The Good Life
“Of course you’re miserable!” said my advisor Dan, looking over his spectacles at me, “As a doctoral student in Human Development and Social Policy, you of all people should remember that your timing is all wrong for graduate school.” We sat in Dan’s office, and I was whining about my life—my insecure, powerless and confused life. I felt stressed, discontent and anxious. Now I also felt slightly guilty–he knew I was a follower of Jesus and I wasn’t making Jesus look very good by spewing forth all my angst.
But Dan’s comment stopped me short because he was right—according to adult development studies, my timing was all wrong! I entered graduate school straight out of college, and if I charted my life forward, all the major tasks of school and career development directly conflicted with my other goals, especially the hope of having babies. In class we discussed how graduate school put us in a time warp compared to our peers. As our age-peers married, bought houses, bore children, earned money, and climbed their career ladders, we graduate students could feel like we were just standing still, or still worse, going backwards. Looking at the research on women’s lives and my own sorry existence, my on-going argument with Jesus about graduate school intensified. Led by wise advisors, circumstances and prayer to graduate school, I couldn’t help but feel like it had been one big sorry mistake, and if it wasn’t, then Jesus apparently cared little for the quality of my life.
Sad to say, twenty years later, I sometimes still feel the same panic I felt in Dan’s office even though on the outside, I can look like a woman who “has it all.” Despite the nine year route to finishing my degree, I finished, and you can call me Dr. Kathy thank-you-very-much! I have an interesting and enriching job with gifted and fascinating colleagues and students. I married a wonderful man and we have three healthy children. We even own two cars, a home, and stainless steel appliances. So if my life is crammed with blessings, why do I regularly feel my timing is all wrong, that I’ve fallen behind, and that the land around me is scorched and dry?
A quick answer is that I am bombarded every day with messages about the “good life.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see how my life falls short–especially since the definition of a “good life” changes depending on the crowd you’re with. At Harvard, where I’ve worked with doctoral students for the past eleven years, the good life means achieving tenure at a top-tier university. In both the public and private sectors, the good life usually involves rising to a certain level of management, wealth and power. Among certain social activists, the good life entails living harmoniously with nature and humanity, eating organic, marching for justice, or tutoring needy children. In women’s self-help magazines, the good life requires embracing our own positive potential, exercising 30 minutes a day, and losing at least 10-15 pounds. Even individual churches promote a vision of the good life—my church’s motto is “empowering impossibly great lives.”
As I haven’t hit the mark in any of these areas, these competing visions just make me feel tired and discouraged. Where is my impossibly great life? Does God even want me to have a great life? Is it right to ask God for more blessing when I have already been so blessed?
When faced with such eternal questions, I go back to the beginning, to Genesis 1-3. In Genesis 1-2, we see two stories of perfect creation, creation which bursts forth with life, teeming with flora and fauna, all riotously growing and abundant. In fact, God commands all creation to flourish–to be fruitful, to multiply—and pronounces his final product very good. Man and woman together steward creation. The lion lies down with the lamb. Either mosquitoes don’t exist or human bodies are not their food source. Adam and Eve literally hear God’s footsteps in the garden, hear his voice calling them by name, and talk with God face to face while joyfully working the jobs He’s given them to do–naming animals and tilling the garden.
Then comes the fall. The serpent tempts Eve, Eve persuades Adam, the two of them eat the forbidden fruit, and the world is never the same again. Their tiny act of disobedience bears huge ramifications for this planet. What once was lush and green now becomes withered and parched. In an instant, lions chew on lambs, mosquitoes gorge on humans, and humans develop a rapacious appetite that threatens to devour all of creation. Human life–once overflowing with plenty–becomes characterized by scarcity and suffering: male and female begin the epic battle to dominate one another; toil replaces joyful tilling; thorns and thistles grow where fruit once abounded; agony and death now shadow the bringing forth of life.
Genesis 1-3 describes both the promise and the tragedy. God created humankind for the good life, but the fall means our pursuit of this good life is regularly thwarted. No wonder thinking about it makes me feel tired.
As the founding member of Overachiever’s Anonymous (a group I attempted to start at Harvard, but failed at when students didn’t rush at the chance to admit they were overachievers and that it was destroying their lives), I’ve had my share of ups and downs on the road to recovery. A key part of healing has involved realizing that the source of a good life has little to do with my work: the degrees I’ve achieved; the job title I possess; the valuable contributions I’ve made. Neither does living water flow from my relationships. Husband, children, friends, and community are great blessings, but can be the font of every burden as well.
My overachieving mentality can also bleed into my spiritual life. For almost all of my cognizant life, the Daily Quiet Time, the epitome of evangelical Christian spirituality, created inordinate amounts of guilt in my life—mostly because I rarely did it. On the few occasions I disciplined myself to daily pray and read the Bible, I often found my devotional time dry and meaningless, something I performed just to say I did it, to feel better about myself as a spiritual person, rather than to relate to the God of the universe.
But in these last years, something has slowly shifted. Although prayer can still feel dry and rote at times, increasingly, as I make space for God, prayer becomes a way to receive rather than prove myself. And the more I’m able to rest in God’s presence, the more I experience just how good God is, and how good are his intentions for me and the world. The closest I’ve come to sheer contentment, to sitting back and tasting the goodness of life are those evanescent instants when God somehow breaks through my harried busyness and I experience His presence and love. In those grace-filled moments, I need not perform, indeed I cannot perform–all I can do is receive. In God’s presence, I know God’s character and will. Of course he wants me to flourish—to grow, to thrive, to blossom, yes even to prosper—after all, that’s my heart’s desire for my children, and God is a much more loving, patient and kind parent than I am.
Awhile ago, I had a crazy dream. I dreamt that my husband Scott took me on a surprise visit to the Oprah Winfrey show. Although in real life I’ve never seen the program, in the dream, the Oprah Winfrey show was my favorite show of all time. But Scott hadn’t told me about it ahead of time, and I didn’t like how he planned the whole thing. At one point in the dream, I literally turned my back to the stage because it was more important for me to tell Scott my bad feelings than to watch my most favorite thing in the whole world.
When I awoke, I knew the dream wasn’t primarily about my marriage (even though Scott almost sang “glory glory hallelujah” when I told him about it). I knew it was about my relationship with God. Lying in bed, I immediately begged Jesus to change whatever lies within me that is so critical and negative that I’d rather control everything than enjoy the great surprises he wants to give me. He has taken me to various destinations—graduate school, marriage, motherhood and career among them—and I hope he will lead me through many more adventures. But the source of the good life is not the attractions, the speed in which we get there, or the order in which they all happen. The good life comes from every now and then hearing an unexpected crunch in the grass of a footstep and then a voice call out my name.
(First published in “The Well” in 2007)