Monday, July 16, 2012

A Hope Deferred

A hope deferred makes the heart sick
But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life
 -Proverbs 13:12

I want the dream that we never had
-Matthew Ryan

I’ve always loved the above passage from the Book of Proverbs. I first discovered it over 15 years ago, in the midst of a difficult emotional struggle over a relationship. It comforted me to know that scripture could express something I was experiencing so vividly. It validated my struggle and made me feel that God understood and sympathized with me in a way I had never felt before. Later, when I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on the passage for my Old Testament Survey class. Over the past year or so, the passage has become meaningful to me again in a new way.

Reaching the age of forty without having achieved any of the typical markers of a successful adult life, such as marriage, vocational success, or financial stability could definitely be seen as a hope deferred. For most people, these are normal life accomplishments, but I have often felt that they are completely out of reach to me. I’ve wanted them; it’s just that the efforts I’ve made to achieve them haven’t paid off yet.

This was recently brought home to me in a forceful way as I sat in the backseat of a car, listening to two married friends discuss purchasing furniture for their respective homes. These are things that I have never been able to do. It was the realization that even though they are younger than me, their lives seem to have progressed to a level of success and maturity far beyond anything I’ve ever known. It’s like they are granted access to a world whose door has been permanently slammed in my face.

For a long time, the failure to attain this world didn’t bother me so much. Perhaps it was the eternal optimism of youth, but I always felt that something good would happen in the future. As time has passed however, that sense has grown less and less. I have frequently struggled more and more with a heart-sickness that manifests itself in feelings of anger, frustration, grief, and sorrow due to the sense that my life is “stuck”.

This brings us back to the proverb. If its observation is true, then my feelings of anger and sorrow are a normal response to these unfulfilled desires in my life. But this raises a dilemma for me. How is it that God could plant these desires in my heart, desires that are ordinary and common to most of humanity, could recognize in His word that for these desires to go unfulfilled produces heart-sickness, but could then allow those desires to go unfulfilled for years and years and years, knowing that their lack of fulfillment would produce the results they do? There’s something that almost seems perverse about this.
Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps I haven’t tried hard enough to get these things. Perhaps I have missed opportunities that were given to me. Perhaps I haven’t been patient enough. Perhaps there is something I need to learn that I am failing to grasp. All of these things are probably true. What doesn’t work for me about this explanation is that many other people who I’m certain have the same flaws as me still seem to be given these things.
Meanwhile, the words of the proverb remian: A hope deferred makes the heart sick. And if there is one thing I am sure of, it is that I am heartsick. The pain of these unfulfilled longings, along with the doubt that they will ever be fulfilled, is sometimes so acute that I don’t know how I can go on living this way for even one more day. And yet somehow I do. I keep waiting for the day that the second half of the Proverb, rather than the first, becomes the truth about my life.