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Turtles, Trees, and the Spiral of Time

'Spiral Stair' photo (c) 2007, Alexander Forst-Rakoczy - license:

I’ve always pictured time as a line, with me an unchanging dot moving from moment to moment from birth on one end to death at the other. I have an almost visceral reaction to thinking of time, and myself within it, like this. In this model, I am static. The dot that is me remains unchanged as it moves through each moment. And at points of loss, the vision of me moving relentlessly farther and farther away from the person lost aches to my core.

I read something recently that describes time as a spiral. The spiral illustrates how then is very much a part of now and it all influences what’s next. It describes how dynamic and alive we are as we move through life.

I think time-as-spiral is a better model. It recognizes that we are more than a static pile of cells. We are constantly being shaped by the interaction of our individual characteristics and choices, our past (the full spectrum of joys and pains we’ve experienced), and our future (our goals and plans and dreams).

I am the person I am today because of my past experiences, my joys and pains, and the quirks that make me me. You are the person you are today because of what makes you you, what you’ve experienced already, and what you hope to do in the future.

I am fascinated by the ways each person’s experiences shapes them, and how much they control that shaping. A lack of depth of experience renders a person less developed but less scarred. A wide and deep range of emotional experience can ripen a person into a rooted maturity, or it can singe them into a scarred, cynical shell.

My own life experience was relatively unremarkable before the birth of our first child. I overcame a handful of hurdles growing up: a few small heart-breaks, the deaths of two grandfathers, a cross-country move, the crucible of working as a resident assistant in a conservative Baptist college’s dormitory. (Two words: not fun.) Engagement, wedding planning, and the first year of marriage were mostly euphoric, with a few requisite lows, some tears, and a lot of talking things out. I remember sensing that life had been too calm and that something big was coming.

Then Elli arrived. We were catapulted into what seemed like an alternate universe. Hearing words like, “I wish I could say, ‘but the good news is ___,’ but I can’t” fires depth charges into your soul. Kissing your infant goodbye before surgery, knowing that the odds are 1 in 5 that she’ll survive for you to kiss her again, is one of the darkest paths one can tread. The sleepless nights caring for a child too sick to catch a breath or stop coughing or who just can’t sleep confronts you with darkness that you never dreamed lurked inside yourself.

That alternate universe wasn’t all dark desperation, though. We uncovered the pure delight of watching a child learn how to laugh, discovering how to make her smile, and celebrating each hard-won milestone. She redefined what was important and what was worth our energy.

Elli carved the raw material of us and left a distinct contour on everyone who met her. She’s been gone nearly three years, but the mark she made on each of us is permanent. We are now faced with what we do with it — how to move forward. What we choose each day is shaping us.

We all leave marks on the people with whom we interact. Whether those interactions provoke dark valleys or euphoric highs is often out of our control, but we can determine how it shapes us.

But how? How can the things which wound and scar us so deeply become the very things that strengthen us and equip us to help others?


This is one of the many beautiful themes we find the Bible. Terrible things happen. I will not say that God causes tragedy, but I will declare that God is not thwarted by it. God can take natural disasters and the evil schemes of people and make those things produce good, in spite of themselves. This is what happened when Jesus was killed — people murdered God’s Son and yet, that very thing that was meant for evil became the greatest good ever accomplished on earth. In the worst betrayal ever recorded, Jesus defeated death and made peace with God for us. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and meant to do him harm when they sold him as a slave. But God used it to save Joseph’s family and preserve the nation of Israel through them. We see it in nature, in the rejuvenation of a forest ravaged by fire. Over and over, we see God redeeming tragedy.

When I remember this, when I trust God to bring something beautiful out of my pain (even if takes years), I grow stronger. When I forget it, when I’m overcome by the circumstances and see only myself and what was lost or damaged, the pain burns and scars and my heart withdraws into a cynical bitter shell. (And as one who has hidden in my turtle shell and licked my wounds many times, hope is never lost. God can redeem even that, and he can transform the most recalcitrant turtle.)

How do you think about time and yourself in it? Who and what has shaped you? How are you responding to it?


Sponsor a child in Bolivia with World Vision

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