A wise pastor by the name of Chuck Swindoll once said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”. I would like to take a step back from that statement and add (completely without Mr. Swindoll’s permission), “How you react to life has a whole lot to do with your expectations.” Let’s think about a kid on Christmas morning. This kid receives a pair of fancy new headphones. How does he react? Well it really depends on whether he was expecting a pony or a pair of socks. The kid who was expecting a pony is pretty bummed out about his headphones. Even if they’re cool, they’re nowhere near pony status. But the kid who was expecting a pair of socks? That kid is ecstatic. He hit the Christmas jackpot and cannot wait to try out his headphones. Same gift, very different reactions. And, by extension, very different Christmas experiences.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Life is hard. But here’s the problem. We are in a period of US history where it is possible– or at least it seems possible – to pretend that life isn’t actually hard at all. Those of us who are in the Gen Y or Millenial cohort (I’m right on the edge but will include myself for the sake of humility) grew up insulated from catastrophic world events. Our grandparents were part of the Greatest Generation, who weathered the Depression and World War II. Our parents, raised by those Greatest Generation folks, were taught (perhaps to the extreme) that life is hard and requires hard work. As a result, the Baby Boomer generation is known for their group work ethic and willingness to invest time, money, and energy for the delayed gratification of financial and social stability. Enter: Gen Y and Millenials. World War II is now two generations removed from our collective memory. Our parents did pretty well and managed to give us comfortable childhoods and to instill a sense of optimism about the future. We’ve been told that we can do anything that we put our minds to. If we return to the Christmas morning image, we have been raised to expect that life will shower us with ponies. We want to do something special, be something special, follow our passions, and live life to the fullest.
Here’s the problem: we will often find ourselves living rather mundane lives, low on the passion scale. And that does not mean that we are doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean that we need to work harder for self actualization. It just means that we have moved from the realm of fantasy into reality. And the harsh truth is: we are not that special.
Now please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I believe that people were made in the image of the Almighty God and are therefore, in many ways, unbelievably special. But we Millenials need to rethink our definition of that word. Special does not necessarily mean rich, famous, and vocationally successful. It certainly doesn’t mean happy and fulfilled at all times. It does mean that each of us has particular talents and gifts that can be used for particular purposes. But here’s the thing: I would contend that those purposes are wrapped up in something much bigger than self-actualization. Let’s think about some of the people who have become household names because of their life accomplishments – Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Would we say that any of those legendary figures lived incredible lives of self-actualization? On the contrary, each of these lives is marked by a willingness to live sacrificially for the good of others. Let’s take a more mundane example. If you’ve ever seen the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” you know the story of George Bailey. George dreamed of self-actualizing adventure. He wanted to travel and see the world, break out of the small town where he had been born and raised. And yet, through circumstances outside his control, he finds himself again and again held back from his dreams and pouring his lifeblood into that very town he so desperately wished to escape. Eventually George becomes so disillusioned with the difficulties of this oh-so-real life of his that he considers suicide. And in that moment of despair and hopelessness, he is shown the truth: that his life of service touched, in beautiful and loving ways, the lives of everyone else in that town. George lived a life of love and, in the end, he decided that that was a life well worth living.
I would add that a hefty amount of self-actualization also took place in George Bailey by accident – perhaps more than would have happened if he had managed to become a world traveler. Because self-actualization really has nothing to do with fame, success, or even happiness. On a literal level, self-actualization means that we are learning the truth about ourselves. Unfortunately, the Millenial methods of self-actualization are often counterproductive – they hide the truth rather than reveal it. If we are intent on living lives full of novelty, social stimulation, peer recognition, adrenalin, or whatever else we equate with that wispy notion of passion, we will fail to know and befriend huge parts of ourselves: the parts of us that can only be known in the context of deep interpersonal relationship or in long-term monotonous commitment to a goal or in the process of persevering through suffering. Those are the parts that George Bailey figured out without intending to. He learned what he was really made of in the trenches of life.
My purpose in writing this post is not to be a Debbie Downer to all you optimistic Millenials out there. Rather, I hope these words are an encouragement to anyone who has experienced a reality that looks very different from the fantasy. There are lots of real-life examples of expecting a pony and receiving headphones. Or, let’s be real, expecting a pony and receiving nothing at all. But by persevering through the harsh realities of life, building meaningful relationships, and acting out of love, we will begin to see what we are really made of. We will receive solid truth in place of wispy passion. And I will take the marred beauty of a solid truth over an ethereal mirage any day. Millenials, let’s start looking for actual self-actualization, shall we? We can handle the truth.