Promise or Pessimism: Graduating from High School

The context of this letter was the high school graduation of my son. It explores questions of creating a meaningful life out of the promise of education and career opportunities while avoiding the pitfalls of pessimism.

Dear Garrett,
On Your High School Graduation 2008

To say that mom and I are very proud of your accomplishments would be to state the obvious. You’ve applied yourself and the results speak for themselves. You are among few that have done so well! From your school grades to your talents with computers, these will serve you well over the years. You’ve taken the opportunities given and built on them. Your gifts combined with hard work and God’s blessing has brought you this point. Again, we are very pleased more then you can imagine and applaud your efforts and accomplishments.

That said, college will bring you new challenges. The obvious ones are the day to day stuff of studying, making money and getting thought the next four years. Those are the easy ones. They somehow solve themselves. Money will come and go, and so will college. These next few years will determine how you will build on what you already have. I’m confident you will do well as that is how you are. But there is something more significant about college, college life and the transition to work and perhaps marriage some day. Something I wish I understood at the time but could not see clearly.

As you progress through college and into your work life, there may be the temptation to become cynical about the world in which you live. I don’t mean the big picture, about politics and world events, but the personal road you are traveling on. You will feel it. It’s when things don’t go as planned, you don’t get the recognition or job you wanted or the girl you like doesn’t feel the same as you. Even one’s faith is not exempt, and you may become tired of working so hard when the rewards are not there. Oddly enough, it’s not necessarily the negative situations, but the converse, of the rewards like a good education, success, financial wealth, can produce cynical attitudes and at worse, indifference to those that don’t have what you have. It’s not the success or lack of it, but what you bring to life situations, your mindset, that changes your world. How you respond to your personal issues over the next four years will say more about what you’ve become and where you go in life than anything else. This will be your narrative identity, or better said in traditional terms, your religion.

Here’s the rub of the matter. What shapes your character are your day to day choices. And choices come from values or morals. If you lose the” moral compass” (remember the GPS, still works well but it’s a bit dated now) you started with, your moral direction, then you find yourself lost over time. It a slippery slope that many have found themselves on, me included. Of course, all this discussion about morals begs the better question, “What are my values and why?” If you can’t answer the question or at least struggle with it, then you’ll become whatever the current North American culture of conformity dictates. Few have the ability to not only see beyond our common culture of consumption and its underpinnings, but to hold themselves to higher standards, especially when it is not convenient to do so.

How you answer these great questions will shape your life’s journey. Its outcome is often uncertain, and nor can I give you its answers as they are realized over one’s life. But I can point to a direction that I now understand. You may not have my educational background or experiences, so I don’t expect that you may see its significance without first discounting it. The most significant moral concept that you can understand comes from t our Christian heritage, and is the “Imago Dei,” (Latin) or the Image of God in man. It’s a guiding reality that informs our lives about who we are, from Capitalism to career choices, from personal relationship to business decisions. Historically, it has nurtured the great religious revolutions, like Judaism (Moses) and Christianity (Jesus Christ), and the later reformations in culture from Luther to John Newton and underwritten the values of the American Revolution and our current views on human rights. It touches fields of science with Rene Descarte and Isaac Newton to current “empirical” assumptions about the nature of the scientific enterprise. Others have sought to strike down the “Imago Dei” and it value with disastrous result, like Nietzsche’s underpinnings with its logical outworking in leaders like Mau, Stalin, and Hitler to name a few of the more honest secularist from the past century. These were moral and principled men (yes the Nazis were principled), and shared a common “moral freedom” that devalued and destroyed the “Imago Dei” in men and the entailing inherent value of individual life itself (i.e. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals). It was a slippery slope that will always continues to leave its mark on our world.

If I can impress one concept on you, it is this, that, not only are you made in God’s image but so is everyone around you, regardless of their status or situation in life. This plurality of God’s image in man is both individual and social, and holds us accountable in death for what we’ve done. It’s the great equalizer that says we are all valuable and that the individual counts. It concepts are echoed in thinking of the American constitution, of life, liberty and the purist of happiness. But it is much more than a neurotic pursuit of the individual happiness even as the founder imagined it. Personal happiness demands that we are responsible and accountable for the well being of the “other,” those who we encounter t that need help. We are “our brother’s keeper.” To be created in the image of God is to see the possibility of that image in our multicultural global world (i.e. movements like World Vision, or Opportunity International). Moses saw this vision of human rights and reached into the events of his time as he wrote the grand narrative of creation and as it played out in the dysfunctional family of Abraham, God’s confrontation of Pharaoh (Ramsey’s II) in his genocide of the infants, and in the history of Israel. These values were reaffirmed in the globalization of the Roman world of the New Testament, and continue today in liberating Christian movements in countries like South America or China.

What will take you beyond the ups and downs of life are not life rewards of consumption, of possessions and accumulated assets, but your sense of mission, to pursing your understanding of the Image of God in the world you’ll inherit. It starts with finding something you like to do, as your own creative expression. Computer Science can be tedious and the cubical jobs demeaning at times. But find something you like about it allot, even a related discipline and purse it. Be a creator in your field because you found a passion, and avoid looking for your self-esteem in the politics of school or business and the roles you achieve. Next, engage your energies with your talents to serve others who need help in this world. Be creative and think global too, as there are many possibilities. To be made in the Image of God is to cultivate relationships of service with people who are on the margin. Seek out not only the opportunities to serve, but the relationships as well. If you develop this sense of conscience, you will have discovered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

You are at a place where your freedom for the possibilities in life peaks. Many things are good, but few things noble. Knowing how to distinguish the two is wisdom. Be open to new things, but without loosing your roots. See your world as both a steward of our planet and as your brother’s keeper though the lens of the Image of God. In your own way, pursue and struggle with both the intellectual roots of the Imago Die and its application here and now.

On another note, I know you will have fun in University and enjoy the things of value that come your way. I’m sure you’ll have no problem with this! Here’s one last thought from a paragraph I gave you in a letter when you graduated from Eagle Elementary and you got the GPS or compass.

“But, it’s also more. It’s not just another good thing. It’s to remind you of the best things. And the best things are your character, and how you decide to act and think on this journey into Middle School and later into High School. The Bible will be your compass in the same way it has served the great men of history (like the many presidents of the United States), and all who have decided to use it. It will give you direction. So when you have fun with this GPS (and it’s a very cool one), when it shows and tracks your movements (even in the car or airplane), you will know that you have another kind of compass that gives you direction with friends and school. You’re about to move into a new grade and a new school. This is like a new “forest” for you and you’ll know where to get direction. The GPS will remind you of that.

Here’s a principle for 1Timothy 6:17 to 19 given as advice at the height of the globalization of Rome. Something I’m still learning about, and wish to give to you:

“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.

Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

Lots of Love from Dad and Mom.

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