I came to the completely obvious conclusion the other day that being a grown-up pretty much sucks.
I read a popular blog last week where the author told the story of his co-worker who said that as we grow up, we form an identity. And then, as we become adults and have to “do stuff”, we experience some success in some of that “stuff”. When we do, people compliment us on it. That feels go, so we build that into part of our identity. When we experience failure, then, it hurts extra bad because we haven’t just failed at “doing stuff”; part of our identity – who we truly are (or who we truly perceive ourselves to be) – has failed. Then, going forward, we begin to fear failure, lest our identities fail again. Failing hurts after all – especially when it’s the “true you” that has failed. So we limit ourselves, let fear rule, blah-blah-blah.
Talking through some of this with a “grown-up” trusted advisor, they told me, “I think you will find as you go through your thirties that life is not at all what you thought it would be. It is a really big let down when you figure out that this is all there is. I remember thinking that this is not what I was led to believe my life would be like. It takes a good while to get past that. Then by your forties you realize that life if ok just the way it is. You just don't have so many expectations and learn to appreciate the small things. I guess it is just part of growing up.”
Now, ain’t that just about a beeyatch?
One of our greatest philosophers, Rocky Balboa once said, “The older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind. That’s life.”
About four years ago, my wife and I started leading the college ministry at our church. We felt an obvious calling to do it, but had no clue how to do it. To our surprise, it took off like gangbusters. The group grew. We had great discussions. People talked of their lives being changed. The ministry became an important part of the church.
I will credit myself with facilitating good discussions and debates on what I’d consider constructively controversial topics. We broke bread with the students regularly, which led to building relationships.
However…outside of that we did very little. As I mentioned, we had no clue of what to do or how to do it. I give all credit to God. And to an awesome group of very involved students. All the right ingredients came together at just the right moment and magic happened.
The lion’s share of those students have graduated college and moved on. The program hasn’t grown; in fact it has shrunk dramatically. It lacks that intangible magic now.
Because the first few years were so magical, everyone looks to me and asks, “Why?” Anyone on the outside of the program naturally assumed that whatever leadership my wife and I provided to the program was the reason for its success. As I mentioned before, I insist that it was not.
But, as the story at the beginning of this post referenced, people had been complimenting me on the program and holding me in a lofty light for almost three years. I began to internalize that and make it a part of my identity. When year four rolled around, the program faltered, and people couldn’t understand what I’d done differently or wrongly. The questioning, whispering, and critiquing hurt. Hurt me. Hurt my very identity.
One of the most unexpected things that happened as a result of this college ministry was the launching of a non-profit organization called the Dirty Roots Revolution.
It started when I delivered a message as part of a Sunday church service that the college students led. Interest grew and the organization was formed. It was geared to encourage folks to make a difference in the world, through whatever small actions they could take. We operated a weekly homeless outreach, a nursing home visiting program, and more.
Again, I will give myself a very small amount of credit. As a writer, my goal is always to reach within myself and pull the message from the depths of my heart and soul. I say with no arrogance that in one singular instance – the writing of the message that led to the formation of the DRR – I succeeded in doing so.
But, after that, it was out of my hands. Again, a combination of just the right ingredients – God, interested people, passionate world-changing college students, etc. – all came together and lightning struck.
After a year of running that program, I was forced to abandon the DRR and dissolve the organization.
For the year that it existed, though, something very special was obviously taking place. Since the thing started with my message and was facilitated under my direction, outsiders naturally assumed it was my doing. Again, I knew otherwise. But, the praise came. And, while I worked continually to make the effort about the Lord and not me, I still internalized the success.
When the organization had to go away and people didn’t understand – some got downright angry – it felt like failure. Another savage blow to my identity.
I had internalized each of these activities and made them a part of me. Actually, they never were a part of me. But I had begun to see my value as a person through them. My value was based on what was happening with them.
I was going spend my life working alongside college youth and help develop them into world changing activists. But I didn’t.
I was going to guide the Dirty Roots Revolution to the level of a hugely prominent, world-changing organization that played by none of the rules of the usual boring charities. But I didn’t.
And really those things don’t matter. What matters is how crushed I was by them not happening. But that’s my fault.
When those things succeeded, through nothing I myself did, it felt good. People complimented me and the activities, and that felt good. So I put my stock there. Then they went away.
And I don’t know who I am without them.
But I do know that I can’t keep basing my identity on what I do. I don’t have any problem not allowing my work to define me. I have a problem keeping my passions from defining me. But I can’t give up those passions.
“The older I get, the more I gotta leave behind,” said Rocky. And I know that’s just life. But I refuse to “grow up” completely. I refuse to completely buy into the system. So, I have to keep pursuing my passions with everything I can. But, how do I do that without letting them define me?
I realize I’ve reached the age where as my friend said, I’ll “realize life is not all that I thought it would be”. I get that. And I can deal with the fact that I’ll never be a well-known leader; I’ll never revolutionize…well, anything, probably; and I’ll never publish books that are read by tons of people.
But I never want to settle. I WANT to pursue my passions with the intensity that I believe those things MIGHT happen. I want to believe in what I do. I want to believe in the importance of it. I want to believe, not caring if anyone else does.
I never want to become a “grown up, mature, responsible” adult, who leaves their passions behind because it’s what you do when you grow up. I never want to be satisfied working for “the man” or “the system”.
So, how can I be a 33 year old subversive revolutionary who exists WITHIN the system without buying INTO the system? It will take effort. I suppose the challenge is to put forth that extra effort without allowing it to define me.