It’s graduation season again, which means that parents and families will be celebrating their children’s success in getting through twelve years of school and not dying or going insane in the process. They’re also celebrating no more fights to get Junior out of bed in the morning, no more standing over them while they mickey mouse their homework, and no more teacher conferences (where, no matter how mature the parent, Junior’s behavior and achievement is a direct reflection on the worthiness of the parent). In the midst of bubbling happiness and general “you can change the world!” sappiness, we do miss a few things. Here (for the sake of completeness) are some of the things we should be telling our graduates
You (probably) aren’t going to change the world
it’s amazing how many graduates are sent out into the world with the dual message that “only you can save the world!” and “we totally made a huge mess, here’s a broom.” Big Hairy Audacious Goals are a tool that can indeed move us toward great things but some sense of proportion is needed here. The world is huge and we are small, the way things are today is the the product of our parents, their parents, and all the parents before them screwing up. Given the massive project and the massive mess (monster truck voice) Changing The World (end monster truck voice) is perhaps a bit too big for any one human to carry by themselves. This mismatch between task and probability of success leads to the next point.
You’re going to fail, a lot
in any fair contest, you are going to lose 50% of the time and while no one particularly wants to fail, what we do when we fail is critical. Louis L’amour has a stock character (always a bad guy) who has never failed and doesn’t know how to fail. He piles effort after foolishness and considers no level of cruelty as being beneath him. He is always the Big Bad in those stories and he always loses to Our Hero who has learned how to take his lumps and go on. Since we will be losing, a lot, what we do with ourselves when we lose is going to be vital if we have any hope of building actual success.
There is no finish line
In school we get course schedules, reading lists, assignments, and grades. All this goes away as soon as we leave. Sure, there will be work shifts, deadlines, and evaluations but we have to make up the schedule of life for ourselves. All of the external incentives by which we used to measure life are going away. So we will have to establish the finish lines for ourselves and be ready to cheer for ourselves when we win. We will need particularly to be ready to cheer because there’s no guarantee that other people will.
You define success (choose wisely)
Because we set the finish line and evaluate our work, we are the ones who get to define what it means to be a success. Lots of people outside us will try to define success (often with an eye toward getting us to share their measure of success and thus validate their life choices). We are however the people who have to live inside our skin so we are the ones who have sole right and responsibility to define what it means to Win at Life.
A key consideration in defining success was put forward by Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher). He said that the only contest we can be sure to win is the one where we control the outcome. In other words, if our measure of success depends on someone else’s actions or someone else judging us a success we are going to inevitably lose. If in order for me to Win I need to persuade you that I am a winner or get you to give me something so I can know I have won, I am likely to lose.
A perfect example of this is parents who define their success in life by the way their kids turn out. The parents’ evaluation of success is thus left in the hands of their children, organisms over which the parent truly has no control or direction. Thus their labor and life is entirely in vain because they win only if someone else Wins. Their happiness is entirely in the hands of another and thus their life is hostage to that other. Therefore chose what constitutes success wisely.
Consider the lilies
While most of the preceding has been pretty much a downer deflation of the purple prose and happy platitudes we use when addressing graduates, this is a bit of purple prose to balance the total downer we’ve had to date. If we aren’t going to change the world and life is going to get harder and more confusing now, why even bother? Just this, our lives and the results of our efforts are not just in our hands. We can break our hearts trying to accomplish the impossible, believing that it all depends on us or choose to trust one who is bigger than us and wants our good.
in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about birds and lilies and life. What he’s doing here is pointing out that in the great grey crazy world into which we embark each day, we are not alone. Because we have been made for each other we do depend on others for life and hope. But others, like our own efforts, can fail us. We can’t ask for what we need, they can’t give it even if we ask for it, and sometimes the random jerk factor gets thrown into the mix and everything comes crashing down. Families, lovers, and friends fail us. We fail. The task in front of us is too big for us and failure is inevitable so why put out the effort? Why try to go on when failure is our only option? Because we are not alone.
Jesus describes a God who pays attention to the sparrows, little bits of fluff and feather that for all their color and energy are tiny, almost insubstantial things. This God dresses the lilies of the field, the wildflowers that bloom in a day and then die, the grass that springs up and goes to hay within a few days. And because this God pays attention to the whole world that is in His hands, nothing really is in vain. God redeems evil for good and takes even our worst junk and makes it compost if there’s nothing else to do with it.
This God, who knows the number of hairs on our head, dresses the grass, and cares for the birds is the same One who is with us (immanuel) all our days. So go and be bold, make hairy, audacious goals, bend your energies and your life to achieve them, be ready for when you fall, and know the hands that paint the sunset with fire and set jewels at the throat of the hummingbird are also reaching out to hold you.
World without end.