It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself. —CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON, Letters to My Students
It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. —MARGERY WILLIAMS, The Velveteen Rabbit
"Mr. Craig Dunham is entering the decade of Career, Kids, and Marriage!” So read the sign hanging on the door of my dorm room at the University of Missouri. These words, posted by the girl I was dating at the time, were also part of the first entry in my first-ever journal, dated February 5, 1991, the day I turned twenty.
While the sign seemed somewhat silly at the time, I think I missed its point. Career, kids, and marriage are all big things, sure, but they were just the tip of the iceberg of what was to come. You may not have had an embarrassing sign posted on your door on your twentieth birthday, but you might remember wondering what this new decade called “your twenties” would be like. And, like me, you may not have had a clue as to what you were getting yourself into.
Now when we say “your twenties,” we don’t mean to name a hard-and-fast delineation of time when we enter through one door and exit through another. That would mean you have exactly ten years to figure everything out and get going! We know that life does not necessarily respect age, nor does it give a rip as to how old or young we are when the proverbial poop begins to hit the fan. And since God made us different from one another, each of our experiences will be different.
But as different as people are, life is sometimes not quite as original. In other words, there are just some things (being on our own, figuring out what we believe, first job, first firing, career choices, car, house, getting married) that most of us encounter during our twenties. The reality is, most people experience more drastic life changes in their twenties than in any other stage of life, especially when we realize that marriage and kids and career—alone or in any combination—are going to be as much or more work than we thought they would be. With all these changes comes the need for good answers, and these good answers only come when we recognize our need for the right questions.
We trust that many of these issues are fresh in your mind. You’re probably realizing that life isn’t what you had expected in some areas and is far better than you had hoped it would be in others. How can we sort out these experiences and evaluate what we’re all going through? Just what is the right question to ask?
What’s the first question you were asked when you graduated from high school? We’ll bet money it wasn’t, “So, who are you going to become?” Are you kidding? It was, “So, what are you going to do now?” Although it’s a fine question, performance immediately becomes the topic of conversation, reinforcing our behavior to please externally rather than be aware of our internal self. As a result of this mind-set, a lot of people in their twenties have no idea of their gifts and abilities, spiritual or otherwise. They might have a well-documented résumé but not be able to answer questions such as, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
While we may have an innate desire to know who we are, we may sense a lack of true identity in a world consumed with titles, positions, and stereotypes. We may start to believe the lie that, in the midst of a ridiculously paced culture, we just don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. If it continues unchecked, this lack of time for reflection sets us up perfectly for the midlife crisis we’ve all heard about: We turn forty, change jobs, divorce our spouse, leave our kids, and run off with that cute guy or gal we met working out at Bally’s, in hopes of “finding ourselves” by starting all over again. Or, for a scenario that is a bit milder, we may start to wonder if we’ve been in the wrong job all these years, our self-image may take some serious blows as we start to confront our mortality, and we might withdraw into a shell of television every night so we don’t have to deal with any of these pounding thoughts.
Our twenties should not be as much about finding a job as about finding ourselves. Thus, the most important question to ask is not What do I do? but Who am I? This question can be difficult to answer because we may not know where to begin, but it is the key to understanding who God has made us and why—two important questions we need to answer in our twenties.
You may already be asking, “Who am I?” and perhaps you have attempted the “search for yourself” by way of experimentation—with drugs, sex, ideas, music, or rebellion. Whatever is different seems good in the quest for who you think you might be. In that scenario, however, who you are and who you are becoming comes not from within but from without.
The funny thing is, in answer to the question, Who am I? we’re prescribing the same treatment: experiment. But not with drugs, sex, and rebellion. Rather, with concepts, jobs, groups, and places. The goal isn’t to figure out the kind of person we want to be or the identity we think we should assume, but who it is God has made us to be and how he wants us to be identified. We need to experiment, to ask questions, and to explore to determine these things so that when we do commit ourselves to particular concepts, jobs, groups, and places, we’ll have the assurance we’re in the right place after all.
When we focus our energies on asking and answering the right questions, we begin to see what priorities we have or don’t have. Of course, we could overdo all this and go on a ten-year vision quest, but that isn’t quite what we’re talking about here. In a nutshell, we’re saying we should take the time to make the time to evaluate the time. We’re talking about, for instance, valuing experiences over promotions, character over titles, and understanding over production.
For example, say you’re presented with the opportunity to go to China for two years to teach English in an international school. Though you don’t really want to teach for a living, you should consider how going to China could help you answer the who-am-I question. You may not end up going, but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Consider the cultural difference it would make in your thinking if you walked on the Great Wall or came back with some deluxe chopsticks. Give some thought to the idea of returning to the United States and having great conversations with any one of the millions of Chinese people living here. Consider how such a trip would raise the bar in your evaluation of bad American Chinese restaurants.
Regardless of whether or not you go, you might find that if you can get out from under the pressure of the career track/corporate ladder to think for a moment about other options, you’ll learn something about yourself. China may or may not be the best thing that could happen to you in the long run.
The important thing is that you considered it as the possibility it could be. You thought through the decision in light of the who-am-I question.
How about character over titles? Which would you rather be: a sleazy corporate vice president or an honest busboy? Is the desire to drive a Beemer really worth the sacrifice of character sometimes required to fulfill it? We all know the answer is no, but living out that answer (and being content with the probable outcome of doing so) is tough. A content heart and a humble spirit don’t just happen. They take work, ultimately the work of Christ. At times character will cost us the titles, kudos, and perks we think we want.
Next, consider the balance between understanding and production. Many educational systems value the right answers in the right blanks. If we are raised primarily in that system, we might end up going through the motions to figure out what is on the “test” instead of learning the material and what it actually means. Sure, sometimes we just have to learn what’s required, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop there.
Other educational systems value exploration and creative problem solving, relying more on what you feel than on what you know. This can keep us from the reality that truth is independent of our experiences and emotions.
The point is to learn about the world in order to learn about ourselves and contribute a little something to civilization. This is a big deal, and now, not later, is the time to think about this stuff.
From childhood we’re raised with a presumed twelve to sixteen years of education as a standard prerequisite for “growing up.”3 As a result, we are accustomed to the idea that life is broken up into three- or four-year chunks (elementary, junior high, high school, college). We don’t think twice about it; this is just how it is.
It comes then as a bit of a shock when we realize that the majority of our lives are not so segmented by “the system,” and we are solely responsible for those years. Suddenly life seems short and our choices seem desperately critical.
We start focusing on mere survival. Commitment to anything becomes scary because we think we have so much to lose.
As we pursue work, career, and family, we need to relax and give ourselves permission to try different things and experience life for the first time on our own, not wallowing in desperation about those monumental decisions that “have” to be made. The reality is that where we go to college usually doesn’t come back to haunt us or “get us in” somewhere. We may make decisions based on what career path we think we want to travel or which ladder of success we think we want to climb, but the truth is, most people end up with a job that has only a slim connection with their college major. We may think something will be exciting, but instead it turns out to be excruciating.
We dread the idea of taking one opportunity, and lo and behold, something absolutely life changing ends up happening. Life and our enjoyment of it are simply not determined by the first decision we make, whether good or bad.
In their book Repacking Your Bags, Richard Leider and David Shapiro write:
Life is not meant to be linear. The path from birth to death is not a straight-line journey; it’s a zig-zag.… The linear point of view says first get an education, then work hard, then retire so you can finally begin living. But by that time, many people have forgotten how to live, or else they’re so exhausted by getting to where they’ve gotten that there’s no life left. The alternative is to live all your life as fully as possible. To challenge the existing script. To wander as opposed to sticking to the straight and narrow. Of course, this is scary and isn’t easy, as it means we have to continually ask questions about our life, our love, our work.
Let’s face it: If the average life span of a person is, say, seventy years, one or two years are not going to have that much of a detrimental impact on the overall outcome of our lives. Even if we forgo that internship we were offered, graduate late, take a year off to work, or do whatever else we’ve thought about doing, success and accomplishment are just not that dependent on our making every decision perfectly or within a self-induced time frame. Our view of God needs to be bigger than that.
We sometimes forget that some of the greatest people in history didn’t make their marks on the world until they hit their thirties, forties, fifties, or even sixties. Instead, we allow our culture to pressure us into having everything figured out and wrapped up in a nice, neat little package by the time we’re twenty-five years old. Is this realistic? Is this healthy? Is this how it usually works? We don’t think so.
We can’t adequately consider the answer to the question, Who am I? without the intention, encouragement, or structure with which to process it. And yet, as you’ve probably already experienced, in the workplace, the classroom, and even the church, personal development is not valued as much as personal production.
This should not be, but unfortunately we don’t see things changing anytime soon—unless the change begins with us.
It can be a frightening proposition. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the hobbits are lost in the forest, and Aragorn is trying to figure out if his small troop should undertake the dangerous task of going after them. Finally, after some consideration, he says to his friends, “There are some things that are better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” So it is with us.
None of us knows what lies ahead. We’ll probably experience amazing times of rapturous joy as we live life to the fullest as well as times of anguish when we wonder if we can exit the bed once more in the morning. In a sense, we don’t have a choice to stop completely and get our lives together because life happens regardless, but in another way we can take Aragorn’s challenge and begin the journey of finding ourselves along the way. We can go for it with all we have, knowing that the journey will most certainly entail battles and rests, goblins and companions, and maybe even some mystical elven wine and dancing at Rivendell when all is said and done.
Regardless of the details, this is your big chance to make the most of your twenties. Sure, you’re busy, and yes, you have other things to do. And you’re human and make mistakes. But now is your chance—the chance of a lifetime!—to make the most of the rest of this amazing decade by taking the time to do things thoughtfully and prayerfully, answering the question, Who am I? as you go.
Our prayer for you is that you come to embrace the idea that the decade of the twenties is the most strategic decade of development in your life. In the midst of a barrage of new experiences and opportunities, your patterns of thinking develop and change. The foundations of your character and worldview begin to solidify, and upon them you will eventually build the structures of your life. How you manage and evaluate this decade of time has a direct impact on the integration of your theology, person, and aspirations for years to come.
The journey starts in earnest now, for as the map in the mall reads, “You are here.”