How Convictions Affect Your Life-Outcomes
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Even though it has been many years since my high school graduation, I still remember certain things very clearly. I can recall how I felt: excited about the future, yet somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead. Like most young people, I was full of ideas about how to make my future a good one. My goals involved making and spending some money during the coming summer and then off to college in the fall. But at the time of my graduation, the future was still a big blank. Would I do well in college? Would I have to go to Viet Nam like some of my older friends? Would I be getting married? Would I like the job or career that I chose? Would I have any fun?
All members of graduating classes think similar kinds of things about the future. There is a generous mixture of excitement and sorrow; hope and fear. In pondering about life in general over the past few years, it seems to me that life tends to progress through three stages after high school is completed. At each stage, there are some perks and some uncertainties. How we do in each of the stages is directly influenced by what we fundamentally believe. As I see it, the three stages of adult life are as follows: 1) Getting Started; 2) Mid Life; and 3) The Downhill Slide. I offer the insights I have gained in the first two stages of my adult life as a gift to those just beginning the journey.
Before I outline the stages of adult life as I have observed them, I must explain what I mean by fundamental beliefs. At any point in life’s journey, we operate from the basis of certain rock-solid conclusions we have come to about the way reality is. Obviously, personality and early training will have already shaped those deeply-held convictions. Religious commitments will also have contributed to the formation of how you see the world.
But along with these shapers of a person’s world view, are certain key choices all of us have made as we have encountered the mixed experiences of our lives. For example, we have chosen to believe that the outlook for our lives is basically hopeful or basically dark; that people can be trusted (more or less) or that they probably cannot be. We have chosen to believe that there is a God who is good and caring and wise or that whatever beings or forces there may be are not particularly interested in our welfare. We have also chosen either to follow along with what we have been told by others about these matters, or to think for ourselves. All of this is what I mean by fundamental beliefs. These beliefs will act as a compass as we navigate the uncharted seas we must cross into the future.
Your fundamental beliefs determine how you will face the uncertainty and the challenges of beginning your adult life. In the first five-to-fifteen years you will begin a life that is very different from the one you have known in your teen years. Some will begin to pursue higher education. Others will enlist in the military. Still others will enter some sort of employment. For a significant percentage of high school graduates, marriage and family will accompany these things somewhere along the line. You will find yourself stretched and challenged on levels you may not even imagine at the moment.
Along with the thrill of these new experiences come certain questions: Who am I now? Can I survive the new set of expectations placed on me? How can I prepare myself to succeed? Am I enjoying life in this phase? Are my relationships working as I want them to? At the time, there are no answers to those questions: only time and the choices you make will provide them. What you profoundly believe about the nature of things will directly determine the choices you make and the manner in which you react to the circumstances you will face. Your fundamental beliefs will make all the difference between success and failure in how you start out. They will color the way in which you define success and failure.
The Mid Life. What you profoundly believe to be true will determine how you survive the inevitable disillusionments of middle life. After fifteen or twenty years, the bulk of the new beginnings will have been made. You will probably have completed your education. The aspect of marriage and family will have at least been attempted. Careers will be proceeding along their course. You may find that you are doing very well. But watch out for this: you will probably wake up one day to realize that you are forty years old (much to your dismay) and, amazed, you will ask yourself how this could have possibly happened.
Then life gets busy again and you find that you are approaching that huge milestone of your fiftieth year. It will seem impossible that so much time has passed. Somewhere in there, you may experience what has been called a mid-life crisis. Besides feeling the effects of getting older, certain questions you have not been willing to face now must be answered, such as: Have I spent the past couple of decades wisely? Am I making any significant impact on those around me? Have I been a contributor to the world or a merely taker of what the world has to offer? Have my choices made me happy? Can I afford to make a significant change at this point in my journey?
It may be that you will find yourself in a job or career that is very frustrating and you can’t see yourself going on with things as they are. Maybe your family life is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. You might experience health problems or the loss of someone very near and dear. You may have failed in some area of your life to which you have devoted much of your energy and ego. When things like this happen, many people ask, “Is this what life is all about? Is this what I must accept as the result of all my preparation, plans and effort.” The middle phase of your life allows you to truly experience life in its reality. It is also in this phase that you realize that some of your youthful dreams will never come to fruition.
The Downhill Slide. Again, what you believe will guide you through the your final years. OK, so you get through the midlife eventually, finishing your career and raising your family. The open road before you now is nearing its end. As you savor your accomplishments and rewards, you are beginning to evaluate your journey. Here is a typical scenario: For the most part, the younger generation will not bother to come to you for your advice or expertise. It is very likely that health problems will suddenly increase. More and more of your friends and loved ones will die, leaving you feeling very much alone. In some ways, the sadness you may have experienced periodically before this will become a much more prevalent theme.
As you realize these things, a new set of questions rises in your mind with some urgency: Have I spent my life well? Did I truly love anyone? Of the things I regret, are there ways I can still make some of them right? What comes next (if anything)? If you are a believer in God, you will also wonder whether he is pleased with you.
Obviously, what you firmly believe about the way life is, makes a huge difference in how you answer those questions. It can make the difference between an embittered old age, or finishing your productive years as a blessing to those around you. Your convictions can either take away the fear of death or leave you looking at the end of your life as just that—the end.
So, what are the options? In a society like ours, where we are free to choose, the options are many. I can’t begin to even mention them all, nor would I particularly want to. My own choices have included the decision to believe that God is good and that whatever has befallen me has been within his loving plan. That means that I believe my life has a purpose, which I may choose to fulfill or not. For me, it has meant that loving as God loves (expressed in Christ) is among the supreme virtues, that success in life is defined very differently from the definitions of others, and that I can have a sense of contentment not available to those whose beliefs may be different from mine.
Basic beliefs do matter. They make all the difference in how you face things; how you go about dealing with things. Beliefs make a difference in the goals you set and how you fulfill them. They make a difference in how you evaluate your life at the end. No one would expect an eighteen-year old to have a fully-formed set of convictions. The process of forming convictions may continue for some time into adulthood. Certainly your beliefs as a young adult will be sharpened and perhaps modified through the ups and downs of your future. But now is a good time to take stock of what you do believe, at least so far. There is always time to adjust, adapt and learn as time carries you forward. It is never too late to decide to trust a benevolent God, despite what the circumstances of your life may be saying at the moment.
My wish is that your life may be full of joy and goodness and love. I hope you have some fun along the way. I urge you to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Don’t forget your family and friends. The years will get away from you before you realize it, so at least settle your basic beliefs now. Yes, we can set goals and, to some degree, influence the course of our lives. But there is a side of life that cannot be planned or directed by anything we may choose. In some ways, life will just happen to each of us. When it does, the only choice that remains is how we will think about these circumstances and how we will behave as a result. In those times, what you deeply believe makes all the difference!
This essay was originally given as the speech at my eldest daughter Andrea’s baccalaureate service as a part of graduation week at Lemoore (California) High School, June, 1999.