Bearing life rather than shaping it

During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on the past, present, and future generations from his cell at Tegel military prison:

We grew up with our parents’ and grandparents’ experience that each person can and must plan, develop, and shape his own life, that there is a life work on which one must decide, and that he can and must pursue this with all his might. But from our own experience we have learned that we cannot even plan for the next day, that what we have built up is destroyed overnight. Our lives, unlike our parents’ lives, have become formless or even fragmentary. Nevertheless, I can only say that I have not wanted to live in another time than ours, even though it tramples on our outward happiness. More clearly than in other ages, we realize that the world is in God’s wrathful and merciful hands. In Jeremiah’s words: “Thus says the LORD: I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted . . . . And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do you not seek them, for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go” (chap. 45). If we come through the wreckage of a lifetime’s acquired goods with our living souls intact, let us be satisfied with that. If the creation is being destroyed by its very Creator, what right have we to grumble about the destruction of our own work? It will be the task of our generation, not to “seek great things,” but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that this is the only thing we can carry as “booty” out of the burning house. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23) We shall have to bear our lives more than to shape them, to hope more than to plan, to hold out more than to stride ahead. But for you, the younger, newborn generation, we want to preserve that soul, which will empower you to plan and build up and give shape to a new and better life.

— Letters & Papers From Prison


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