Life, said Forrest Gump famously, is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. That is only one metaphor of hundreds that attempt to reduce the total experience of life to a single metaphor. In his signature 1980s hit, Tom Cochrane famously characterized life as a highway. Life, indeed, is like a highway, or at the very least a journey, and this metaphor is repeated over and over through songs and literature. And if life is a journey, it seems to stretch endlessly before us as we look ahead from young adulthood, but in retrospect seems all too short.
In the ancient epic poem The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus returns home after the Trojan Wars. For this warrior king, the journey home is also a journey into his own heart and soul. Perhaps The Odyssey should be required reading for all university students, especially for those who anticipate graduating and returning home. On one level, it tells a straightforward tale of the hero, changed and transformed through his experiences, challenges, and temptations; he navigates his way across the Aegean Sea and into the turmoil of his home situation, and he struggles to settle back into his own community as a changed person. On a deeper level, the story is every person’s story, journeying through life, wanting to return to things the way they used to be, but facing the reality of change and challenge. In many ways, the story should resonate even more fully with those young adults who leave home to attend university, who are transformed by new ideas and new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing, and who then struggle to settle into old roles among those who have not experienced what they have.
Whether we are Christian, or belong to another religion, or none, the metaphor of journey and challenge is apt; the challenges are real, the temptations are also real. The task, then, is to discover where the journey leads, where home is, and what we want from our passage. It is not coincidence that the metaphor of journey runs deeply through the Christian faith as a way of understanding faith, and life. The sea often appears in scripture as a force that threatens the journey: Jonah is thrown overboard, to be swallowed by a large fish; Peter sinks beneath the waves when he tries to walk on water; the disciples are afraid for their lives when the storm threatens their boat.
Life cannot really be reduced to any metaphor, journey included. That said, I will stick to the image of journey, across the darkling seas filled with challenges that change and stir us, and give us opportunity to become who we would be. For me, whenever I face challenge or difficulty, I echo the last lines of the hymn set to an old English folk tune, reminding me that I do not journey alone, and that I can find strength to journey on:
Great pilot of my onward way, you will not let me drift.
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
It’s the journey that I long for, as I look out onto the unknown seas, through stained glass.