about connect the dots and inflection points.
For starters, most people settle for mediocrity because they aren’t prepared to give what is required for significant change. An inflection point asks you to sacrifice your desires for the good of one or many. It also requires you to embrace uncertainty and unknown.
To pursue a “Well done” life, you must abandon any notion of comfort. You must push your mind to see different perspectives, your heart to love different people.
For example, the day I graduated college, I also vowed to take my faith seriously. I promised myself that day I would say yes to anyone who asked me to serve in some area outside my comfort zone. Lo and behold, a few days after, I walked into my church, and my pastor greets me with, “Are you a praying man?”
Apparently his question was rhetorical. Before I could answer he asked me to lead the church in corporate prayer that night. I was 23 and never once had I led anything in front of people. Ever. The whole deal made me pee my pants. Well not really. Okay, maybe just a little.
My yes that night was an inflection point. It marked a significant change in my life. The trajectory of my life would look radically different, I’m convinced, had I said no that night. Little did I know, God would use my yes to fuel future yeses, clearing the way to transition from civil engineer to full-time ministry.
So, a “Well done” life begins taking shape by swallowing fear and comfort and security.
This life receives depth and clarity and vibrance with difficulty, struggle, and suffering, and more specifically, how you respond to them.
Above I said some dots are your own choosing, others are not. Those other dots, the painful, are unavoidable. You can’t choose the circumstances of their arrival.
But you can choose your response.
You can deny painful experiences. You can suppress or numb them. You can blame others for them.
If you choose any of the above options, however, your life will appear skewed and oddly shaped in places. You can choose, for example, to move from dot 5 to dot 7, skipping over dot 6 because it’s too painful. But it will negatively impact who you become and how you interact with others. The more of these difficult dots you pass over (via numbing, victimizing, etc.), the more discombobulated and unrecognizable your portrait becomes.
What’s the other option? Learn from your pain.
A “Well done” life chooses that final option. This learning isn’t educational. You certainly won’t find it in some textbook. It’s learning that must be experienced. Pain and suffering bring you to the end of yourself and into deeper reliance on God. On the other side, you’re never the same. But, despite loss, you’re more whole. And despite the world crumbling underneath you, you’re feet are more firmly planted than before.
Tragedy is always an inflection point, a point of no return. Including these points in your life’s larger narrative always adds depth and beauty and meaning.
One more point.
As you read this, you’re at some unknown place between your first and last dot. You could be 30 or 40 years from your last breathe. You could be much closer than that. Your life’s portrait isn’t complete, in other words. There are dots left to fill, inflection points yet to come.
The real beauty of inflection points, one of the primary reasons they exist, is to identify and predict future points. The idea being if I know (mathematically speaking) the point where a curve changes direction, I can use that knowledge to predict future point where such changes occur.
If you survey your life to this point, can you identify a missed inflection point? Was there a moment here or an encounter there, a potential inflection point you either didn’t recognize or failed to engage? Maybe it was a job offer your heart told you to accept, but your mind, reminding you of all the risks, told you to turn down. Maybe you had an opportunity to share your faith with a co-worker, a neighbor, a family member. But fear or uncertainty kept you from doing so.
These are missed inflection points. We all have them, I believe. The point is not to look back in shame, wondering how things might be different. The point is to look back and learn. Ask yourself why you missed that potentially game-changing moment. Make necessary changes. And when a similar moment shows itself, you won’t miss it.
Here lies the true power of reflection and path to a “Well done” life. The beautiful portraits of lives well done are littered with missed moments. But they’re also filled with continued growth and constant reflection. These lives are the by-product of seeking God, asking him for strength to engage pain and uncertainty, grace enough to forgive ourselves for passed failures and wisdom to identify future opportunities.
May your life’s dots connect to form something beautiful.
Grace and peace, friends.