Odds and Ends (and links)
One of the most common complaints you’ll hear from students in regards to their schoolwork is when will I ever use this in ‘real life’? And I get it. No one wants to pour themself into hard work without purpose or outcome—something more than a grade or the promise of the infrequency of deaths by hard work. But I’m so tired of this question, and so tired of the answers I try to give it.
First of all, if this isn’t real life right now…
Second of all, you have no idea what your future holds.
Thirdly, do you want to understand the answer to your question or do you simply want to complain?
I have my own questions that are easy to answer with trite cliches but harder to dig beneath the surface of—questions I suspect are unanswerable here and now. I sympathize with these students. Giving the cliche is easier than taking the time to dig deep and maybe still come up empty, but it’s probably worth the effort to turn my three stock answers on my own questions.
This is real life.
I am tempted to live for a future version of myself that is more together, uses time better, thinks more clearly, and flows with more energy and wisdom. (My future self is very disciplined.) I base my life around the somedays, while day after day is adding up to the life I really live, where I make the most of tomorrow but only get by for today.
When I answer the when will I ever use this question with this first response, what I am saying is essentially that the things I have to do, need to do, and am privileged to do, are the ground to walk my real, right-now life on. This very thing I complain about is revealing my character, and our character is the real us.
It hurts to put that in context of my own life. It’s always easier to apply answers to a student or a child or an ambiguous “they”. But we all know the underlying issue below that common question. No one wants to do useless things and sometimes we need to be convinced that what we are doing has a point, but really: We want a reason to avoid things we don’t want to do.
We don’t know the beginning from the end.
I started reading The Brothers Karamazov in May, more out of a sense of duty than desire. This is not the way to start a 700+ page book and certainly doesn’t lead to the finishing of it. I’m this close to giving up on the book I started with good intentions and I’ve got one last swing to take at it before I lay it down for awhile, but it just doesn’t feel worth my time right now.
Could it be worth my time at some point in the future?
We never start something with a full understanding of where we’re going or what will happen along the way: marriage, parenting, education, a job, a book. We think we know, but we don’t truly see clearly until the end, when we can look back. And if I never finish the book, I’ll never know if it was worth it.
Tim and I often discuss various what-ifs in regards to our business and future. We’ve had dozens of ideas over the years that held promise of financial security, more time for ministry, and space for our family to flourish as it changes. He’s a builder and creator—seeing things in his mind before he makes them appear with his hard work. So many of our ideas have been good ideas, but the risk of investing in a good idea whose outcome is unseen has kept us from diving in. We are safe and responsible. We are secure in our known routines.
But we have taken some risks on an unknown outcome. We have laid it all out and asked God for wisdom and finally, faithfully, acted on what we knew: God is generous and generative, and He never punishes us for misguided attempts at pleasing Him. Life has a cumulative effect, and even our huge shifts are effects of everything we’ve gathered before. Change—even big change—comes more as a series of slow veers to the right than an abrupt about-face. Hopefully we are always collecting wisdom and making adjustments.
Everything we do has a result in the future, and we just don’t know for sure. How will this turn out? Will I finish? Will I succeed? Will it be worth it?
In a way, the sense of duty that compels me to read books I don’t really want to read, simply because they are classics and highly recommended, is the duty that compels students to take chemistry or latin or calculus. We answer to a higher authority than ourselves, to experts and those farther along. We reach up and forward, as we should. As an adult I can quit reading a book any time I want; as a student, I am compelled to finish what is assigned, even if it is my own assignment. The Brothers Karamazov was optional reading for me—I started it on a whim and I don’t really feel guilty for not finishing it. There are other books on my reading list that I don’t consider optional, though they are difficult and above my skill set, and for those books I make a better plan: scan the table of contents, divide up the pages, make a schedule, take notes. I act like a student.
When I answer a student’s complaints about the uselessness of latin or algebra, I remind them that they have no idea where God will take them or what will be required. They are students now, with the time and chance to build a base of knowledge and skills and, hopefully, desires and interests, that will be at the ready for their unknown future.
At the same time, see point #1. Students are people now, inhabitants of the kingdom, with opportunities to do what God has called them to at fourteen and eighteen and twenty-one. It’s not only about the future, but since we don’t know the future we can use the present to prepare. I can’t adequately explain all this to a freshman who hates latin, but I repeat it to them in as many forms as possible so that one day in the future, they might see that the things they loathe have actually paid off. Maybe they’ll remember my cliches and thank me?
We need to admit the difference between not understanding something, and simply wanting to complaining about it.
This third point really brings out my mother/teacher tone, so I’ll be careful. The bottom line is that claiming I don’t understand something or don’t get the reason for doing it, does not automatically mean I am excused from doing it. How many things are beyond my understanding? It also does not mean that the thing I don’t understand is not valid—as if my understanding of it would suddenly make it worthwhile.
I don’t understand politics or investments or auto insurance. I don’t see why I keep praying the same prayers even though God doesn’t seem to move. And maybe memorizing portions of the Declaration of Independence will never serve a person in life, but it certainly won’t kill them. I always fall back to that.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end (Ecc 3:11 NKJV).
Even if I live like a student, I will never find the end of this mystery. Life will always have unanswered questions. But may I live in the truth I know, submit to the authority and mystery of God, and get over my own excuses.
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