“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to ones courage." — Anais Nin
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.” — Carl Rogers
Benjamin Franklin is said to have coined the infamous saying about the only two things that are guaranteed in life: ____ & ____.
Unless you’ve been living underground, I’m fairly certain you passed the quiz with flying colors. 1) Death and 2) Taxes seem to be the only guarantees we have in life.
Of course there can always be other arguments that are made. If you do a simple google search for “guarantees in life,” you will find endless articles on various opinions of what should be inserted in addition to death and taxes, but the original deduction by Franklin carries with it the right balance of brevity and truth that makes it a fair analysis of the human condition.
Part of the truth that this cliche conveys is that life is filled with movement, dynamism, and change.
“Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.” - Amos Tversky
We all love definitions (guilty). Part of this affinity comes from the finality in a definition. It’s saying: “this is what the word means, no more questions asked.” This definitive state is comforting because it's final… at least that’s one point of view.
I believe there is more hope found in description rather than definition, and I also believe that hope is essential to living “the good life.”
It’s helpful to start out with the definition of “hope”. What google comes up with is: “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” What Thane came up with is: “a resource that is desperately needed for a life well lived and a race run with endurance.”
The main difference between the two is that one is a definition and one is a description. Let’s unpack the importance of that difference before we return to hope.
Definitive vs. Descriptive
Martin Luther King Jr. is a modern-day icon and figure of hope. His legacy, inspiration, and impact will continue to live on in-part because he understood this distinction, and the phrase that he is most famously known for reveals this — “I have a dream.” If one word was changed, the entire phrase loses the majority of its power and impact.
“I have a dream” — descriptive.
“I had a dream” — definitive.
If MLK used the word “had” instead of “have”, he would have been defining a dream he had, not a vision he is carrying forward with him for the American society and people for generations to come. Speaking in the past tense would have created a sense of finality to the vision and would have led to more a more defined agenda for the civil rights movement to carry forward. I believe this would have diminished the power and weight of his actual message.
One word can change the entire message. This is the power of hope and the importance of the distinction between definitive vs. descriptive.
There are many layers to this distinction, but at it’s most fundamental level it is the difference between having arrived vs. being in-process. Defining something shows that you have arrived to a conclusive end-point. Describing something is a way of defining it in terms of how you see it in the moment, leaving room for growth in the future.
In life, I think it is safe to say that we never fully arrive. Arriving is only a temporary and fleeting reality, because destinations will always be present. Once you reach one, there will inevitably be another one to reach (until Franklin's first guarantee, that is). This is why our job is to keep pushing towards the next destination once we have momentarily arrived.
What is Finished?
There are very few things in life that are ever finished.
Here’s a shortlist I came up with of things that are “finished”:
— An essay / blog post
While this is true in part, the larger reality is that once it is posted there is finality in its form, but the function of the material will be shifting as our perspectives and thought-process shifts and grows in the future.
— A meal
Hunger will always be a part of the human existence (definitive), but how hungry we are is much more of a descriptive condition.
— A job
But of course there will always be another job to be done
— A war / conflict
Once any conflict is resolved, there are inevitably disputes that await down the road.
This is really only finished in the formal sense after high-school, college, or grad school, because everything in life is an education.
What these examples go to show is that there are temporary finish lines in life, but there will always be another race to run, and finish-line to cross.
To reach further to a personal level, here are some areas that can seem definitive on their surface:
— Word of the year (read more about WOY)
Definite in it’s meaning, but descriptive in its application and how that shifts throughout the year
Similar to the blog post concept: finished in form, but is open to revision and change as growth (or decay) occurs
Faith itself cannot be definitive because that would mean sight, and faith is largely defined as the hope in things unseen/unknown.
Even things such as personality traits — ranging from the introverted to extroverted spectrum, to the Enneagram and other personality assessments — these are more-so descriptions of your natural disposition rather than definitions of who you are. Again, this is a very important distinction because one puts us in a box and closes the lid, whereas the other provides structure to help us process while still allowing us the freedom to move around or even jump into a different framework next to us.
Seasons are another great example of the power of descriptions instead of definitions. When we are in a low-season, a season of discouragement, trial, or hardship, thinking of that reality as a definitive state would fill us with helplessness and despair. Understanding that a season is descriptive of the now but not definitive of the future helps us use that season for good while maintaining an expectation of what’s ahead.
Where it Shows Up In Life
When I first became aware of this distinction, it intrigued me but I didn’t fully understand it’s importance. Over the past month I’ve had conversations with friends, seen situations in work and life, and spent time in deeper contemplation on personal experiences in life thus far, leading me to see how prevalent and pervasive this distinction really is.
One of the most prevalent places this can show up in life is in the thought-pattern that says: “once I get to ____, or once I complete ____, then I’ll be ____.” This is the false assumption of: a final arrival in life, one of the core dangers in definitive thinking. The final arrival will never happen in this life, which is why this definitive thought-pattern results in a lack of fulfillment stemming largely from false expectations.
But honestly this can show up anywhere and everywhere. It comes from our natural disposition to desire definite, to be able to categorize every aspect and part of our daily lives. This is obviously easier in the short-run, giving finality and closure to that area of life or thought, but in the long-run it limits our growth and our potential. This is also described as the “fixed vs. growth mindset”.
Having a definitive posture vs. a descriptive posture leads to closed-mindedness instead of open-mindedness. Descriptive thinking helps us recognize and categorize the things we learn and experience in life, while affording that experience/knowledge the freedom to shift and morph as we personally shift and grow throughout our lives.
What Can This Unlock?
I believe there are five main benefits this distinction can unlock in our lives:
(1) PRESENCE - being fully here in the moment, appreciating it for what it is and being grateful for where we are at in the process
(2) FUEL - helping us know that we haven’t arrived, there’s still work to be done, growth is always possible, and there is no limit for better
(3) ENCOURAGEMENT - not just for ourselves, but for others in our lives; helping them see their own potential or understand what in their lives is descriptive rather than definitive
(4) GRACE - this perspective helps us give grace to others, but more importantly to ourselves! Knowing that we are and always will be in-process helps us show more love and be kinder to ourselves in the journey we are on (something I’m really bad at!)
(5) POTENTIAL - ultimately, I believe this understanding will unlock our fullest and truest potential.
If I could summarize all these words into one hope-filled phrase, it would be this quote by Diego Simila:
“Forward progress is not a finished process.”
This is hope. This is fuel for life. This is being human.
Life is hard, which is why hope is needed.
Next time you want to define, allow yourself pause to describe, and find hope in the process you are in — knowing that forward progress is never a finished process.
There is one final caveat I must add. I believe the one thing in life that never changes is God — the Creator and Sustainer of all of life — and who He is is both definitive and descriptive. Definitive in the sense that He never changes and will always and forever be the great I AM (Hebrews 13:8) Yet, He is also descriptive in that He meets us where we are and how we need it in the specific moment we are in.
As a Christ-follower, my ultimate hope in life is found in the person of Jesus Christ — the Son of God. He is the “sure and steadfast anchor for the soul”, the hope I hold fast to in the midst of life’s storms (Hebrews 6).
And the beauty of knowing Him is… God’s not finished with you yet. Praise God for promised growth, promised progress, and the reminder of life never being a finished-process.