“What are you going to do when you grow up?” A torment we pose to children.
“What are you going to do after graduation?” The torment we impose on the most vulnerable of young adults. This insufferable question is one that is posed to my students, and most young people in this country over, and over, and over again.
20- and 21-year olds are confronted with it constantly. “What are you going to do with that major?” “Yeah, but how is that going to help you in the real world?”
I am amused by it, because it assumes that they (and we) are in fact going to grow up. I see a lot of people who have never grown up around me. It is not that they are child-like. They are just… un-grown-up.
Education used to be different. Before education was about acquiring a set of skills, before it was preparation for a job, it was a meditation on the meaning of life and death.
Before education was about being pre-medicine, pre-law, pre-business, it was about becoming human. Education was about becoming. It was a meditation on death, on mortality, and on life. More than that, it was a meditation on living. Living well. Living beautifully.
Education was a meditation on what it means to be human, on knowledge of the self, and our connection to the human community and the natural cosmos.
Now, we expect 21-year olds to figure out their place in this world when most of us supposed adults have no clue where we fit in. We expect them to bring their educational journey to a zenith. We expect them to be applying for jobs, graduate and professional schools, and internships. Many of them are dealing with figuring out the most important romantic relationships they have had in their lives. And we expect them to sort out all of these important decisions at the same time.
How many of us supposed grownups have sorted these things out? And how many of us have negotiated these decisions gracefully and simultaneously? How many of us know who and what we are? Who among us knows the worth of our own soul?
So what do we have to say to the 21-year-old college students, and to the still-not-grown up? Here are a few words of compassion: Relax, my dear. Breathe deeply. You are loved.
The career is what you do in life. But the key question is who you are as a human being.
It doesn’t matter to me who you work for in your life. I wanna know what gives meaning to your living. It doesn’t matter to me where you live. I wanna know what you are living for. It doesn’t matter to me what school you went to. I wanna know what values you are living by, how you are serving the ones who have loved you, and how you are treating the most vulnerable people in your community.
I want you to be generous with yourselves.
I remind my students that Jesus didn’t become Christ till he was 30. And then I tell them: “You ain’t any cooler than Jesus.”
I show them that Siddhārtha Gautama was 35 when he became awakened as The Buddha. And I tell them: “You ain’t any more enlightened then the Buddha.”
I tell them that Muhammad didn’t become the Prophet till he was 40. And I tell them: “You ain’t any more luminous than Muhammad.”
If it took these luminous souls till 30, 35, 40 to sort out what they were going to do with their lives, what makes you think you’re gonna figure it all out by 21? Or 25? For that matter, if you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and you still feel like you’ve got some ripening to do, be patient and kind with your own self.
Take it slow…
It’s not about getting “there.”
It’s about the path you are on
And the company you have on the path.
You have immense power and beauty
There is a light within you
That shines bright.
The only way for you to abandon that power
Is to think you have none.
The only way you can hide your light under a bushel
Is to occupy yourself with decisions that are the task of a lifetime.
Be kind to one another
And to your own selves
Hold each others’ hands
And let’s walk together
No, never alone.
There is a light within you.