We’re going to take this a different direction than usual.
If you’ve read my previous “landmark” posts (here and here and here), which call for moments of perspective and reflection, you know that I tend to get a little…excited. Fervent, some might say. Off-kilter, probably a few more would say…
Regardless of how you might describe those posts, they’re undeniably intense. They’re meant to dig deep, to get to the roots of our very being and make us question things we otherwise would have overlooked. That process of brutal self-honesty is a good one. I think it should be integrated more often and readily in our lives than just with three posts throughout the school year.
That being said, I’m not going to spend a fourth post doing that. That was my original thought, but I won’t.
I don’t know about you, but Lent is dog-tough for me. I mean, just knuckles-bared, teeth-grinding difficult. And that’s not because I do anything special, no. I spent from 7:30 AM to 8:00 AM this morning laying in my bed, convincing myself I didn’t have to go Liturgy. I was so exhausted with church, guys. I was just at the end of my rope and wanted to sleep.
I went, probably more out of guilt and fear and pride than anything good. As I stood in church I felt the rejuvenation, and I knew I had made the right decision. But man, I did not want to make the right decision at all.
I think that sentence there really encapsulates one of the greatest struggles I face. I can walk you through every step of my decision-making process, no sweat. How I came to recognize the choice before, how I evaluated my options, how I discerned the best one–the whole kit and caboodle. But when it comes time to make the right decision, I often…don’t.
And it’s weird, because the entire time–before I make the wrong decision, while I’m making the wrong decision, and after I make the wrong decision–I’m thinking to myself, “This is the wrong decision. Stop.” But it feels like I have just no free will at all, no control over my body or my mind. And I just…poof. Make the wrong decision.
In reality, of course, I did have free will, but I didn’t turn to God to help bolster me, to strengthen me when I was faced with that decision. I elected to face it alone, to make a solely man-made decision. The first man-made decision, of course, was Eve’s, and most of the other man-made decisions have been pretty crummy since then. Without God present in our choices, sin takes us.
“So the grand point of your whole ‘I’m going to take this a different direction post’ is: ask God for help? That’s super revolutionary, Ben.”
Let me finish, Fictional and Sarcastic Interrupter.
The thing is, when we’re about to make the wrong decision and we realize we could and should and must ask God for help, you know what we do? We compound our wrong decision by making another one. We recognize the opportunity to ask God for help, and we neglect it, casting it off to the wayside. Why? Because that wrong decision just looks oh-so-tempting.
What then is the solution? We’re trapped in a vicious circle wherein we can never make the right decision to start rectifying all of our wrong decisions. How do we escape the rabbit-hole?
Lord have mercy. Roughly 300 bajillion times.
You know how you don’t pay attention to the words of your prayers some (most) of the time? You gloss over them because they’re familiar or unfamiliar; repeated to the point of hackneyed or foreign to the point of unintelligible? Psalm 50 is my jam, but I always miss that first verse:
Have mercy on me, oh God, according to thy loving kindness; and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
I can’t tell you how hard that smacked me in the face this Lent. I’ve been so focused on the push, on the dogfight, on the toughness and grittiness and hard-nosed fast–on this romantic image of me standing up to Satan and to sin–that I’ve literally got zero clue what’s going on. I am a little hamster, convinced he has traveled many miles, when really his wheel is just turning a touch faster.
I was so focused on some grand battle that existed in my Pharisee head (not good Pharisee, who’s smart and knows stuff about the Bible; but bad Pharisee, who makes up stuff about God and doesn’t recognize Jesus at all) that when I heard that my God was supposed to have mercy on my “according to the multitude of His tender mercies,” I was flabbergasted.
Lent is a period of preparation–for what? For Pascha. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the redemption of Adam, the correcting of that first, uber-crummy, man-made decision. Pascha, the extreme humility of God, the mercy of God that he showed his fallen people by giving his only-begotten Son as a ransom to death–that is the solution to the vicious circle of wrong decisions. A God who became man for us, that he could understand that struggle, so that he could be merciful unto us—THAT’S what the Incarnation, the Ascension on the Cross, and the Resurrection is all about.
But I missed the forest for the trees. I made Lent about me and my effort–not about Christ and His glory.
What does this mean for you?
Well, hopefully you did better than I. If not, that’s okay. I’ll be begging for mercy right next to you for the next two weeks–and probably a few weeks after that, too.
Read our first installment of the Check Yo’ Self series on what introspection is, why it’s paramount for the college student, and how to pull it off.
Wow. Ten weeks since our last check-in. That’s too long, man. I hope you’ve been active with yourself over that time, but if not, that’s okay. We ’bout to hop back on track.
In the last check-in, I asked you guys to think about what it means, for you, to fall and have to get back up so many times. I’ll ask you to remember that idea, as we check-in with the self once again, undoubtedly about to expose several more ‘fallings off the path,’ as it were.
In the first check-in, I asked you guys about the tough, introspective questions that belong to us all: Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get from here to there? Am I on that path right now? I’ll ask you to remember these questions as well, as they give us orientation, destination, direction, and the road map that unifies the three.
I’ll ask you, specifically today, to focus on the second question. I read this quote the other day that really harmonized with the message of this post:
The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.
A bit on the nose, no doubt. But give it a context: you wake up just in time to get to your first class, take good notes, work on a paper during your free period, hit up the dining hall with a couple of friends, head to the next class, contribute to discussion, hit the gym, get back home, knock out some homework, call your mom, get some dinner, watch some Netflix, and hit the hay. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Read our second installment of the Check Yo’ Self series, on the parable of the prodigal son and what it means to pick ourselves up after we fall into the pigpen. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Maybe you got prayer in there somewhere–I hope you did. Scriptural reading, too? Solid.
What was the meaning of all of that? You just ran up and down the field for twenty-four hours. What was the goal? What is the actualization, the realization of all of that effort? Because “I did my homework to do well on the test” becomes “I need to do well on the test to get a good grade in the class” and then “I need a good grade to graduate with a good GPA.” and then “I need that GPA to get a good job” and then “I need that good job to make money” and then “I need that money to get a good house and support my family” and then…”I’ll be happy”?
And I don’t mean to reduce that, because everything in there is valid–I’m doing my homework for that reason, striving for good grades for that reason. Those are real scenarios in our life, and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t. But until I can say, “Part of my lasting, tangible joy in life will come from raising, protecting, and providing for my eventual family,” I can’t say, “I need to do this homework.”
That’s a wild thought, I get that, but it’s true. If you’re just doing your homework out of an obligation to the moment, to the norms of the people around you, it isn’t manifesting anything you truly seek in life. You have become an automaton, fulfilling the function it was programmed to fulfill. Again, I’m not advocating a complete denial of homework–I’m advocating an investigation of what we want, and of what we want truly.
Who do you want to become? There’s an exercise I like that provides perspective. Write down a list of the distinct roles you experience in your life: it doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list by any means, but just jot down a few: my quick one might include Student, Boyfriend, Family Member, Publications Student Leader.
Orthodox Christian, it should be noted, cannot be relegated to a role in our lives. It is the core of our very being–the fiber from which all of our roles branch out, around which those roles wind. For the sake of the exercise, you may want to create a quasi-role of ‘Orthodox Christian’, to give perspective to the goals you’d like to accomplish in your spiritual life. But recognize that Orthodox Christian does not equal the other roles. It transcends and informs them all.
Pick a milestone in each role. Student may be graduation; Family Member may be returning home for break; Publications Student Leader may be May, when the OCF year is up. Envision those temporal, geographic moments in your mind. Picture yourself in the cap and gown, wearing your school colors. Put your school friends next to you, on your left and right. They’re meeting your family members, who all came to see you receive your degree. See your favorite professor, coming through the crowd to meet your folks.
They all–friends, family members, professor–take a moment to congratulate you on the work you did in school. What do they say?
What do they say? Write it down quick, because guess what–that’s the person you want to become.
This isn’t about seeking praise–doing things simply that others may recognize your successes and laud you for them. This is about perspective. Right now, my teachers would call me a “perpetually late student”; my friends, a “procrastination champion”; my family, “oft disillusioned with all things school.”
Is that the student I want to be? The person I want to become? Certainly not. So use caution in this exercise. Don’t have your mind-people shower you with unworthy laurels. They are simply people of value in your life, telling you what you have done. What type of student do you want to be? Do your family members call you a “hard-working and dedicated” student, your classmates “well-prepared and insightful”, your professor “always willing to try new things and take advice?” I don’t know what they say, but whatever they do, make sure they don’t say anything besides the student that, in this wonderful, ideal, magical thought-castle, you are.
Thisis what must power you to do your homework–and indeed, infuse every moment you spend in the role of student with meaning and vivacity. This is your destination. This is the person you want to become.
Do this with as many roles as you’d like, as far-reaching as you’d like. Being able to step into Ben’s thirty-year-old shoes has done wonders for almost-twenty-year-old Ben. There’s so much added value to my evening prayers, because thirty-year-old Ben might be helping little four-year-old Benjamin Carson Wentz Optimus Attila Ferdinand Solak, Jr. how to pray at night. If I can’t do it now, how will I be ready to do it then?
Again, that’s a wild thought. But if we want that future tomorrow, we have to be responsible for it today. Christ didn’t come, teach and heal for thirty-some years, and then think to himself, “You know what would really shake things up? If I ascended the cross, died, went into Hades, and broke the chains of death all the way down to Adam.” No, the prophets were foretelling of the Messiah for a long time; St. John was telling folks that the Kingdom of Heaven while Herod was still searching for baby Jesus. The future is coming–we can either be ready, or get swept up in the tide.
So check in with your future self today, I suppose. Who would you like to become? What are the words your friends and family will use to describe you, ten years down the road? Twenty? Seventy? Once you know, act. Bring your goal into fruition.
Don’t dilly-dally on this, guys. You never know how much time you have left. In the immortal words of the White Rabbit, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late.”
As many of you readseven (wow) weeks ago, I think it’s incredibly important to check in with the self. Everybody likes to talk about how formative, how incredible, and how dangerous a time college is–but when they throw around tools to use during that time, they often overlook simple introspection. Looking into yourself and asking some difficult questions: Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? Am I on that path right now?
How sweet the world would be, if we could never fall off the path–but alas, we know that is not the case. We fall off, we wallow in the ditch for a while, and eventually we are so disgusted with our life in the pigpen that we say “Hey! You know what I should do? Return to my father’s house.”
And how sweet again the world would be, if we could fall off the path just once, muck about in the pigpen just once, and only once have to realize “Father’s house = good deal.”
But alas, as college students, we know that is not the case. We know that our post-midterm shock and urgency only lasts so long, that flame of ‘Okay, I’ve gotta step my game up’ eventually peters out (I’m going through this right now, can you tell?). We are left, not precisely where we were previously, but close enough to throw up our hands in frustration and cry out, “Well, what the heck was the point of that?!”
So, let’s check in. Let’s look inside and try to figure out what the point of this is, this maddening oscillation between determined and browbeaten, this inescapable dance of the person we want to become and the person we are.
I, of course, cannot answer this question for you. I can only answer for myself, and hope that my investigation can help you in yours.
I don’t know about you, but I have a future that I simply cannot relinquish, no matter how hard I try. I have so many things I want to do in the future–things that I find so big and impactful and super fly and life-changing that they immediately dwarf out any little thing I’m tempted to do in the present. Those temptations–some effortlessly realized, others socially promoted, even more just-oh-so-freaking-tempting–always win in the moment, it seems. But they lose when put in the context of time. “How will this thing, this action, make me a better person in one week? In one year? In five years?” It won’t. Why would I do it, then?
And people always take that from a different angle, “College is the time to be irresponsible, to do something I wouldn’t be able to later, because when I’m older, I’ll have different responsibilities and a different role in life.” Will you? Will you have those roles, those responsibilities? Because right now, because of what you’re doing…it’s looking like you won’t.
If you truly want those responsibilities and those roles, earn them. Start working on them now, start doing what is necessary to ensure their arrival and to ensure that you are as good with those responsibilities and those roles as you can possibly be.
“Because I want to.”
How common a phrase–and how disproportionately weighted it is. “Because I want to” sounds so stinkin’ real, doesn’t it? It just sounds regular and okay and reasonable.
Think of the five people in the world you admire the most. Think about this: for what reason do you admire them? Do they always do what they want to do? Or did they rather become who they wanted to become, and in that realization, they are now able to do everything they ever dreamed of doing?
I think we get stuck in that maddening oscillation–leaping to our feet in the pigpen, clicking our heels, and taking a few steps before falling flat in the mud once again–because we’re still not good at seeing the father’s house. There are too many distractions, temptations, between here and the father’s house. I think that statement will be true from now until we’re 80, too–I don’t think adulthood magically bequeaths you (I said bequeath!) with the ability to juke out the temptations and distractions on the way to the father’s house. I simply think, as you get older, you get a little wiser, a little shiftier, on every failed attempt.
So why keep failing? Why not just wallow in the pigpen?
Because we have a future we cannot relinquish–an ideal for tomorrow that validates, and even redeems the struggles of today. Because there’s a house on a hill, illumined by light, that cannot be hidden. Because we were taught there is a kingdom, a paradise, and we are not willing to lose that, not for the world, in all of its pigpen-ness.
So, I beseech you, check in with yourself. Take a few minutes, put your phone deliberately away, sit in silence and check in. Answer the tough questions: Who are you? Where are you–the pigpen, the father’s house, or on the way? Are you willing to continue picking yourself up from out of the pigpen? What concrete things are you going to do on this journey, to make it just a little further than the last?
We’ve got this. In the immortal words of the Hand of the King, Ned Stark, winter (break) is coming.