The responses usually strike me as odd. To a person, almost every student talks about starting a family, establishing a home, and finding a way to meaningfully live in the world. I am unusually amazed that their ambitions are quite ordinarily human. No discussion of being a social media star or making it big in the city.
Reinforcing Really Human Patterns
When a student is confused about what "to do" with her life you often ask to untangle them: what is your passion? This advice serves as an Oakham's Razor to simplify the decision-making process. Often passions and ability overlap, or at least they should. Nevertheless, the world pushes an unhelpful conceit: you can be whatever it is you want to be.
My students surprised me because as many of them dreamed of their lives unfolding, they weren't exactly following their interests of the moment to their logical conclusion. The athlete didn't see herself playing professionally, but just as a weekend hobby. The artist saw art as part of his life, but secondary to other pursuits. The computer whiz thought first about her family and not some career.
These responses inspire a mix of admiration and worry. This generation of students may very well see embracing the everyday building blocks of life—family, friends, and noble work—as an attainable goal. And not just that, but one which the energies and passions of their young adult years should embrace.
And there-in is my pessimism. I'm asking my students some of the very same questions asked of me and my friends at their age. I don't have our answers, but I really wonder if they were all that different. In your teenage years the giddiness of youth blinds you both to the difficulty of staying on any one path. Virtue has not yet matured. The allure of ambition, in the form of wealth, career, and self-fulfillment, is not yet fully apparent. Following your passion seems rather innocent. Our human state is fragile and passing. No one in youth really realizes this truth and as we grow in years, we always seem to think that we have more time to do whatever it is we imagine ourselves doing.
What it means to be human
I admit to trying out the same thought exercise as my student in the last few days. Where will I be in five years? ten? twenty? Many of my thoughts gravitate towards life milestone: hitting a certain age with all that implies, achieving some career accolades like notoriety, or finally making good amounts money. These are my first thoughts.
But then I look backwards a bit and wonder how off-base this thought exercise ten years would have been. Oh, I could have dreamt a decade ago of having a beautiful family, a home, some modest success in my work. But none of the particulars would have been there: the woman I actually married; the children we have; the home we live in.
What is always missing when we try to project the future is the incarnation, the real flesh and bones, of what and of whom we spend our time for. I find it in the particulars, the actual people and places I know in my everyday life. I know what I wanted ten, twenty years ago but I did not know whom I would love. When we are young we love abstract ideas and dreams, but as we mature we love (or at least should) that with whom and with which we spend our time.
That is an uncomfortable reality. Much of modern life, it seems, is contrived and isolated. Hours spent online. Time lost commuting in a car. Digital personas and entertainment meant to distract. Living life often seems a futility in chores interrupted by moments of indulgence.
What breaks this cycle? Vocation. I've been placed in a particular place and time. There is a plan where-in I can respond to needs around me with generosity. Freedom is found when embracing this calling. When framed to my students, freedom looks like that possibility of doing what we are passionate about or really, whatever it is we want. But the truth is that because we live in community, our freedom cannot be radically exercised this way. We bump into other people and their decisions, ambitions, successes, and failures intermingle with our own.
So the thought exercise isn't necessarily futile, but it is incomplete if I am not also considering my own identity, as a son of God. To maintain a spirit of child-like wonder is part of this identity: of openness to what is new, delight in the simple joys of the world, and play with those next to me. What tomorrow or the day after cannot at all be predicted or scripted. It's rather an adventure. a scary one at that, at staying open to a Will unknown until it has unfolded.
I have no idea how to communicate that to my students because I am not even sure how to live it myself. But cultivating this disposition of calling, of living humbly according to a plan, of setting aside ambition in the here and now, realizing our identity does not come from what we do, but who we are. For the Christian, who we are is not a self-developed reality, but comes from our death and new birth in Christ through baptism, pointing to a life that is yet to come. That is a total gift, something we cannot earn or merit merely through living a fulfilled life. That truth stands in stark tension to how the world seems to work day-in and day-out. How can anyone prepare for that?