How to Change Your Life and Find Your World
The traffic in front of me inches forward. I grimace and check the clock. 4:06pm. Not yet rush hour, but in Toronto, even more than Los Angeles, every hour is rush hour. It's frustrating, but it's something you come to understand when you live here, if not fully accept. Not everyone accepts it however, and they whiz past me in the lane reserved for buses and taxis to my right. No one driving illegally in that lane seems to notice the others, like myself, waiting patiently in the other two lanes. No one seems upset by the notion that by 'jumping the queue', everyone else has to wait longer, including the people taking public transport, because there's no proper merge when the lane ends. I wonder if they even realize that they're in the wrong lane. Maybe they think we're all stupid for using the slower lanes.
A minivan slows beside me, and I glance over. A middle aged woman is frowning and chatting on her cell phone. Soon enough, she passes me. Next is a thirty something man in a suit driving a black and silver Hummer that looks ready for deployment. He sips his coffee. Doesn't notice the driver of the red Yaris (me) frowning at him from the middle lane. One by one they zip past, and all intent on arriving somewhere, regardless of the rules they have to break or the people they have to step over. I take a deep breath and let it go. There's no point in getting angry. Not only will it not solve anything, but if I really wanted to I could spend my entire life fuming over repeated incidents like that. People cutting in lines. People parking in handicap spots so they don't have to walk the extra twenty feet. Or in the case of my apartment building, people smoking in the elevator. The list in endless. The real question is why. Why do people act selfishly? Don't they realize that by doing so, they'll never find the world that God intended for them? Oh, I know some people will argue that its simply about parents and their influence, and how we were raised. It's a strong argument, and I think that it has some merit. But can you really make the case that an able bodied, fifty year old man who parks his Mercedes in a handicap spot is doing it because he was raised poorly? Surely there has to be more to it than that…
The 1993 movie, Rudy, is based on a true story about a young man (Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger) who pursues his dream (playing football for Notre Dame) against the wishes of his family. For them, the thought of someone pursuing a dream only brings pain. In a telling scene about a third of the way through the movie, Rudy's father recounts to him the story of his own father, who suddenly decided to become a dairy farmer, lost everything, and abandoned his family. "Chasing a stupid dream brings nothing but heartache for you and everyone around you." He says. Rudy's father is not trying to be mean; he is merely trying to help his son see "the real world." No one in his family had ever even gone to college, let alone a rich school like Notre Dame. In this case, Rudy's father lives in a very different world than his son. He makes the mistake of thinking that his world is the only world, and that to keep his son safe, he must bring his young "dreamer" there.
Families do this all the time. Sometimes its love and sometimes it is vindictive, but it is nearly always damaging. We make the mistake of thinking that the world we see and experience is somehow objective, that it exists as something separate and apart from us. And so we try to ensure that everyone, but especially those close to us, share our experience. Unfortunately, it's like wearing someone else's clothes, and no matter how hard we try, they never quite fit the same. Worse, that world will never belong to us, and when we finally realize that it doesn't, we will spend our lives trying to please other people, trying on different experiences from people who insist that they have found the "only way." Within families, this often plays out with children assuming expected roles that make parents and grandparents, but also siblings and cousins, feel comfortable.
In the movie, Rudy refuses to accept his father's world. And when he finally gets his letter of acceptance from Notre Dame after two years of scrounging and hard work at the nearby Junior College, he immediately takes it to his dad. His father is shocked, and proudly announces over the loudspeakers to the guys at the mill that "My son is going to Notre Dame!"
Following Rudy's example, a number of his younger family members (extended family) end up graduating from college as well. His world was a very different place from that of his father, and what had previously been considered impossible by his family, was suddenly not only possible, but probable.
There's a great deal of interest in fantasy these days. Whether its vampires or (boy) wizards or hobbits, people seem drawn to relatively simple tales set in other worlds. Cultural experts might point to a number of reasons, anything from escapism to the increasing complexity of a technological world and the simplicity inherent in these fantasy worlds. I'd suggest another reason, specifically, the lure of a world outside our own, a world that perhaps fits better than the one in which we currently choose to exist. A world where life has not already been decided for us, a world where we can go back and make new choices, a world in which our dreams can become reality.
It sounds so simple, doesn't it? So naïve. And haven't writers like Malcolm Gladwell and other sociologists debunked the notion of 'picking ourselves up by our bootstraps'? Yes. And no. Yes, it is impossible to pick ourselves up by 'our bootstraps'. No, it isn't impossible to change our world. The problem is that we associate the world God has for us with the ones we see on TV in the lives of celebrities and the people, like J.K. Rowling, who not only fulfilled their dreams, but became wealthy and famous as a result. But the goal of life is not riches, as the unhappiness of the rich has been documented in countless studies. And if you asked Rowling about her success, I'm sure she would say that the greatest thing about Harry Potter was not the money or the fame, but knowing what she accomplished, what she had given to people, while pursuing her passion.
Finding the world God has for us hinges on our pursuit of two things: the first is that we must pursue what is right, and the second is that we must discover our passion(s) in life and pursue those. Every act of selfishness, like smoking in the elevator or cutting someone off, makes our world is bit more gray. Pointing our lives in the direction of others however, and teaching ourselves to be conscious of other people and their wants and needs, moves us closer to that place of contentment. Numerous studies have been done the past twenty years to back up these claims. In his book, Born to be Good, Dacher Keltner calls it our Jen ratio. Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius, and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity and respect that transpires between people. Of course, Jesus too, reflected and taught these ideals. (And for Christians, embodied them in enduring death for our sins.) However, the pursuit of a higher Jen ratio is not enough to find that place, that world we long for… we must also pursue our passions. You may not believe, as I do, that we were all put here with a purpose in mind, but if you reflected on your life, I'm sure you can recall moments where time suddenly didn't exist, when everything felt right around you. Perhaps it was hosting a family dinner. Or working with a group of kids after school. Or building a new shed. Those moments are your beacons to Your World. Those moments are the final clue to where you need to be, and how you should arrive.
Change can be daunting. I've met a number of people through the years who would rather stay in a world that is not their own, a world created by their families or friends or the culture around them. Part of that is impatience. We want to be Harry Potter, accomplished wizard, instead of Harry Potter, boy wizard struggling to get along with his classmates in a new environment. But mostly that's because we think of change as a BIG thing. Huge sweeping alterations to our lives. Change however, much like Our World, the one we long for, is found entirely in the details. It is found in our decision to stop spending so much time at work so we can spend time with our family. It is found in our decision to take the burned piece of toast without telling our spouse, so he or she will get the one cooked right. It's about taking some time to really think about what we want to do with our lives, figuring out what we love, and pursuing it to the best of our ability. Change is process, and comes slowly. Change is not in when we arrive, but how we get there. And it happens within the details of our lives. Every time we switch into the illegal lane because everyone else is doing it, every time we park in a spot that is reserved for the handicapped, and every time we shrug our shoulders and accept the lie that we will never achieve our dreams or that hope is dead, we reject the world that God has for us, the one shining beyond the next horizon.
It's cold tonight. The wind blows hard against my face and hands as I look out in the twilight. Christmas lights twinkle from some of the balconies in the apartment building across the street. I tuck my hands into my parka and exhale, unable to keep from smiling. I hope the snow stays for Christmas. It always seems right somehow. Cars move slowly on the winding road down below. I'm glad to be in for the night. I haven't bought my Christmas gifts yet this year, largely because I can't afford it. Times have been a little tougher this fall for my wife and I, but I'm hoping that the next two weeks will go smoothly enough to make up for it. If I worked more of course, it wouldn't be an issue. But doing so would limit my time to write, and my world, the one I am slowly discovering, and the one I believe God has for me, would change. I don't know what God has in store for the future, and whether the time spent writing will one day result in publication, let alone wealth or even compensation. What I do know however, is that I love my world. It is not the world of my parents or friends or even my wife. But I can sense God's hand on it, and His smile in what I do. For a long time I thought that such a world would be impossible to find, but it's there, and I'm here to tell you that it's there for you as well. Just remember, God is in the details, and while change may seem a lifetime away, it begins as soon as you take your first step. From there, just follow the road, and God will lead you the rest of the way.