The poet Mary Oliver may have seen colors the rest of us cannot. Reading her work has helped me to slow down and work to see the world the way she saw it, with eyes for the splendid beauty in the simplest of things. When it comes to speech, a cliché is as simple as it gets. And one certain phrase derided by its cliché nature has me asking if I can look at it afresh. These three words are most often met with eye rolls and snarky responses and which possess an unoriginality well attested too. “Doing life together.”
I understand why people don’t like the phrase “doing life together.” It sounds good but seems to say something without saying anything. It feels uncommitted and appears to demand nothing. But as a result of my Mary-vision, I have come to love the phrase.
Understanding What the Cliché Means
Words can be used so carelessly and often their currency is lost. That fate threatens the phrase “doing life together.” Awash in overuse and associated with a particular church culture often mocked, it would be easy to write it off. Yet, while a cliché is uninspired, it carries some truth. And this quaint phrase, “doing life together,” is quotidian, for sure, but it is also aspirational and to parse it is a rigorous demand.
The word that holds the phrase together is “life.” Life, for many, is marked by high of celebration or low of sadness: weddings, graduations, children, funerals, and so forth. But to live up to the word requires so much more than the hallmarks of experience. To live up to “life” requires including the mundane, the frustrating, the silent, the ecstatic, and every moment in between. “Life” transcends the larger moments by incorporating the smaller ones too.
“Together” adds a whole new layer to “life.” There are certainly exceptions and boundaries are necessary too. Even still, we recall the stories of Jesus being involved in every moment of other’s lives—from fishing to funerals, weeping to weddings, sitting with people as they are sick and healed, healthy and hurt, sharing meals and walking physically from town to town with his disciples and emotionally through the gambit of human emotions they exhibited. Jesus showed us what “together” means when you add it to “life.”
To make this cliché Christlike we too have to transcend the big moments to include the small one with another. Picking up someone from the airport or after a breakup, changing a tire or a job, getting lunch every Sunday after church or just because it’s Tuesday and you are free. It requires that we be open with each other, vulnerable enough to share and caring enough to tend what is given to us. Maybe over a cup of coffee or on a white-water rafting trip. This endeavor is ill-defined, but the effort is clear—it will require time and hard work.
As a whole this phrase is lofty. It does not allow us to be content living in the absence of others, but instead challenges us to seek out company despite the risks. We all know that we will falter and we will fail, we will hurt others and be hurt ourselves, but the rewards exist within the risk. As we move through life together we get to experience love. There is, after all, a reason 1 Corinthians 13 with its “love is patient, love is kind” is read at weddings. True expressions of love can only exist when we do life together.
Hoping for What the Cliché Offers
Deep friendships and stalwart marriages exist everywhere and there surely are many rich relationships with the type of complexity a congregation aspires to be outside of a church.
When we are in each other’s lives, we see the good and the bad, the weaknesses and strengths, so that when the craziness of life inevitably shakes us up, we know we will have others around to steady us as our world trembles. Well-tended language about being enmeshed in each other’s lives, threaded into the fabric of the community, is something I have seen elsewhere. Other communities have statements about friendship and life, but Christians refer to extensive love for one another so much that we have our own idiom, and it’s become a cliché.
I love that “doing life together” reminds me of the abundance of those who care for me, knowing in a cold and hard world, not everyone has access to that kind of compassion. And it inspires me to want others to have access to that same care. I doubt you’ll find me rolling my eyes at the sound of “doing life together,” you may not hear me say it either, but I hope you’ll see me living it and that you will live it too.
Cover image by Devin Avery.
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