A few weeks ago, I caught up with an old friend. For an hour, we talked on the phone about what was happening in our lives. We do this every few months , but it had been awhile and a lot had changed. As we chatted, my friend and I both realized life after college hadn’t turned out the way we expected. And for a moment, this really depressed us — but only for a moment.
The Worst-Laid Plans
“I just turned thirty,” my friend said. “That was weird.”
“Yeah… why?” I asked.
“Well, there was just a lot of things I thought I would have done by now.”
He proceeded to list a handful of things he always thought he’d do, like finish grad school and go teach at a college. But those things were gone now, at least for this season.
“And that’s okay, I guess.” He said it wistfully with a twinge of doubt in his voice, so it was hard to believe.
Then he began to tell me everything he’d done since college — things he never would have imagined doing. Like training hundreds of musicians each year to travel around the world. Things like meeting his wife and moving to Minnesota and helping lead a nonprofit.
I admitted the same, that it was hard to come to grips with the fact that all my “dreams” hadn’t come true. As we talked, though, we both concluded that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we were idiots in college and didn’t know what was good for us.
Three Reasons Why We Need Disappointment
Although it’s hard, disappointment is an important part of living a great story. Here’s why:
1. Every character in a story wants something. But she doesn’t always get it. At least, not how she anticipated or planned. That’s the difference between Friends and Lord of the Rings. One is all about each character’s petty melodrama. Another is an epic. No offense to Joey, Ross, Phoebe, and the rest of the gang (because I love them dearly), but which would you rather live? Having your plans wrecked is an essential element to living a significant story and being an interesting character.
2. Conflict causes characters to grow. This means that sometimes the things you thought you’d do — the things that would make your life easy and comfortable — are not at all what you need. This is the lesson of every superhero movie: all Batman or Spiderman wants to do is be normal and have a steady girlfriend, but they’re called to something greater.
3. Great stories don’t end the way you think. Sure, the good guy may often win and eradicate evil (which you could’ve predicted), but it doesn’t happen how you thought. In a good story, everything can’t go according to plan. That’s what causes suspense and holds our interest. At some point, there’s a complication — the car breaks down, someone gets cancer, the other boxer decides to fight dirty — the hero’s cause is thwarted (at least temporarily), causing him to do something drastic.
*Photo by Louise Docker, Creative Commons
In our own lives, this may mean working a job we hate for longer than we’d like or moving cross-country when we’d rather stay put. It means doing the hard thing and expecting the unexpected, understanding that this is where we grow. Surprises test our character; they make us better people.
You Aren’t the Main Character
In order for any of this to make sense, you have to learn a hard, but important lesson about life: you aren’t the center of the universe. This is so counterintuitive to a capitalistic culture it may be a hard pill to swallow for some.
In other words, you’re not the main character. You are living in a deeper narrative than The Book of Me. And you have a role to play, an important one, but it has to do with more than just you.
This is why we invented the word “vocation” (which in Latin means “calling”). It represents this idea that your life is part of something bigger than what you want, that there is work that you don’t simply choose, but are called to. Yes, we have choices, but the story we’ve been given to live isn’t completely up to us.
What this means is that life doesn’t always look like we expected or even wanted. And our response to that? “Thank God.”