”I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” — Thomas Merton
Among the benefits that today’s smartphones have brought to us is the GPS. It’s true that it is a mixed blessing: my location can be known as I can know the location of others. The idea that I can pinpoint my own stance under the heavens, relative to the world around me, is both intriguing and slightly spooky. Do I know where I am? Other people do.
But for someone with SSD—Suspected Spatial Dyslexia (my diagnosis)—GPS has been a godsend. It means that despite my ability to get myself completely turned around on a simple foray into unknown territory, I now can be reasonably assured of arriving at my destination. Best of all, if I make a wrong turn, the eye in the sky will find an alternate route, smoothly adapting to my errant ways.
I love maps. I have spent hours poring over world atlases, fold-out maps of the United Kingdom, maps of Europe, the South Pacific, Asia—tracing out mountain ranges, sounding out city names, and learning the shapes and boundaries of countries. But for me, driving while mapping my route is like watching a butterfly in a field of flowers—there’s a lot of motion, but little in the way of consistent direction. Having a plummy British female voice guiding my every turn is so much better.
When it comes to plotting out my life course I haven’t shown much navigational skill either. I’ve never had the ability to plan, much less to predict, where I’ll be in five years, something apparently not covered by the Americans with Disability Act. The question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” assumes a linear progression farther along and higher up. Asked during a job interview, it hints at ambition, not necessarily spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of life’s vicissitudes.
I had friends who were pre-med—for them, the future was laid out with admirable clarity. They knew where they would be and what they would be doing for the next ten years. After that, their lives would unfold with the assurance of upward mobility and the rewards of discipline. Me? Not so much.
In college, I had a vague notion that my future would be the product of what I carried in two bags—ability and affinity. If I was lucky, these two would combine at a point where I could do something I liked and was fairly good at. I did not want to be in the position of friends whose parents demanded they take on a certain profession because it was lucrative. They may have been good at a number of things, but none of them were what they wanted to do or be the rest of their lives. And if their hearts weren’t in what they had to do every day, it was a job, not a vocation.
Having choices is a precious gift, one that we probably don’t appreciate enough when we’re young. To know that one has options about the most important aspects of life is something we should never take for granted, especially when it’s most likely the case that a majority of people in the world have little say over their careers, where they live (or wish to leave), who they marry and how they live their lives.
On the other hand, in more trivial matters, we have too many choices: do we really need six flavors of Ritz crackers or eight kinds of Doritos? Walgreens sells three hundred and fifty-six cold remedies in their stores and another one hundred and eighteen online. By the time I’ve figured out the exact remedy for my bespoke cold, I’ll be over it.
When I was advising college students on a major course of study, there were always those few who were stymied by having to choose among the disciplines. Choosing one felt to them like closing the door to all others, especially those for which a student felt a burning curiosity. We insist that young people have a full life-plan worked out by the time they graduate from high-school, when most of them haven’t yet distinguished their affinities from their aptitudes.
Early in my teaching career I fancied that I could read a student’s abilities well enough to steer them toward a specific profession. This was more a mark of my pride than it was a real service to a student. In one particular case, I advised a young woman not to choose a career in public relations because I thought her too impulsive, too distracted, to work well in a field that demands constant attention, not only to details, but to the global picture. She took it as a challenge, graduated in the major, and recently celebrated more than a decade of successful work in project management, a field where a grasp of detail, process, and goal is essential.
Where does God fit into all this? Michael Mayne, once the Dean of Westminster Abbey, wrote in his last book, The Enduring Melody, — a journal he kept of his harrowing journey through the ‘country of cancer’—“Do I believe that God was guiding me in this direction rather than that at the most important forks in my path? Yes and no.” He goes on to say no to that which would compromise his freedom, as if there was always only one plausible outcome for his life. But ‘Yes’ to his prayers for guidance which resulted in “a deepened understanding of myself and my motives, and of where I might best fit and have something useful to share.”1
In high school I cherished the notion of becoming a marine biologist, not because I had the slightest aptitude for it, but because I loved the beaches and tide pools of Northern California and I thought the character and life of Doc in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was worth emulating. I lasted two days in Chemistry I before opting out, shuddering at the long slog through sciences I could admire from afar, but could barely comprehend. Because writing came easily to me and because I loved it, I thought I might be a newspaper journalist. So, I took a double major in Journalism and Religion. Then I discovered I had no appetite to be shouting questions at public figures and I wrote too slowly to meet daily deadlines. Well, okay then. How about religion? I had already tried being a youth pastor, and while I was passable at it, I knew I would inevitably hit the wall over evangelism methods and bowing to authority.
What then? How many ‘what-if’ scenarios could I imagine? I remember climbing an apple tree and writing up a list of pros and cons about going to graduate school in philosophy of religion and becoming a college teacher. I wrote in two columns everything I could think of that would recommend for and against this. And while I wasn’t comfortable with prayer, I laid it all out to God as best I could, what I thought I could do and what I was sure I couldn’t do. Then I showed the list to friends and listened to what they had to say. After that, I went back to the apple tree, and from its branches I put the proposal to God that I was going ahead with plans for graduate school. I felt that I wanted to be a teacher and that I had the qualities for it. I asked God to slam the doors if I wasn’t meant to do this, on the theory that it would take something obvious to pull me up short.
I applied to five universities, got rejected by three, and chose one. My teaching career was a long and winding road, with numerous detours, reversals, chasms and heights. I can’t imagine having done anything else quite so satisfying and challenging.
What if I had decided to take that editorial position right out of college? What if I had followed through on my interest to study Church History at Aberdeen University in Scotland? What if I had turned down the offer to teach at Trinity? Perhaps most important, what if I had skipped the committee meeting at which I met my wife, Joy?
“We all decline so many alternative lives,” comments Mayne, “yet if we’re lucky we end up feeling that the life that has been ours had to be the way it was, and we wouldn’t wish it otherwise.”2
I still love maps and I am blessed to drive with a GPS. In my life, as I look back on it, I imagine God nudging me patiently, adapting on the fly as I swerve or enter a blind alley, graciously offering me another way home, always and ever leading me on to that which lies at the end of this journey.