In January of 1969, a photo was published that forever changed our view of the earth, and of our place in the universe. The photo was taken on Christmas Eve day, 1968, by the crew of Apollo 8—the first humans to orbit the moon. It showed a marbled blue and white gibbous earth rising above the barren, brown, crater-pocked surface of the moon.
The photo was quickly dubbed “Earthrise.” It has become one of the most famous pictures ever taken. For the first time, it showed the people of earth the beauty and fragility of our planet as a whole, floating in the blackness of space. The stark, lifeless surface of the moon in the foreground showed just how precious is the abundant life on our own planet.
Based on this indelible visual image, we realized on a gut level that whatever conflicts and divisions we may have among us here on earth’s surface, our planet is one. Seeing the entire earth in a single view put it all into perspective.
And yet, here on earth the struggles and challenges of each day still loom large for us. They fill up the horizons of our ordinary vision. When we’re up close and personal with the task of getting through this day, this week, this month, it’s easy for the years to slip by without ever seeing the big picture of our life.
How would it change our perspective if we could see our whole life, from birth to death and beyond, in one view, just as the “Earthrise” photo showed us our whole planet in one view?
Times and seasons
Of course, there’s a small technical difficulty involved in taking a snapshot of our whole life. Unlike seeing our earth as one spherical planet suspended in the vastness of space, our life is suspended in the vastness of time. Things that are extended in space can be seen all in one view, as long as we get far enough away from them. But things that are extended in time, by their very nature as sequential phenomena, cannot be seen all at once.
At least, not with our physical eyes.
Fortunately, our mind’s eye is not limited by time in the same way that our body’s eye is. Our mind’s eye—which is our spiritual eyesight—dwells in a dimension beyond physical space and time. This makes it possible for us to step back and see whole time periods and whole cycles of events in a single view, similar to the unified view of earth that the Apollo 8 astronauts first gave us forty-five years ago.
The ancient scriptures of humankind offer us many metaphors that help us to see this wide-angle picture of our lifetime. For example, in Genesis 8:22, after the waters of the Great Flood had receded, God said:
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.
God made this promise to a group of human beings: to Noah and his family. God vowed never again to cut off life on earth as in the Flood, but to allow us to continue in our generations as long as the earth itself endures.
We now know that the earth will not endure forever. In a billion or two years, as the sun gets hotter, the earth will become too hot for us to live on it. A few billion years after that, the sun will swallow it up. But while the earth does last as a life-bearing planet, we humans will continue to pass through the days and nights, and the summers and winters, of our lives.
Seasons of life
As seen visually in the chart below, created by Bill Rankin at Radical Cartography, about 88% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere. 60% lives outside the tropics, mostly in the northern temperate zone, where there are clearly distinguishable seasons based on variations in temperature from warm to cold. Even in the tropics, many areas experience seasonal variations in rainfall and humidity, causing noticeable seasons.
For our purposes, let’s consider the experience of the large portion of the world’s population that experiences four regular seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. For farmers and others who live close to the land, life revolves around the seasons. For city-dwellers, the seasons have a smaller impact, but they are still a regular presence. As the seasons change, so do people’s dress and leisure activities. Many jobs are also seasonal.
Our familiarity with the change of the seasons each year offers us a mental image by which we can see our whole life in a single view. That’s because our life as a whole also has its seasons. Looked at from a physical standpoint:
- From conception and birth through adolescence is the springtime of our life.
- Young adulthood is the summer of our life.
- Middle age is the autumn of our life
- Old age is the winter of our life.
And yet, these seasons of life go beyond the physical. Each of these phases in our life has its own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual character as well.
Let’s take a look at each of these seasons of life in turn.
Of course, like human beings, there are many complexities and variations in the seasons. Though we can only offer a simplified view for now, it is good to keep in mind that different people will experience many complex variations of seasonal changes in their lives.
Springtime: from conception and birth through adolescence
Spring is a time of germination and new growth. As the sun warms up the soil, seeds that have lain dormant through the cold winter sprout and grow. Trees and perennial plants wake up from their winter slumber and put out new buds and branches. By the end of spring, vigorous new life proliferates throughout the temperate zones.
The springtime of our physical life cycle starts with our conception in the womb. It is our time of new life and vigorous growth. By the time our physical springtime has reached its end, we are approaching our adult size, development, and stature.
This is also a period of great growth emotionally and intellectually. Our time in the womb establishes a subconscious sense of being warm, safe, and cared for. Ideally this continues into infancy, when our parents and perhaps older siblings or other family members care for our needs and provide us with human love and contact. These early years of our life establish the emotional foundations of our life. All of our future growth and life is based on what happens between conception and about five years of age.
From about five years old through adolescence we shift to a more intellectual phase of our development. Yes, our emotional growth and wellbeing is still critical. But now our focus is more on learning. These years are devoted to our schooling and training for adult life.
These processes also lay the foundations for our spiritual life. Our experience of being loved and cared for as infants and toddlers provides an essential foundation on which we can later build the spiritual superstructure of love and wisdom that forms us into a truly spiritual person. And our focus on learning during our childhood and youth develops the thinking, discerning mind that God will use to guide us all through the long process of our spiritual rebirth and regeneration that takes place during adulthood.
Like the springtime of nature, the springtime of our life is when we develop from a mere seed of potential humanity into a fully grown human being, ready to enter into our productive adult years.
Summer: young adulthood
In nature, the heat of summer is when plants and animals are most active, solidifying the growth of springtime and flourishing under the warm sun. Summer is also when the first harvests begin to ripen. In other words, summer is a time of moving toward productivity.
In our life, this is the time of young adulthood. In our early twenties we reach the peak of our physical strength and endurance. At first we may be somewhat unfocused, still trying to figure out what we will do for our career, still thinking about how we will make our mark on the world.
This is when we begin to use the emotional and intellectual foundations that were laid during our infancy, childhood, and youth. It is when we become our own person, responsible for our own life, making our own decisions about what we will do with our life and what sort of person we will be.
Our twenties and thirties are also the time when we are most likely to start our own families if that is going to be a part of our life. Like plants that develop their seeds and fruits through the summer, we begin a new cycle of life for the next generation of human beings.
Spiritually speaking, the summer of our young adulthood is when we have our first opportunity to begin consciously growing and developing as spiritual beings in our own right.
Yes, children can be very spiritual. But it is a borrowed spirituality, based on influences from parents, ministers, and teachers, absorbed uncritically in the innocence of childhood. When we leave our parents’ home and set out on our own, we begin to decide for ourselves what we believe and what we value in life. This is a time when it becomes own choice whether to be religious or spiritual, instead of our beliefs being largely a reaction to the beliefs of our parents and teachers.
In other words, the summer of our youth is when we begin our own independent spiritual journey. During this time we make many critical decisions that will determine the course of the rest of our lives, for better or for worse.
Autumn: middle age
Just as the springtime of childhood and youth gives way to the summertime of young adulthood, so the summer of our twenties and thirties gives way to middle age.
In nature, the fall is the most productive time of year. Though some crops come in earlier, by fall, gardens and fruit trees alike are yielding their harvest. This is the time when all of our labors come into fruition, and we lay up the food that will sustain us through the winter.
Though we have our greatest vigor and energy in our twenties and thirties, it is in the next two or three decades that we often become the most productive. If our life has progressed in a generally good and healthy fashion, by the time we hit our forties we’ve worked out many of the kinks. We have established ourselves in some career, profession, or other work, and we have a routine. We have also gained valuable experience that enables us to guide and direct both ourselves and others who may work with us toward better and more productive work.
Spiritually, the autumn of our life is the time that we begin to reach full maturity. In our youth our life was mostly about fulfilling our dreams and getting the most out of life for ourselves. Now our focus tends to shift toward what we can do for the people around us, and how we can contribute to the wellbeing of our community and our world.
In other words, spiritually our autumn is when our focus finally begins to shift toward loving and serving our neighbor. This is when the fruits and seeds of service that have been developing all summer finally ripen and reach their harvest.
Winter: old age
In nature, everything is born, grows, lives out its life, and then declines and dies. Every plant and animal has its life cycle. The earth itself was born over four billion years ago, and is now in the later and most productive part of its life cycle. In another one or two billion years, most of its now-teeming life will have died out, and its life cycle will be ending.
Physically, we humans are animals, and we go through the same life cycle that animals do. The time comes when our health and vigor begins to decline, and the years of our greatest capabilities and productivity come to an end. We then enter into the final season of our life: our old age and the approach of death.
Of course, as with every other season of life, there is great variation among elders as well. Some remain healthy, vigorous, and productive—even if just a little bit slower—well into their older years. Others must step back and retire from their former active life.
Sooner or later, if we live out our full lifespan, we enter into the winter of our physical decline as the end of our life on earth approaches.
Yet spiritually, the wintertime of our elder years can be one of our greatest times of spiritual growth. In nature, seeds lie fallow in the ground through the winter, awaiting the time of germination and growth. As spiritual beings, the wintertime of our elder years can be a time of contemplation and reflection, in which we look back over all the events and experiences of our life, and begin to understand what it was all about.
Perhaps more than any other time, our elder years are when we focus most on the ultimate meaning of our life, and enjoy the spiritual fruits of all the labors of our childhood, youth, and middle age. They are also a time when we can pass on the wisdom we have developed to the younger generations coming along behind us.
Seeds for a new springtime
Just as in nature a new spring follows each winter, so in our life the winter of our elder years is not the end for us spiritually. It is, instead, a time when we are developing the seeds of the new life that we will enjoy when the passage of death brings us to a new birth into our eternal life in the spiritual world.
In the animal world, babies are born in the spring. This means that much of their gestation takes place during the winter. Just so, in our elder years we are developing and gestating within our mind and heart the new spiritual being who will soon be born into the spiritual world.
There, we will return to a new springtime of youth, vigor, and productivity. And yet, within that youth will be all the wisdom and rootedness that we have developed during our lifetime here on earth.
Though our spiritual body never again gets old, we ourselves continue to grow. In heaven, the seasons continue their alternations of spring, summer, fall, and winter—though the winters are not so cold, and the summers not so hot as the ones we experience in the more northerly latitudes here on earth.
The seasons continue because our process of spiritual growth never ceases. We continue to experience new love and new insights, to bring them into productive fruition, to gather in the harvest of our productive times, and to move into more quiescent and fallow times in which we mull over and distill the learning and growth that we have recently experienced.
Yes, the seasons of our life here on earth prepare us for the perpetual cycle of the spiritual seasons that never cease. Unlike the physical earth, the spiritual world will endure forever. There, God’s promise to us comes into its full fruition:
Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease. (Genesis 8:22)
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