You didn’t ask to be born. You didn’t choose your parents or your family history or your particular collection of gifts and talents. You didn’t choose your hometown or your elementary school or almost anything that was so formative in your younger years. And when you did start choosing, right up to today, you chose from a set of possibilities that were already chosen for you.
I’m struck by the piercing insight of that teenage cry of the heart, “I didn’t ask to be born!” It’s a spot-on summation of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called geworfenheit, or “thrownness.” You’re thrown into the world, into a particular set of circumstances not of your choosing, with a few tools thrown into your tool box (also not of your choosing), and you start figuring out how to make a life—hopefully with the help of some wise guides, though, again, many of those guides won’t be people you identified or sought out exactly. Many of them were thrown your way too.
This idea of thrownness is pretty important in James K.A. Smith’s new book, How to Inhabit Time. (Smith is my guest on this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast; it’s a great conversation.)
At first blush, thrownness sounds like a grim way to think about life. But it needn’t be. “Thrownness is not a negative thing,” Smith writes.
Because I have been thrown into the life and time in which I find myself, I have a future that calls me to realize possibilities latent in what has been handed down. But those possibilities aren’t infinite, and what is called for is also a factor in this handed-down history.
You can regret your thrownness or resent your thrownness or feel shame about it. Or you can take it as a gift and as a guide to your calling. Smith again:
When the distinct amalgam of my history—including its traumas and wounds—intersects with the renewing power of the Spirit, a chemical reaction of possibility awaits. That possibility is a calling: the “good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). Each of us is a singular poiēma, Paul tells us: a unique, original, one-off work of art precisely because only this “I” with this history could be the self God can use in this way.
I’ve written before about the difference between thinking hierarchically and thinking territorially when judging your own work. It’s hard to resist thinking of your work as a way to establish your place on the pecking order. But there is no pecking order. There are only little patches of ground that we are given to nurture and tend. Your patch of ground is “your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community,” if I might quote my own self from that earlier letter. Acknowledging, even celebrating your thrownness is a way to identify the patch of ground that is yours to tend.
As James K.A. Smith writes,
We are bundles of potentiality, but the possibilities are not in finite. We are thrown into a time and place, thrown into a story that is our history, and these form the horizons of possibility for us… That is not a limitation as much as a focusing, a gifted specificity. This corner of earth I’ve been given to till. These neighbors I am called to love. These talents I’m exhorted to fan into flame. This neighborhood in which to birth a future. “Go with your love into the fields,”* for the horizons that circumscribe you are not fencing you out of something but entrusting you to this field of possibility. What’s thrown your way is what you can do.*That line is from Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
Your possibilities are not infinite. Rejoice and be glad. Go with love into your finite field of possibility.