The late Yogi Berra, famed manager of the New York Yankees and master of nonsensical one-liners, is reported to have said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” This is both ridiculous and profound, particularly as it pertains to life at the half-way point. One of the ways not to lose our path in the middle of life is to clarify our hoped-for destination. The concept of telos may help us to parse out what this looks like.
Telos comes from the ancient Greek language. It’s an unfamiliar word for most of us and not one that we’ll immediately fold into our vocabulary. It’s worth wrestling with because there’s no English equivalent and the concept of telos serves the conversation about our futures.
An Intentional Process
Telos means “fulfillment,” “end,” or the “end goal” of an intentional process. But it’s not simply a fixed point at the end of a line. As it relates to midlife marriage, telos is our ultimate destination, the specific path that we take, and how we love and serve those who are journeying with us. If we think about the purpose of a family vacation, it’s not checking in at an ocean-front Airbnb. It’s a process that includes deciding together where the family wants to go, picking out restaurants and day trips, the excitement of packing suitcases, the three-hour walk along a dramatic beach, the deepening of relationships, and the memories that we hold onto for years to come. A helpful way to think about telos is that it’s “a guiding purpose.”
This purpose-driven understanding of telos means how we get where we’re going is every bit as significant as the end goal. And the journey is rarely linear, which means we have to notice when we’re heading into a storm and recalibrate as needed. Like airplane pilots.
When pilots fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, they don’t simply put the desired destination into their flight computer, climb to cruising altitude, and read a book. They’re constantly monitoring flight conditions, checking in with regional air traffic control centers, and reprogramming their in-flight computers as necessary. If the plane is heading into bad weather, the captain may manually override the autopilot. These ongoing check-ins and adjustments allow pilots to fine-tune their flight and avoid unnecessary turbulence.
I think we would agree that all marriages would benefit from less turbulence. In-flight marital check-ins might include asking each other questions such as what’s working, what’s not working, or where are we stuck? It should also include regularly and proactively confessing our sins and adapting our behaviors based on the changing needs of our family. Occasionally, some check-ins might determine that the turbulence can’t be avoided and therefore, everyone simply needs to fasten their seat belts and ride it out.
We don’t reach any destination by simply making a one-time decision. To avoid ending up where we have no intention or desire to go, we must routinely determine if we’re on course and recalibrate when needed. We have to fly the plane. And as any good pilot will tell you, navigation requires creativity and imagination.
It’s no exaggeration to say that we need our imaginations in every phase and every aspect of life. A robust imagination is essential to figure out how to use the kohlrabi that was in our farm share, remodel the bathroom, pay for college, and sustain a healthy marriage.
The Creativity in Everyone
Engaging our imaginations and living creatively should not be seen as child’s play or as a privilege for select vocations such as artist or author. To think along these lines is to deny our heritage. Poet Luci Shaw writes, “We who believe we bear God’s image must realize that the image includes the capacity to imagine and create, because God is himself an imaginative Creator.”
In fact, God is the ultimate creator. The Trinity came up with the idea for snow, giant sequoias, watermelons, rainbows, hummingbirds, dolphins, and the particulars of procreation. The Trinity also decided that every snowflake and every human should be unique. You may not write novels or paint canvases, but you have the capacity to bring order, solve problems, and make beautiful things, which is what being creative is all about.
A vibrant, rooted-in-God imagination also serves our relationships, particularly marriage and parenting. There are many times in the course of our lives when we feel stuck. In these situations, imagining something new is, in and of itself, “an act of hope.” When we imagine what our marriage might look like in five or ten years, we are choosing to believe that there is a future, and we have some agency in it. This confronts any of the powerlessness or hopelessness that linger because the specifics we had previously imagined did not come to pass or because we’re being told—subtly and sometimes not so subtly—that the world does not want what we have to offer.
Walter Brueggemann, one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the twenty-first century, writes, “The task of the prophetic imagination . . . is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping that seems to have no end or resolution.” Our imaginations should be able to transcend the present moment, even when hope is waning or circumstances portend doom because it’s God’s power and inexhaustible hope that fuels our imagination.
Faith and imagination are synergistic. None of us have ever seen God face-to-face. To step over the line from unbelief to belief, we must extrapolate who God is based on the knowledge we’ve gleaned from Scripture, others’ testimonies, and our personal experiences of encountering Jesus. Since none of these prove the existence of God, the Holy Spirit inspires our imagination—or faith—tipping the balance away from doubt toward belief.
Imagination’s Role in Marriage
In the same way that a faith-filled imagination can help us to move from skepticism to faith in our relationship with God, it can help us move from unhappiness or dissatisfaction to contentment and delight in our marriages. Sometimes, this can be as simple as a quick prayer: “God help me to see our potential. Help me believe that change is possible.” And then waiting in holy anticipation. Sometimes it takes years of hard work, counseling, extended prayer, and staying present in the seemingly impossible moments.
To ignite our imaginations and keep them burning, we need to understand the role of criticism because nothing douses our imagination more quickly than incessant or insensitive critique.
In the process of writing this book I’ve had to make thousands of critical decisions. This word not that one. I’ve had to delete some of my favorite sections. There’s no morality and few emotions attached to these choices. I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings as I edit. Criticism is a lot trickier in the relational realm.
Though criticism is an essential component of the creative process, it’s also inherently dangerous. Most of us are skilled in identifying—sometimes to the millimeter—what’s wrong with our spouse, our in-laws, our pastor. And typically, we don’t stop at identifying the problem: We magnify it and often make biased and unfair conclusions because of it. Sadly, we seem to have cataracts regarding our own flaws. If we fail to understand the extenuating circumstance or how we may have contributed to the issue, our criticism will most likely be inaccurate, unhelpful, and possibly even damaging.
For criticism to be productive, it needs to move beyond focusing on the problem to finding solutions. Experiencing a disappointing vacation, having multiple unproductive fights, or feeling a vague sense of malaise can all be starting points for imagining something new and recalibrating our telos. By partnering with the Holy Spirit, we should be able to imagine—and then move toward—a fruitful, vibrant future with our spouse.
Excerpted from chapter two of Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, published in 2020.
Photo by Gabby Gordon