BY MICHAEL GOOD
I am writing this in response to a conversation we had not long ago. Ever since we talked, I couldn't stop thinking about what you said. You told me that you were tired, but not just running low on sleep because let’s face it, who isn’t? You were tired of work and feeling like you were going nowhere, tired of feeling like what you were doing would never be enough. Looking around campus, it seems like everyone else's plans are falling right into place, but for the two of us the future seems far cloudier. Sometimes I wonder why on earth we are even doing this. Where is the reward for all of this work and exhaustion? How do we know if this is what we are supposed to do? It would be easy to sit here and ask question after question, spiraling into an existential fog, but I’m writing to you now because I think satisfying answers do exist.
Let us first consider our motivations to work. Here at Hopkins, it is expected that we work as hard as we can because we will do anything we need to achieve our professional or academic goals. If we just work hard enough, we tell ourselves, then life will work out in the end. It certainly doesn’t feel that way now, I know. The unfortunate reality is that often our own attempts to solve our questions only serve to reinforce the problem at hand. In fact, when my biggest goals are in jeopardy, I often panic and desperately search for another, equally destructive goal to pursue and hope in. Instead of envisioning my future as being perfectly in place, I constantly narrow my focus and turn to short-term projects. “If I can just do well on this test then everything will be alright,” or “If only I can make my parents proud this week, then all of this will be worth it.” These are feelings we have both expressed in the past and they feel real even now as I write. It is difficult to imagine how these motivations, both near and far, may be problematic because, in fact, they are both inherently good. No one can argue that having good grades and desiring to honor our parents are not valuable. But as we have witnessed, these goals often leave us wanting. What we had hoped to bring us happiness instead leaves us depressed. With each successful step in the right direction we find that our finish line is simply moving farther away. We can never win. So there we sit, tired and questioning whether this struggle is really worth it at all.
In a cosmic sense it seems unjust that all of this search for happiness should leave us lacking. But perhaps we are simply searching in the wrong way. Perhaps the problem is that we are trying to discover transcendently satisfying qualities only through things that we can accomplish—goals that are ultimately unattainable.
In the midst of these hypotheticals often I imagine myself lost in a forest clearing. There are many roads before me and I cannot see very far down any of them. Even worse, regardless of the path I choose, I always return to the same spot, more tired and confused than before. Inevitably, my food and energy will run out, and I do not have time to explore every possibility. In life I think we often find ourselves in clearings just imagined, each time taking a path and claiming “Surely this must be the right one…” and each time finding ourselves back where we started only more worn down than before.
The crazy thing is that this wandering and struggle to find the correct way is a central theme in the whole story of Christianity. The narrative arc highlights man’s feeble attempts to find fulfillment in his own good works and God’s call to find abundant life in his creator. This may surprise you. I know when most people think of Christianity the last thing that comes to mind is fulfillment. Many students think it is only a set of rules we must follow to earn God’s favor and love. Thankfully, this is not true. The focus is rather on how God already loves us, before we even could act sinfully or otherwise. Jesus Christ’s whole life and death was spent calling people to follow this Truth. In fact, he routinely spoke against the religious leaders of the time who had mistakenly devoted their entire lives to upholding rote laws rather than loving God. In reference to this group of people, Jesus even said: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He doesn’t desire moral action, but rather something far more intimate.
In my first semester here at Hopkins I experienced this abundance of life firsthand. I came into college as many people here do, riding the inflated grades of high school and ready to dominate as I had before. Because of this, I was emotionally crushed when I failed my very first midterm. The event forced me to question things in the same terms our conversation brought us to. The struggle made no sense: after all I had experienced, this failure still happened. “Did I even belong here?” “Maybe people will finally find out that I’m not that intelligent at all.”
Luckily, the weekend following the test I went to a retreat with a Christian group on campus out in the middle of Maryland. The conference’s topic escapes me, but while I was there and away from the distractions of school I had the opportunity to reflect for the first time on the questions we both share. In short, I made a decision during that weekend. Before that time I hadn’t looked into how Christianity or God might fit into my life on a deeper, emotional level; the idea of Christianity and God were relegated to intellectual pursuits. It’s not that I didn’t believe it, but more that I had kept it compartmentalized. Something changed though. I began to wonder what it would look like if I seriously trusted God in my everyday life. I returned to school with this renewed focus; I wanted to instead trust God with where my life was going rather than my own efforts.
To say everything turned around instantly would be a lie. My freshman year was still a hard one, as well as the following years, but gradually I’m learning that when my grades don’t work out there is still hope. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 the Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus once said to His followers: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He then concludes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” This passage directly informs us that Jesus’s words speak precisely about the circumstances we’re going through. Because of what Jesus said, even when I’m personally feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, I know God is with me and has a plan for me. This truth provides me a peace I feel that changes my perception of the world. I no longer live with the weight of wandering about aimlessly through forest paths; I now know that He is using my wanderings for something good. I realize that trying to get by on my own achievement was never going to make me happy in any way. On the contrary, it only leaves me feeling empty and upset, feeling like I am not good enough. Thankfully, through the grace of God, I’ve come to understand that God is ultimately in control. This fact has carried me through Hopkins. Now I honestly want you to experience this for yourself, but not because I believe I am better than you and my way is best. It’s not that at all. I dearly want you to find these answers that you’ve been searching for, to find the rest and coherence in life that you so deeply desire.
Please let me know if you would like to get dinner sometime, I’d love to talk with you about this again.
Until then, Michael