I have developed an uncanny ability to notice things in my students which I would never have recognized in myself. This week I have been struck by the way in which we- both they and I- have absorbed the belief that we can be and have whatever we want, if only we work hard enough. This is a kind of story, a myth, which has framed our lives from the time we were young: “You can be anyone!” “With a good education there are no limits!” “Choose the right career and you will find the real you!”
With the myth of control and self-sufficiency, we’ve come to believe that we can only really find contentment and satisfaction in our lives if we choose the right education and career paths. This is our vocation and we cannot be whole without it. But, as one student remarked wryly over lunch this week, “They tell us that, but it isn’t true. It’s a lie.”
It’s no wonder, then, that students deal with such debilitating stress and anxiety, switching majors on a regular basis, and creating long waiting lists for career counselling and personal therapy. Of course, there are compounded reasons for these things, but I’m convinced that the pressure to end up in the right career is a huge factor.
I’ve found that international students are often under a different kind of pressure, one which is more about financial provision and family honour than it is about personal contentment. I spoke with one Chinese student this week, an only child, whose dream is to stay in Canada and be a social worker. Unfortunately, this is likely impossible because tradition dictates that she return to her aging parents and pursue a degree more likely to land her a job back in China. My student tells me she thinks she’ll go into accounting instead and I tell her I can’t imagine giving up the dream of social work to sit in an office all day working with numbers instead of people. But she doesn’t seem to share my concern, telling me that if she is home with her family, she will be happy. She will be content.
It seems that for my student, contentment is a choice which doesn’t rely on her ending up in a dream job and realizing her fullest potential to change the world. Her attitude reminds me of St. Paul, who tells the Corinthians that he has learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, no matter what life throws his way. Contentment, for Paul, is a gift from God (and a choice), not a by-product of a perfect education and career path.
I fear that even in the church we have begun to live by the myth of self-sufficiency instead of choosing contentment in all circumstances. As a chaplain, I sometimes wonder if my “greatest potential” is being fulfilled in a part time position and I encourage my students to make choices that will aid them on the path to self-discovery and progress.
Yet in Advent we are reminded that our greatest attempts to be self-made continue to fall short of the joy for which we’ve been created. Not even the best education and a dream career can help us to become our true selves. Instead, as our mystics and monastics teach us, contentment is found in resting in the present moment, knowing that God is in control and that being in control is not our business. We are free to be truly human, which means resting in the palm of the gentle Creator-God, the one who came into the world at Christmas to walk alongside us as one of us because he knew that our attempts to be self-made would never be enough.
What if “self-discovery” and “progress” are really about learning to rest in the One who is coming, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in? Could it be that contentment really has nothing to do with our external circumstances and everything to do with letting go of the myth that we are in control? Perhaps if we can learn this practice as a Church, just as Paul did, we will be ready to welcome the One we call to be King and Judge, knowing that when we rest in God’s hand we become our true selves.