At church yesterday my pastor asked the question “When was the last time you felt fully alive?” That question got me thinking (as all pastoral questions should), when WAS the last time that I felt fully alive? That question led in its turn to the question “What does it mean to feel fully alive?” This new question led me further to wonder “What does it even mean to BE fully alive?” I’m not at all certain that I know the answer to any of those questions but I believe that they are worth investigating, so I will begin with the last question and work my way towards the first.
I guess that to be fully alive might mean that I am breathing. Metabolism and cellular respiration are taking place within my body. I am different from the chair in which I am sitting or the large volcanic rock resting on the patio outside of the coffee house where I sit writing this essay, in that I am alive and they are not. This revelation would lead me to conclude that the last time that I felt fully alive was the last nanosecond before this current nanosecond. I do not believe that this conclusion addresses my pastor’s point however. Under the simple construct “alive equals fully alive” my pastor’s question would have no meaning, and pastors, good ones anyway, don’t ask questions that have no meaning.
Looking a bit further out across the patio I see trees in very large pots. Those trees are much more like me than the rock is and I believe you could say that it is fully alive. Water and nutrients are coursing from the roots up the stem and branches to the beautiful red leaves, where photosynthesis is going on to provide the sugar needed by the plant to maintain life. Yes, I believe that I can honestly say that this tree is fully alive. What I am not able to say is that it feels fully alive. I don’t know if the tree feels at all. Then again, I don’t know that it does not. I was always intrigued by the line from the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World” in which an alien that had evolved from a plant origin rather than an animal one is threatening scientists at a research station at the North Pole. A journalist is amazed by this discovery and a scientist tells him that some plants, such as the telegraph vine, do a certain sort of thinking right here on Earth. The journalist is mind boggled and then told that he should not be. “Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott. Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.” Of course, that’s just a movie. But in truth I don’t know what plants may or may not ‘feel’. Perhaps they do feel things in some way. This would be a most unsettling thought for my vegan friends.
So even in my not-knowing I am going to assume that plants never feel more alive or less so. Animals however present a tougher nut to crack. I have kept many cats as pets in my life and can testify to their many moods. I have seen anger, contentment, fear, hunger, playfulness and perhaps even affection in my cats. What makes the waters more muddy is the question whether the cats KNEW that they were angry, contented, afraid and so on. I don’t believe that they did. When a cat was curled up on my blanket-covered lap while I took a nap on a gray winter afternoon, did she ever think “I feel contented now, but I felt more contented last week when I was curled up here after a really big meal?” I don’t think so. Plants may feel things and animals certainly do, but I cannot convince myself that either one can reflect on their feelings. Forgive my human arrogance, but only we can do that.
This brings me to the question of what it means for me to be fully alive, and in order to get to the heart of that I have to ask what if means to be fully me. That question leads me inevitably into theology, and that should surprise nobody since this whole line of thought began with a question by a pastor in a church on a Sunday morning. Me, therefore, is a sentient being of the species Homo sapiens (although a charge of containing a considerable amount of Neanderthal DNA has been leveled against me from time to time). I am not only unlike any other non-human lifeforms on this planet, I am unlike any human one too. I have likes and dislikes, I not only know hunger and contentment and fear but remember other times that I felt them and can grade whether or not I was more hungry then or more afraid now. I can create and I can willfully destroy; yes, I am unique in the universe.
To what can I ascribe this uniqueness (for better or for worse)? To chance? Not likely. No tornado ever went through a Kansas junkyard and made a jet aircraft, and leaving an old Buick on blocks in the front yard of my house will earn me a few lumps on my head from the hand of my wife but will never evolve into a Lamborghini. Things left alone go from order to disorder; all real scientists know this. So I have to conclude that I am designed by an intelligence that is outside of the natural order.
That intelligence has broken into our world and told us a little bit about Itself and why S/he went to the trouble to create me, and has explained that what I am on this day as I write this rambling essay is a very imperfect image of what I was designed to be and, I am promised, some day will be. I am alive today but not fully alive. My being, now freed from the iron grip of death, must still drag vestiges of death around as I go about my daily affairs and I cannot help but feel the effects of those ultimately conquered but nevertheless troubling vestiges as I progress towards the day when those final vestiges well be fast off and a new life as what God – let’s go ahead and call that Intelligence what S/He really is – sees me as will begin.
Feeling fully alive, then, means to me feeling at least in part how I will feel when I finally am that being that I am intended to be. When full joy, full love, full compassion, full mercy, finally are the norm for my life I will be more like the tree and the cat: aware of love but not as a variant from full love and aware of contentment but not as a variant from full contentment and so on. Only hunger, pain, anger, disappointment and the like will be either memories or obliterated altogether. A life of infinitely variable joy, not variable in the sense of quality but rather in the manner of sensing and expressing it, will be what I will feel when I am fully alive.
So when was the last time that I felt fully alive? I haven’t yet. There are a good many times when I have felt pointed toward feeling fully alive; when a child or grandchild was born, or when a kitten is rescued from likely death, or when I see the first shoots of a garden break through the soil with their promise of delicious and healthy food produced by the work of my hands and sweat of my brow. But I have never felt fully alive and do not believe that I ever will until my earthly struggle is over and I stand perfected in the presence of Ultimate Perfection.
So should I despair that I can never, by my own efforts, hope to even approach being fully alive while in this life? Not at all. I get periodic glimpses of what that fully alive life will be like and that is enough to keep me energized and moving forward toward the life to come. And when was the last time that I had one of those glimpses of being alive? Today, and yesterday, and the day before that. Any time that I stop for a moment to savor watching two friends chat over coffee at the table next to me while one of them scratches behind the ears of a gigantic Newfoundland dog, or when I help a friend prepare his garden for planting the spring crop, or read a story to a grandson sitting on my knee, I am looking down that path toward being fully alive, and sensing in a small way how it will be when it is my only reality.
I believe that we all have many opportunities to feel like we are on that pathway toward being Fully Alive every day. The complexities of life may cloud the view and there’s no point in being a pollyanna about this; some people’s life circumstances make sensing that path to Fully Alive a lot more difficult to see than do other’s It can still be done however, if we have the desire to do it. I recommend that choice, as it makes all of our “nows” more bearable.