It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college student in the face of looming deadlines must be in possession of an existential crisis. (Or at least, I hope it isn’t just me.) It occurred to me the other day how my panic attacks and general existential crises had been accumulating in frequency more and more since I returned to Law school for the second semester of my first year- that “life had not mirrored her spirit back to her with its old, perfect, sparkling clearness” (Anne of the Island). And there is no set way to get this clarity of mind back. I guess the image I had in my head was that of a rubber ball, and wondering why I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I used to be able to, until I realized that a more appropriate image would be a bunch of rubber bands that had gotten so tied up together that they couldn’t bounce back unless they were untangled. I needed to untangle the many worries I had in my mind, before I could set my mind at rest and move on.
It usually helps to look at the bigger picture, and that’s when I got my first epiphany. Being someone who very much looks to books and movies for life advice and kind of charting the way my life is going, it took me a while to realize this, but somewhere along the way it stopped being me looking ahead to fiction to see how things were supposed to pan out, but rather me looking sideways to fiction. Fiction began to run parallel to my life, instead of the runner in front of you whose number tag you focus on to keep your feet steady. I was so used to the groove of holding fiction as an ideal for my own life; I held its characters on pedestals, and felt like adulthood could only be achieved through stepping over a magical, indeterminable, inextricable threshold of age. I couldn’t see it coming, but I would definitely know when I had crossed it, and I definitely hadn’t.
But I suddenly realized that when my life started to echo the questions I saw in books and movies, when fiction wasn’t so fictitious anymore, when I started having my own questions that didn’t have so direct an answer –or any at all- I realized that all these struggles- all this thinking- is a sign that we are at that magical age betwixt youth and old age. Taylor Swift got it right when she said “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/ it’s miserable and magical”. This is what songs are written about. This is what books are written about. This is what films are made about. We’ve reached. We’re here.
And what do we do now?
It takes a lot to find liberation in this confusion. A couple of days ago, I was telling my mum quite frankly that I didn’t like who I was becoming in Law school. I felt like I was losing the discipline, and the generosity, to love. I felt like, when given “the choice between what is right, and what is easy” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), I had, too many times, chosen what was easy. And that was to give in to a life that was mediocre and ordinary, which was only scratching the surface in terms of the depth and wealth of significance that life has to offer. I felt like I had failed the little girl in me, who at 7 thought that 20 was just such a magical grown-up number at which I would of course have my life figured out. At 7, I probably did not imagine that it was possible 20-year-old me would be stumbling.
To this colossal sense of failure, my mum smiled (and possibly laughed internally, though more out of commiseration than scorn). “That’s growing up,” she said.
But what does growing up mean? I always thought there was just one step between being a kid and being an adult, but now it seems it’s more of an ocean. More importantly, what does growing up in God mean?
I think our sense of failure is based on that mind-set of viewing life on rigid scales instead of as a very indeterminate ocean, but once we let go of that mind-set, it becomes a lot easier to live in Christ. During one of his Lenten addresses, Pope Francis said something that really stuck with me: “The Lord never tires of forgiving. We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness.” Past redefining the word ‘failure’, it’s time to chuck it out of our vocabulary. I think it’s very dangerous when we scale life down to a kind of list where we just check in the boxes. God’s view of our life is so much more than that. “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created” (Esther 4:14), and God is not waiting for you to reach a certain checkbox on the list. He is with you every uncertain step of the way.
Therefore, I think it’s time to think of life more as a long journey in which we constantly strive for God’s image. Failure implies that one day, we are going to succeed. But it’s just like that earlier image of growing up, that one day we’re not and one day we just magically are. There is never going to be a day in which we wake up magically perfect in God’s image. The whole point of Lent, as this rather illuminating article suggests, is that we are never enough. The point of making sacrifices in our lives is not so much that after we are done, we’re on the next level (and therefore, if we somehow tripped up in our Lenten sacrifices, it’s not so much a fatal step backwards to Hell and doom). The whole point of Lent is that we will only be enough with God, when we recognize that we are smaller than Him, and can only be made whole with His hand. Our only greatness is in His greatness. As Mother Teresa said, “He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”
It is quite easy to acknowledge that it’s “the end of the day” that matters. When we are caught up in results and deadlines, it is easy to escape stress by consoling yourself that it’s God who matters. But that can sometimes fall into the trap of creating a dichotomy, between following the rat race and following God. It’s a bit like that “Sunday Catholic” phenomenon- you’re only a Catholic when you go to Mass on Sundays. But once you leave the Church physically, you snap back into your “other” identity. Grace, Law student; or Grace, ballet dancer. We need to translate this acknowledgment into our daily lives. Our identity as a child of God can and should be assimilated wholly into our “other”, secular identities as students, workers, siblings, daughters, and friends. After all, it is for this that you were created.
“How on earth do those people make the time to love?” one of my friends said today. ‘Those people’ refer to the same people this article referenced: those incandescently good people who seem to have life figured out, and life, for them, is radiating that joy and that goodness. Again, there’s that sense of the step dichotomy: that one day you’re just ordinary, and the next day you climb a step and you’re there. But I think the answer is that love is not something you make time for. Love –and the generosity of love- is a habit.
Part of my moral crisis was the sense that as I grow up, love becomes more of a choice than an instinct. It pains me to have to make the choice. There are people who are going to frustrate you, hurt you, but as the Lord’s Prayer goes, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” While it is true that the childlike mind chooses love so easily it’s not even like a choice, it is not necessarily fatal to our identity as a child of God if we recognize how difficult this choice really is. Rather, it reinforces the strength of our eventual decision to love as He loved us. Someone wise (I forget who) said that we don’t have to like people, we just have to love them.
Shailene Woodley in her acceptance speech for Best Female Performance at the recently concluded 2015 MTV Movie Awards thanked the author John Green for “wearing integrity and compassion on your sleeve”. And while this shouldn’t be such a novel thing (pardon the pun) as to warrant mention in an awards acceptance speech, it is. Being kind and loving does take courage, because it’s not what everyone does. It’s not what is commonly prioritized today. It’s not easy.
Going back to how to concretely translate the concept of “glorifying the Lord by your life” into your daily life, I think the answer is in how you measure the success of a day. Again, the idea of success (and, therefore, failure)! But again, this is not a yes-no dichotomy. The ocean of love is an infinite scale. And I think the best measure of how a day has gone is in how you have reflected God in your dealings with others, and in your life. How happy have you made others? How much love have you given- and given freely? One of my favourite hymns (and I have many) goes, “Freely, freely you have received- freely, freely give/ Go in my name, and because you believe, others will know that I live.”
God lives. God has arisen. And it is up to us to reflect that joy in our everyday choices. “Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5: 16-18) There is so much we don’t know. There is a plethora of uncertainty. But the liberation in our confusion is the knowledge that God has planned for it all. You are so small in His sure and wondrous hand- rejoice, and trust!