This morning I was forwarded two thought-provoking articles that may have more of a connection than you’d think. The first was Charles C. W. Cooke’s outstanding take-down of Oprah’s Harvard commencement address. The second was USA Today’s report on a spike in lawyer suicides in my home state of Kentucky, a report that contained this poignant reflection:
“They learn that justice is not always done. Innocent people are abused and some go to prison. People guilty of terrible wrongs go free,” Cunningham wrote. “They worry that all the lost hours and missed holidays with family and friends . . . do not matter. . . . They become like a weak-kneed boxer in the 15th round. They keep flailing away. But they lose purpose. They lose hope.”
So much pain in life lies in the gap between dream and reality, between expectations and actual life – especially when generations of Americans have now been raised in a pop culture that celebrates the dream, of romantic love, fulfilling careers, and financial security. If we just read the right book, gain an insight from the right television host, or master our own negativity, we unique snowflakes will break through to the life that we’re entitled to. We often begin with the Oprah idealism and end with the reality of a fallen world.
I remember the silly existential angst I felt in the first several years of my legal career when — despite a great job and even better family – I simply couldn’t shake the sense that I was a disappointment, that my work wasn’t important enough, and that my high-achieving friends were racing ahead of me. I drifted from legal job to legal job in a desperate quest for the perfect situation – the fulfilling, prosperous work that gave me exactly the right amount of time for family all while changing the world.
Law schools tell aspiring lawyers that they are warriors for justice, that they can enjoy — nay, have a right to! — the proper work/life balance, and preps us for considerable material success. And — for a time — I foolishly fell for it. The real-world result of this pablum is a population of professionals who are the least-happy prosperous people in America (lawyers at least do the material-success part pretty well). Yet this gap between expectations and reality is hardly unique to the legal profession.
The Christian world has become pretty darn good at selling a religious version of the “if you dream it you can do it” message of not settling for less than awesome. In this new world, if you’re not starting nonprofits, building wells in Africa, and engineering social justice in a blighted community then you’re not “radical.” (To borrow the name of a popular book in Evangelical circles.)
Ecclesiastes is an under-read book — the author, likely Solomon, had all his heart desired yet declared it “meaningless . . . a chasing after the wind.”
We don’t tell kids that the wind can’t be caught. We tell them that they are the masters of the wind. And then one day they wake up, they barely know their kids, work is stressful, the bills have piled up, and they realize — with shocking suddenness — that they’ve likely already peaked. They won’t do better in life, and in their quest to fulfill their dreams they’ve often ignored the voice that calls them back to modesty, to focus on doing one’s duty — to God, to family, to country. The quest is not to “have it all” but instead to have what God provides to do the work He calls us to do.
There was a reason why the Apostle Paul declared, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” That completed work on the Cross is what gives us meaning, and it is the act that ultimatey wipes out – decisively and eternally – our record of dismal failures, our sickness, our sadness, and our defeated expectations. It is also an act that renders insignificant even our great successes — it is the ultimate source of both hope and perspective, that we can never fall too far for the Cross to reach, and we can never succeed enough to impress the One who was present at Creation.