“You can do anything you put your mind to!”I guaran-damn-tee that the average medieval peasant, tied to one village on one estate with one parish church or monastery, was happier about his day-to-day life than many of us modern cubicle jockeys with our supposedly unlimited freedom to do whatever we want with our life. The truth is we're not free to be whatever we want to be. By definition, half of us are going to be below average whether the standard is IQ, income, achievements, physical attractiveness, and number of toys we accumulate. By definition, only a minority will have extraordinary lives which necessarily means the rest of us will have ordinary lives. Que lastima!
“The sky’s the limit!”
“You’re the best!”
“Follow your dreams!”
Did you hear these kinds of things growing up? Your parents sure meant well. They really felt like you were the most special creature to arrive on planet earth – a beautiful boy full of limitless possibilities. You could do anything in the world!
But now that that boy is grown up and in his twenties, you might find that such encouragement has become more paralyzing than motivating. If your possibilities really are endless, how will you ever decide which path to take and what to do with your life?
Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist who specializes in counseling young patients who are struggling with navigating their twenties. One of the case studies she talks about in her fantastic book, The Defining Decade (we have and will be referencing it a lot here on the blog – it’s really a must-read), focuses on “Ian,” who can’t decide what to do with his life. Should he pursue something in graphic design, go to law school (which would please his parents), learn Arabic and do some kind of foreign service work, or maybe postpone the decision altogether with a trip through Asia? He feels like he’s drowning in a vast ocean of choices and doesn’t have any idea which direction to head. Jay writes:
“He couldn’t see land in any direction, so he didn’t know which way to go. He felt overwhelmed by the prospect that he could swim anywhere or do anything. He was equally paralyzed by the fact that he didn’t know which of the anythings would work out. Tired and hopeless at age twenty-five, he said he was treading water to stay alive.”
The feeling of limitless possibilities, coupled with the barrage of “lifestyle design” rhetoric that is so popular these days, can blind you to the fact that life is still built out of the same, relatively few components that it always has been. Your future may seem vast and featureless at times, but it will be constructed – no matter how extraordinary you want it to be — with the same common “parts” that everyone uses.As Catholics, one of our most important acts of discernment is determining whether we are called to marriage or chaste celibacy in the priesthood or religious life. If you choose marriage, then the specific woman or man you marry is a matter of human prudence. The real question for us lay slobs is what sort of career we want.
Jay used the metaphor of a custom bicycle to finally get through to Ian. Ian worked at a bike shop and rode a custom model for transportation. He had put the bike together from various custom parts he had handpicked. But those parts were simply specialized versions of ones all bicycles include – frame, wheels, seat, gears, and so on.
Our lives are like that custom bike. We can all choose the parts that suit us best – and you may go out of your way to select unique, non-mass-produced versions — but they will come from the same main categories everyone else selects from. In building your life you basically have the following categories to work with: relationships, children, vocation, and travel/hobbies. So we can already narrow down our “limitless” possibilities into four divisions. How you arrange and how much you invest in each “part” is up to you.
First, you’re not a blank slate; you’ve had more than two decades of experiences that have shaped you into the man you are today. All these years have strengthened some talents and abilities and weakened others, developed your values and beliefs, and honed some very distinct interests. Put these things together, and what you find is that as opposed to there being endless possibilities, most people are really drawn to, and have the aptitude for, no more than half a dozen vocational paths. Six is far more manageable than infinity. And of the handful of possibilities that really suit your talents, abilities, values, and interests, there’s probably one that calls to you the most, that nags at you the most often – even if questions and doubts about how you’re going to get there make you sometimes push it aside.Many Christians become determinists when it comes to their vocation. If we sit around and wait for God's voice to come booming forth from the heavens to tell us what we're supposed to do with our lives then it takes a lot of pressure off. Except it doesn't, not really. Even if we knew with absolute certainty what God wanted us to do with our lives - and how many ever have that certainty? - we are still free to say no to him. God gives each of us gifts, talents, and inclinations. We can use them to serve him or serve Mammon. We can obey the commandments of Christ or give in to the temptations of the Devil.
A good metaphor I once heard was that the Holy Spirit is the wind in our sails. As captain of our own ship we have to set the course and steer the boat, but it's the Holy Spirit that enables us to move forward. Choosing not to choose is still a choice. Since choosing is inescapable, you may as well choose the good, the true, and the beautiful.