What are you doing next year? It’s a dreaded question for senior students, isn’t it? Professors raise it in advising, administrators inquire about it in passing, and parents expect an answer in reality. What are you doing next year? The weaknesses of the current job-market doesn’t help, but it’s a tough question at any time because it asks the student to do something they can’t possibly do: predict the future.
To answer that question, you have to step outside of yourself. You have to place yourself in what will be. That is, you have to imagine yourself then. And there’s an obvious tension there: because you live in the present, in what is. You can’t really live then. You must live now. However, in many important ways, living with attentiveness to what happens now can have great implications for what could happen then.
When I was a college senior I was a history major with a secondary education minor. I had applied to and was accepted into a post-grad service program, which combined part-time graduate school with full-time teaching in a Catholic school. I would live in an intentional community of other volunteer teachers. I was looking forward to it.
Two days after I graduated, however, the director of the program called to let me know that he couldn’t place me. There were no available social studies openings anywhere in any of the schools he had a relationship with. If he couldn’t find a placement in the next two days he wouldn’t be able to accept me into the program.
My now had changed dramatically. Suddenly the future I had envisioned was slipping away from me. I had made no other plans and the circumstances that I had been depending on had been radically altered. I was scared. I wondered to myself, “What am I going to do now?”
To answer any questions of what will be, requires one to dig deep into his or her experience of now. To answer the question—what are you doing next year?—is to answer the question—what do I deeply desire today? This invites a whole list of questions: Who and what do I care about? To what and where am I drawn? From what and where am I repelled? What excites me? And what leaves me feeling deflated?
This is all to say that to begin to answer the question—What are you doing next year?—requires great knowledge of deeply held desires, desires that you have and come to know presently, now.
Yet now is continuously changing, isn’t it? Now is always unfolding, always developing, always revealing itself. Now is ‘continually renewed immediacy,’ wherein we encounter the shifting circumstances of life. To fully live in the now requires an ever-active reflection on changing circumstances and how they affect us. In a word, it requires work, reflective work.
When my program director broke the news that I might not have a placement after graduation that was a pretty big change to my now, an extremely unpleasant renewal to my immediacy. Yet more change was to come. He called back two days later. “Still no social studies placements,” he said, “but might you be interested in doing high school campus ministry?”
I jumped at the chance immediately, surprising even myself: “I’d love to!” This wasn’t part of any plan I had. This wasn’t anything I had ever considered possible for me. But upon reflection on these changed circumstances, I became excited and eager for the chance—not out of fear of having no other option, but rather because the opportunity allowed me to concretize desires that I held in the present—the desire to be of service, to be with and for others.
My immediate reaction to this new offer, my unguarded expression of excitement, revealed a desire hidden deep within me that suddenly had the chance to unfold in surprising new ways. I realized that what I most deeply desired in the present was part and parcel of my future. In a moment of assent to my deepest desires I said without hesitation, “Yes, I’d love to!” And my present and future became one. Now became then and then became now.
Present and future. Now and then. What is true for us is true for God: God lives in now, God loves in now and God wants to be with us now. If we become too myopically focused on then, on the future, we run ahead of grace, losing sight of the God who is surrounding us all the time, who wants us to uncover our deep desires and to act on them, so that we might become most authentically ourselves.
What are you doing next year? Whatever that is, I’m confident that God will meet you there. Until then, you can do the work of self-reflection, unearthing the deep desires you have in the present. You can uncover your true self in the constantly changing world of now. And eventually, when then becomes now you’ll be ready to respond.
It may be work, but it’s work worthy of you.
The cover image, from Flickr user ToniVC, can be found here.