The Stones sang that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” back in 1969. But for some reason we keep telling our children that they can and if not it is somebody else’s fault.
One of my favorite editorial writers is Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News. I usually agree with his views and that is likely a concern for Rod. I occasionally disagree with his columns and sometimes strongly. But I like Dreher’s articles because they are always thoughtful and graceful. He can state a strong opinion without being a divisive flamethrower. Sadly, that is becoming a lost art. His most recent column was another good one. Dreher wrote about those ridiculously hopeful graduation speeches. Here is the opening paragraph.
The bad news, high school graduates, is that you can’t have it all. You aren’t as free as you think you are. Sorry, but no matter what optimistic flapdoodle your commencement speaker tells you, that’s the truth.
First of all, kudos for the use of “flapdoodle” in a sentence. The word dates back to 1833 and means “the stuff they feed fools on” or, if you wish to be kinder, nonsense. Dreher is right. You really can’t be anything you want. Shaquille O’Neal can’t be a jockey in the Kentucky Derby no matter how much he dreams or hopes. All the horses certainly hope that is true. I realize that there are things I simply cannot do. I will never be a rocket scientist unless they eliminate that pesky math requirement. Back to Mr.Dreher’s column.
What’s more, unless you’re an incurable romantic or an American politician, you eventually will learn that life is more tragic than you were led to believe. You will discover your own limits. You will fail at something, even if you succeed by the standards of the world. That failure may save you; success may destroy you.
Nobody really wants to hear that on graduation day but everyone needs to hear those truths at some point and hopefully early in the journey. If I were asked to speak to young grads (not likely) I would tell them some things I wish I had known at their age. I would talk about my faith so that would rule me out of most venues. And even if I got to speak I suspect there would be a lot of texting going on from a restless audience. But maybe a couple of them would hear some things that they will have to figure out eventually.
1. I wish I had known that my high school years did not define me at all
My teen years were a mixed bag of memorable highs and incredible lows. Now I realize that what I once considered some of the worst moments of my life I am grateful for experiencing. In many of those spiritual valleys you could not have begun to convince me that God was molding me or that those experiences could ever be of value. I knew the scripture just as you likely do…that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. I now realize that mere knowledge of that promise is not enough. It comes down to our foundational belief of who God is. Do we believe His Word? I mean really believe His Word? That He will actually cause even the worst event to somehow work for ours or someone else’s good? That requires faith in a God that is trustworthy.
I have developed a heart of compassion for those who are wounded. Why? God gave me the privilege of being wounded early in my life. That sounds crazy as I read back over that last sentence. It is not a sentence that I would have written twenty or perhaps even ten years ago. But I can see that my struggles as an overweight, geeky and generally outcast adolescent molded my heart to empathize with those who are hurt and ostracized by their peers.
Had I been the coolest guy or the best athlete or the most handsome I most likely would not have developed a sensitive spirit to others. So God gave me the opportunity on all of those fronts to develop sensitivity. I did not enjoy that period of my life. I would have given anything at that time to be one of the really popular kids. I would have told you that I would gladly trade nearly anything on the spot to be the starting quarterback or the big man on campus. I was desperate to be part of the cool group. With the benefit of hindsight I can promise you that I am grateful for every refining difficulty and problem. Such a dramatic change in attitude is a matter of time, growth in my relationship with Jesus and my trust in the truth of His promises. As G.K.Chesterton wryly noted, “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.” Had I been freed the burden of my “hump” (that tough teenage passage), I would not be who I am today.
2. I wish I had known that I needed to decide in advance what I would do in tough situations
Most of my mistakes as a teen were made in moments of peer pressure that I was not prepared to address. Joni and I tried to teach our sons that you decide in advance what your response will be to temptation. Decide in advance that you will call for a ride when asked to get in the car with a drinking driver. Decide in advance to not get yourself into a situation where sexual temptation will be an issue. Decide in advance that you will be kind to the less popular no matter how the “cool” kids view that action. Decide in advance to trust God as you make decisions that you fear might lessen your popularity or status. In the moment you tend to make wrong decisions so make them in advance and then stand firm.
3. I wish I had known that every person is created in God’s image…and He loves them just as much as He loves me
Sparky Anderson, a former Cincinnati Reds manager, once said that “you can never go wrong being classy.” And you can never go wrong being kind to everyone. Sometimes you will be tempted to ridicule or tease those who are less attractive, intelligent, gifted or cool. Don’t do it. If you can accept the advice of a guy who has been to a 25th High School reunion I can tell you this. Some of those “losers” are the “winners” now. They have wonderful families and lives. Some of the kids I was desperate to be like are still living off of moldy high school memories. High school is the start of a very long journey. Some people seem to be leading the life race coming out of high school but they often falter by the first turn. The real winners know that life is a marathon and that God has a plan for that long race. Be kind to everyone. Jesus loves them. And so should you.
4. I wish I had known that nothing outside of who I am in Christ can make me cool
There is nothing wrong with desiring to wear clothes and shoes that are fashionable. There is nothing wrong with being in activities that are popular. But it is wrong to think that those clothes or shoes or activities make you better than others. I really wish I had known that going along with the group and doing wrong things did not make me cool. I wish I had realized in high school that people look at those things but God looks on the heart. It is your heart that makes you who you are, not your outfit or activities or “rebellious” moments.
5. I wish I had known in high school that I needed to take responsibility for my own actions
Learn now to say these three sentences.
I was wrong.
I am sorry.
And keep your “but” out of those statements. Don’t say “I was wrong ‘but’ I didn’t think it would hurt you” or “I am sorry ‘but’ I was having a bad day.” Those are not real apologies. Take responsibility. Live with integrity. That will make you unique in this culture of it is never my fault.
6. I wish I had known in high school that the 2nd most important decision I would make is who my friends were
Your friends have an influence on who you are and who you become. Pick them carefully. Young Christians often think they can influence their friends for Christ if they keep hanging out with them. Be careful that you don’t lose the balance of the fellowship and encouragement of Christian friends. Prayerfully seek a balance between the two. But understand that friends are a critical factor in your life and they will influence who you are…good or bad.
7. The most important decision I will ever make is who or what I serve
Everyone one worships something or someone. It can be money or power or fame or popularity. I believe we are created to worship God. We have a yearning from our birth to find our purpose and significance. But if you don’t find that relationship in Christ you will tend to fill it with wrong things. Often those things are not inherently bad. But they can become bad things when they become the focus instead of Jesus. We used to sing a camp song with these lyrics..
Seek ye first the kingdom of God
And His righteousness
And all these things shall be added unto you
There is nothing wrong with these “things” when you seek the kingdom of God first. One of my favorite passages is in the book of Colossians. Paul outlines what it looks like to be a real Christian. Living these five little verses will change your life.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:12–17, NLT)
Rod Dreher finished his column with these words.
You don’t fully control your fate, but you do control the formation of your character. That matters in ways we cannot foresee and can only appreciate once we lose the illusion that we are self-created. George Eliot ended her novel Middlemarch with a line about the effect, over time, of ordinary goodness lived out by ordinary people like us: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Good stuff. I may not be famous but I can be faithful. Our culture is built on people like that. Ordinary and good people doing the right and kind thing every day without fanfare. There is great value in living a life with those ideals. Go for your dreams but remember your significance as a unique creation and your responsibility to one another. I promise you that is not balderdash.