“Finding serious things to tie yourself down to”

June 1, 2011

David Brooks has been listening with displeasure to this year’s crop of college commencement addresses. After complaining—in grumpy old man mode—about how poorly served by parents and institutions this generation of college graduates has been to cope with adulthood, he writes some really interesting things:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Most people don’t “find themselves first” and then pursue their dreams. Rather, they are “called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.” If we aim directly at something called happiness we’ll likely miss. True fulfillment is a byproduct of a life pursuing something other our own interests. “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

I commend the whole piece to you. The only thing I would add—not surprisingly—is the role of God’s providence and grace in the process of self-formation. (But this isn’t Guideposts, after all.)

We Christians are often afraid to follow a savior who teaches us, paradoxically, that if we want to find our life we must lose it, and that dying to oneself is the way of finding oneself. But I appreciate that David Brooks, at least, has the intuition, along with some anecdotal evidence, that this is true.

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