As a pastor, I speak with people about their lives nearly every day. One consistent trend in these conversations that I have noticed is that folks often feel like they are stuck in the systems of life. They feel trapped and don’t know how to get out.
And based on how they describe their situations, how they are feeling makes perfect sense.
Think about it: around age five, we enter kindergarten. Some people even start school younger than that by going to preschool. Then for roughly thirteen years, nearly everyone engages in a systematic educational journey that instructs us on what we “need to know.” Oddly enough though, we don’t use much of what we are taught when we are older.
I don’t write in cursive anymore. I have never built another shelf like the one I did in wood shop. I never have used the physics or calculus that I learned since taking them.
Regardless, we are systematically required to engage in schooling that shapes or stunts our social and intellectual development, and at the end of that process, most of us are given a basic choice around age 18: work or go back to school.
Ultimately, nearly 70% of people in the United States go to college after high school. For many, this means taking on debt, even if they are fortunate enough to receive scholarships. Many students go to college having no idea what they are going to focus their study on.
By age 22, most are faced with a same situation they faced four years before: work or go back to school. So, if a person does not yet know what they want to do, they further specialize in the major that they had to choose in college in order to graduate. They go back to graduate school. Sooner or later, the “choice” comes about again: work or go back to school. By this time, most people cannot afford more school, so the choice is made for them.
While this systemic approach usually equips people to gain employment, it often doesn’t help us to gain the practical experience we need as adults to successfully function emotionally in the world. If we are being truthful, it is often the case that people aged 26 to 30 who have followed this system are often actually still functioning as adolescents, lacking the confidence or practical life experience that adults in generations prior had to develop. By the time we reach our average lifespan, many folks are just learning what it means to live as adults.
After all of this work, it seems to be the case that one day people just “wake up” wondering what they have actually “accomplished” in life. This can bring about an undeserved sense of failure. It can make people wonder what they did wrong.
The thing is, they probably just did what the system told them that they should. How were they to know any different? We simply don’t know what we don’t know. But the larger result is that we end up with a society of juveniles who project these insecurities by perpetuating conflict scenarios to cope with their feelings of depression and insignificance. Just like kids in middle school.
And this is the place where people typically come to me. They want to express this frustration. They want to know what they should do.
When these conversations arise, I am always reminded of an episode of The Wonder Years, Season 1, Episode 3: “My Father’s Office.” Kevin visits his father’s job and talks with him about what his dreams and ambitions were when he was a boy. His dad tells him that when he was Kevin’s age, he wanted to be a captain of a ship, navigating by the stars at night. Kevin asks, “How come you didn’t do it?” to which his dad replies, “Well, you know, one thing leads to another. I went off to college, I met your mom, and the next summer, I got a job on a loading dock here… The rest is history.”
When Kevin essentially acknowledges that he is proud of his father anyway, his dad continues by saying, “You know…you can’t do every silly thing that you want to in life. You have to make your choices and try and be happy with them. I think we’ve done pretty well, don’t you?”
The episode always comes to mind because I think that there is deep wisdom in that scene. Remembering this artistically crafted response by Kevin’s dad, tied with what I know about Scripture, helps me to respond to people in a way that seems to help them.
What I usually say is that, for me, something that puts life into perspective is a belief in eternity. Once a person is no longer bound by the notion that they only have limited years to live, then they are free to live in the now. They are free from the time-bound clutches of social systems that just seem like a rat race, with the prize at the end being a big cheese wheel of death.
It is also possible, though, that a person could live eternally and still never know the joy of living. Such a person could be so caught up in the rat race of the system that the race itself is all that they live for. But a constructed path with only one option for contrived success doesn’t seem like much of an option to me. I would personally call that Hell. Some people reading this might feel like they’ve resided there for some time now.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. You can still choose Joy. You can still choose Peace. You can still choose Life.
Personally, once I became free from the idea that I had to achieve in the system in order to be considered successful, I was free to begin living my life. And my belief in eternity is what created this freedom.
Instead of just learning because I was forced to, I began focusing on learning how to learn. I found teachers who would mentor me and stick with me over the years. I developed relationships with people from whom wisdom pours forth in every word and action. I push myself to do things that are difficult, that I might not necessarily want to do, but I know deep down that I should. I’ve tried to stop making excuses and actually make time to experience life, my family, and my friends. I try to acknowledge what I don’t know, and then (hopefully) humbly seek to live in the wonder and awe that comes with the exploration of this world that we live in. I have found joy in this.
The belief in eternity that I came to have was, for me, established in Jesus Christ. I believe that Christ established the church universal so that we could learn how to live. Conversely, one of the great disappointments in my life is to see how the church universal has failed in that proclamation to the people of the world. Yet, in spite of the church’s ineptitude, God has still given each one of us a claim to life that is beyond the limitations of the systems in which we find ourselves. It was in that gift, a gift so clearly and distinctly designated for me in my circumstance, that I was wooed and consequently fell in love with the Giver of it.
The Good News is that that gift is also available for you. I believe that you were meant for more than the rat race. The question is, do you? Now, you have a choice to make…
Reality Changing Observations:
1. Have you ever felt trapped by the systems of life, and if so, how?
2. What do you do that helps you to live life instead of feeling enslaved by it?
3. What things might you change in your life to help you live life better moving forward?