Follow Your Bliss and Your Doubts: An Open Letter to 2012 Graduates

"If I only knew then what I know now."

This could be the mantra of many of my fellow 40-somethings as we contemplate what words of wisdom we might share with you, our teen friends, as you graduate from high school this month and preparing to launch into adulthood (or, at the very least, pre-adulthood). In truth, if we knew then what we know now it wouldn't have made much of a difference. We each learn from our own experiences, our own mistakes; and the perspective one has later in life cannot simply be handed to a young person in a beribboned box. Yet it is part of our adult DNA to want to pass on some nugget of wisdom to the youth in our care and so I offer just a few thoughts for those about to enter the world of college, work, or the great unknown of life after high school.

Make Room for What Matters

Perhaps mythologist Joseph Campbell said it best of all when he urged us to follow our bliss: "If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

This advice is a direct refutation of the lie of Facebook, which tells us to "Follow Everyone Else." Facebook encourages us to curate our complicated lives, carefully highlighting only the choicest bits and pieces: "Look at my wonderful vacation photos! Look at the award I got! Look who published my article! Look at my beautiful children/wife/new car!" It's no wonder many of us get depressed after spending an hour on Facebook mulling over the amazing lives others seem to be enjoying. "If I could just be like them, have what they have, buy what they buy," we think, "then I'll be happy."

In contrast, following your bliss is a call to look inward to that which intrinsically brings you joy, peace, contentment, and purpose. Bliss is not dependent on what we have, how many honors we receive, getting top grades, or making it into an Ivy League school. As a Christian, I believe that bliss comes from a deep understanding that we are completely and utterly loved by God just as we are, and that all that we truly need we already possess: the gifts of creation, the gift of life, and the gift of love.

Make Room for the Holy Spirit

John Lennon knew what he was talking about when he wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." It might be hard to hear these words at a time in your life when you may already have your whole future mapped out. You've picked the right college and right major, which will lead you to the dream job and the great salary to help pay for the perfect house for the perfect family. Or maybe you've selected the best branch of the military to launch a perfect career. Or perhaps you're jumping right into the world of work to start you off on a carefully planned trajectory to land you just where you want to be ten years from now.

Don't get me wrong—it's great to dream and plan. But it doesn't hurt to leave a little room for the unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit, a little room for the unexpected.

I can count on one hand the number of my friends who left college with a degree and actually ended up in the career they first intended. Most found themselves drifting into jobs they never dreamed they would be doing but which called to them. Some have changed careers one, two, even three times in search of that calling. Some found their path in life changed because of love, family, tragedy, or just plain unexpected opportunities they couldn't foresee but couldn't ignore. So, it's good to dream and plan but, like a river that sometimes overflows its carefully engineered banks, life has a habit of taking us places we might never expect. Sometimes it's good to just go with that flow and see where it takes you.

Make Room for Doubt

Writer Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "It's a good thing to have all the props out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet and what is sand." Life after high school can be a grand adventure in testing all that you have learned until now about life and faith. You can either choose to hold steadfastly to what you already think and believe no matter who or what you encounter, or you can trust what you believe enough to let it loose in the light of day and see how it lines up with the rest of the world.

Talk to people of other faiths. Listen to people who see Christianity from a different perspective than your own. Challenge your long-held assumptions. Read the Bible again like it's the first time and see what it might be saying to you as a young adult that it wasn't ready to say to you as a child and then decide if any of it makes sense. To be certain, allowing yourself to question your faith can be frightening, but it can also be like providing water to a seedling that is ready to burst into a vine. I have always told the youth I've worked with, "Don't take my word for any of this faith stuff. Be willing to challenge everything we teach you in youth group, in Sunday school, in church. God can handle our doubts and our questioning. God is small enough to hang close by while we try to figure out what we really believe and God is definitely big enough to resist any efforts on our part to think we might finally have all the answers."

So, best of luck to you graduates as you head down this new stretch of life's journey. As you walk that unexplored path, be sure to hold tight to your bliss, be open to taking some unplanned detours, and make some room for doubt and uncertainty. These are the sorts of provisions that can make for a life really worth living.