Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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To Live the Given Life

September 25, 2023

Amelia Freidline

“We live the given life, and not the planned.” – Wendell Berry

I turned 35 last year. My birthday came in the middle of a busy season, sandwiched somewhere among a church women’s retreat and a church picnic, the birthdays of two friends, my parents’ wedding anniversary, and a weekend trip to Tennessee for the Hutchmoot conference. I was a month into a new job—one that came with a steep learning curve—and, amid all the busyness of good things, couldn’t help but feel a little bit like Bilbo Baggins: “thin, sort of stretched … like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” [1] 

Turning 35 meant that in five more years I’d be 40; I could remember my dad’s surprise 40th birthday party and the jokes about how he was now “over the hill.” It meant I was officially halfway to 70. Whoopee. Halfway to 70 and the life I found myself in bore little resemblance to what I had envisioned. I had pictured a laughing-eyed husband and a bevy of dimple-kneed children, had dreamed of planting peas and baking bread and exploring God’s great poem of a world together. Instead, I was living with my parents in the house we’d moved into just before my first birthday. True, my father and I planted peas together every spring, weather permitting; I could bake bread (or cake, or scones) whenever I wanted; I had a career and friends and a little black dog and nephews and nieces that I loved. But it was not the story I had been writing for my life. It was not the story I had expected to live into.

To embody means, at its most basic level, to put something into a body; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition is “provide (a spirit) with a bodily form.” [2] It’s related to the Latin term “incorporare,” which gives us the word “incorporate”; one of the now-rare senses of the verb form of “incorporate” means “to provide with a body; embody.” [3] It is an all-wise, all-powerful Creator God Who gives life to our mortal bodies, both in the physical and spiritual sense; it is this same God Who gives us a particular, specific life—one written with deep love before the dawn of time. But it is up to us to choose to live it.

The English writer G.K. Chesterton touches on this idea (along with many others) in his book Heretics. In the chapter “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family,” Chesterton examines the notion of life as a romance, a heroic tale of adventure. “… An adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.” [4] 

If we truly see our lives as a story and ourselves as characters within it, he argues, then we must accept the fact that a good many details of that story are decided by Somebody Else before we ever even step into the scene. 

“A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. … The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. … To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance.” [5]

When I looked at my life at 35 I saw a great many “plain limitations” that were forcing me to meet with things I didn’t particularly want to encounter: loved ones with health challenges; perplexing or difficult relationships; ministry opportunities requiring a lot of emotional energy; a family home long overdue for decluttering and repairs; hopes deferred, and the dawning realization that they might never be fulfilled. But one evening, as I was thinking through the day while doing the after-dinner dishes, God brought something to my attention. “If you were married with a family and home of your own, you’d be doing these same sorts of things,” came the thought. “If you won’t rise to meet them with love in this moment, when will you ever?”

As Chesterton says, an adventure is not a thing we choose for ourselves. But we do still have a choice: How shall we live “the adventure that is sent us,” [6] however uncongenial it may be? At that sink of dishes, I realized I had such a choice. Would I spend the rest of my days complaining that I hadn’t got the set of adventures I thought I wanted? Or would I choose to truly live within my own life and meet its unique adventures bravely, knowing that God was using such things to shape me into the character He had always destined me to be?

My 36th birthday is just around the corner. I wish I could say I’d lived the past year in a manner worthy of a heroine, had poured more love into the people in the life I have rather than wishing for a different one. But there is—God willing—tomorrow, and the adventures it will bring.

The life I planned for myself may never come to be—but there is the life I’ve been given, and that is the life I want to live. To embody.

[1] John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 41.
[2] William R. Trumble, Angus Stevenson, and Lesley Brown, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford, 2002), 811.

[3] Trumble, Stevenson, and Brown, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 1,349.
[4] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Volume I: Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Blatchford Controversies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 142.
[5] Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Volume I, 144.
[6] Clive Staples Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1953), 163.

The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Amy Cato says:

    Truth so winsomely expressed, Amelia! I enjoyed reading this and see your life and gracious spirit points to how you trust in the Lord and believe that his adventure for you is good, if mysterious: the given life.

  2. Emily says:

    I struggle with the same thing. Thank you for the reminder to live the life given me, and not be longing pensively after the planned one.

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