The tiger lilies and the phlox in my front garden always bloom last. Their annual emergence is my sure sign summer is here.
The days on either side of solstice are my favorite time of year. The days last so long, with 15 hours of glorious daylight. It’s usually temperate in Indiana, with highs in the 70s or 80s. The trees are fully leaved, young bunnies hop all around the neighborhood, and the flowers just keep coming. It’s so easy to feel happy as spring fades into summer.
Except that I’m not really doing them. I started a couple long-neglected yard chores but they remain unfinished. Except for a few long walks and one good bike ride, I really haven’t launched that fitness regimen I’ve long talked about. I haven’t finally cleaned and reorganized my garage. I haven’t given more time to the church or to the nonprofit I help run.
What I’m finding is that everything I normally do has expanded to fill most of the extra time — I’m taking things slower. With the rest of the time, I’m sleeping in a little and I’m stopping more often to breathe the air and look at my flowers.
There are two reasons, I think. First, I think I don’t really want to do those things. They’re just things I think I ought to be doing, and I blame lack of time for not doing them. I think we tend to naturally prioritize the things we want to do, within the time available to us. It turns out that sleeping and enjoying a little idle time were actually next on my must-do list.
But second, my life was toobusy before. I frequently burn the candle at both ends. Working only part time has let me ease up. It feels like a vacation. I’d like to keep some of this when I eventually return to full-time work.
Does this resonate with you? What do you say you want to do if you had more time? What do you think you’d actually do with that time?
I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.
I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.
So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.
The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.
A sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.
So I asked, because this came up during Sunday school. And the teacher said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”
It left me more puzzled than satisfied.
But as I studied on it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.
This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. Going on ten years ago now, my life fell apart. I had made some bad choices, and I reaped what I had sown and more. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.
Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.
It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.
Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.
And sacrifices – you should feel them. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.
Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.
The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.
1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.
How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.
If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.
If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.
But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. This will suck; avoid it at all costs.
2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.
Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.
Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.
3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.
Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play CDs of the music from my youth.
But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.
More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.
4. Be who you are.
This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.
You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.
This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.
5. Following your dreams is overrated.
I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.
Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I wasn’t very good at being a programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.
Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway. You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.
6. Enjoy the journey.
If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.
You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.
That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.
Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.
7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.
You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.
For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.
Those days are pretty much over.
I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due shortly after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.
The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.
But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.
Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.
Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.
You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.
Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!
These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.
Most of my life I thought I had to make myself right before I could approach God.
I had to stop swearing, stop having sex with my girlfriend, stop lying to cover up things I didn’t want to admit, and stop eating entire large pizzas for comfort when I was feeling blue. I needed to meet my wife’s needs better, pay more attention to my stepson, give my employer 8 hours of solid work every day, and control my temper.
I thought I had to change before God would accept me, but I had it backwards. What I didn’t know was that I needed only come to God as I was. Then to the extent I kept trying to get closer to him, the more the things that needed to stop would go away, and the things I needed to do would happen. In other words, God took me as I was, but was not content to leave me that way.
So I spent many years with my sins and shortcomings. Some of them I overcame by force of will, although I found that they tended to leak out under stress. Some of my sins I justified or minimized, telling myself they were no big deal. Some of my sins I could not stop no matter what I did. They were strongholds over me, keeping me in shame.
When those strongholds finally damaged my life enough that I had no recourse but turn to God for help, he took me in. In time, he cut those strongholds out as if they were a cancer in deep tissue. Although I can see he did it as gently as he could, it triggered consequences that hurt like hell. I don’t know how it could have been otherwise; nor do I regret that suffering for the peace of mind it has brought. God has also used life challenges to bring certain changes in me. Finally, some changes just seemed to happen, and I didn’t realize it until I looked back. I notice how calm I usually am now. I notice how much more easily I find happiness and joy. I notice how I increasingly can handle problems that used to baffle me.
You see, when you turn to God, he begins working to renew your mind, rework you in the image of Jesus Christ, and grow the fruits of the Holy Spirit in you. You actually start becoming the person God meant you to be! As I keep turning to God, he will keep working on me. I expect my serenity and joy to increase, even in the face of difficult times that surely will come. God will keep giving me everything I need to serve him and enjoy this life he has given me.