I saw a young lady at graduation last weekend who I knew from times long gone. She was standing in the crowd holding a fat, healthy baby staring distractedly at the place from which the graduates entered the room. She looked tired and hassled – I thought of it as almost ‘frantic.’ She didn’t see me, or if she did, she didn’t recognize me. I remembered having conversations with her years ago – back when she was fresh from high school and on her own. Her attitude was always that of letting things happen to her, then hoping for the best.
She was, and is, a very attractive young lady and that seemed to give her some advantage in the world. She generally got what she felt she wanted, but infrequently enjoyed what came with it. An example would be a fancy car that was the envy of friends, which, unfortunately, was attached to a hefty monthly bill that tethered her to long hours at work. Another example is the boy who she’d been looking to date, who came with a propensity to stray included free of charge.
(In case you’re wondering, she did seem to turn out okay so far. Although the baby might have been a hassle at graduation I’m pretty sure that she did want to have the baby – it wasn’t an accident or anything as far as I know. In any case, she’s still getting mainly what she wants out of life and seems satisfied with that.)
I thought of others I know, both men and women, old and young, who have that same look in the eye – the look that seems to indicate that life has happened to this person rather than the other way around.
That “where’s the exit?” kind of look.
They feel like they’re on a ship, and think to themselves “somebody must be steering this thing,” even as waves of adversity and hardship drive them about aimlessly and they wonder who it could be. Or sometimes they even let the soup slosh out of their bowls during life’s storms and say, “Well, my dress shoes are ruined by this cold cucumber soup, but I’m sure the captain must know what he or she is doing.”
Enough with the metaphor.
I don’t know the reasons why, though I have my poorly informed opinions, but many people have simply settled. They don’t feel they’ve given up on life, but they’ve decided to accept whatever comes their way. Sometimes they even call it humility and say it’s a virtue. Claims like “It wasn’t meant to be” begin to be heard, or “If it’s right it will work out somehow.”
I meet these people in my work almost every day. Some are young and hopeful, but many are old and are starting to look around and realize that things aren’t actually working out for the best as they had always assumed they would. I’ve met with many people in their mid or late 50’s who literally say to me: “I realized I’m getting older and that I had better take care of this myself,” when I ask them about why they want to start retirement planning now. As if the retirement would plan itself?! As absurd as it sounds, this is what they had been hoping and assuming all these years. Sometimes they even avoided dealing with it because it’s intimidating by saying things like “I’ll take a look at it in a few years when I’m ___.”
You’ve seen this behavior all around you, yet probably never thought anything of it. I’m not talking about the retirement, here. I’m talking about that attitude of surrendering of one’s destiny. Our civilization is rife with it – especially among the middle and lower classes. The word “Someday” creeps into our vocabulary and is never followed by the essential “When?” or even “How?” Or – how about this one: “When we’re rich…” followed by a sigh and a nod, then a gentle settling into the couch cushions to watch another episode of “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila.”
I feel convinced that our prodigious capacity for achievement is matched only by our ability to settle for the dream. It’s built into our pop-culture, stories, religions and mythology. The good guy always wins. The princess always finds the perfect man. What is heaven, if not a far-distant “someday” when everything will be right without any effort? Isn’t that what you think of when you try to imagine ‘heaven’? Isn’t it what we all think of? (Maybe that’s why we always take vacations to a paradise rather than create them where we are – it fits our belief structure.)
I once wrote an article called “the 1000 year question,” which was simply an answer to the question of “What would you do if you knew you were going to live for 1000 years?” I had a few things I thought would be neat to do. After a few years of thinking about it and, hopefully, growing as a person I began to wonder “Why not?” In other words: why should it matter how long I live? Shouldn’t I live the way I want no matter how long it is or what the distant future may bring? Shouldn’t I do the things I want to do now, rather than wait for some ethereal opportunity in the ever-distant future? Obviously I had some re-thinking to do.
Another example from my life: I once in conversation told a friend “I’m probably never going to be rich.” I don’t remember why it came up. Later that evening I thought about the comment and asked myself “Why not?” It hit me hard. And, in a way, that thought of “Why not?” is the impetus of all my desire for success today. Why shouldn’t I be rich if I want to be? Why not plant the forest in this life rather than hope to live 1000 years? Why can’t I be wealthy and humble and happy all at the same time?
A rebuff from western religion: I’ve heard – and I don’t know if it’s true, but I think it is – that the most oft-repeated commandment in scripture is to “ask,” that we might “receive.” Perhaps it’s repeated so frequently in one form or another because it’s just so hard for us to learn.
A few stories come to mind, thinking of scripture. First: a negative example.
In the Bible the story is told of the people of Israel standing on the shore of the Red Sea; the impassible water on one side, the armies of Pharaoh on the other. Rather than learning from the amazing example of the miracles in Egypt – that is, learning that God would save them no matter what, they gave up. They practically sat down on the sand and waited to die. Luckily they were led by somebody who would not settle.
In the Book of Mormon the story is told about a person named “The brother of Jared” who is commanded to transport his family across a sea in some special ships. He works hard, receives direction and plans from God, and builds the ships. The problem is there isn’t any light in the ships – they are completely enclosed. It would have been a lengthy trip in complete darkness.
He could have said “Well, this will certainly get us where we’re going, and I’ve followed the commandments and instructions from God, let’s go.” or “Good enough.” or even “I’ll humbly take what the Lord gives me, even if it’s hard for me.” But he doesn’t.
He asks for more.
And he receives more in a miraculous manner.
So I hear people say, without using these words: “I don’t need to budget, the Lord will provide.” and I get bothered. A lot of what bothers me is how much of myself I hear in these inferences. Other, similar statements of ‘faith’ include: “I don’t need insurance, God will protect me.” Or “If I invest I can’t give to the poor as much, and that would make me a bad person.” or “I don’t want to be greedy.” or “If I’m successful it means I’m not humble.” or “I’ll worry about it when I’m older.” or “It will work itself out.”
Now, I don’t intend to promote greed in anybody. I do, however, intend to promote a firm belief that we are the masters of our own destiny. I would love to see that every young couple I met with avoided the trap of reaching retirement age and realizing retirement for them will come only at death. I would love it if those I know with big dreams take the risk and realize the journey rather than drift and simply hope to end up in the right place or with the right person or in the right job, etc.
Back to the boat analogy – I can’t help but think that if there is a cosmic captain who both built the ship and filled the sea that maybe the waves are there on purpose. Perhaps His goal, His dream for success is simply to drive us into the captain’s chair. In other words, maybe if I get shaken up enough I’ll realize that this is actually my boat and my responsibility – so if I want to make it to my own personal Tahiti in one piece (or even at all) I had better chart my course and go.
I believe that heaven will never come to those who settle, but that it’s to be built on earth by those who choose to ask, receive, work, and act on the dream rather than just dream.