“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Like most kids, I got this question all the time from adults doing their best to engage a youngster in conversation. I answered them as truthfully as I could, proclaiming that I would one day become an astronaut, or a baseball player, or a chef. Or maybe a baseball-playing astronaut chef. Like most 6-year-olds, I had little awareness of career paths and didn’t know that becoming a good chef would probably mean sacrificing some practice time on the baseball diamond. And becoming a professional ballplayer would likely limit my dedication to NASA. Eventually, I would have to pick one job and stick with it.
Several years have passed since I set such lofty aspirations. My culinary prowess goes about as far as heating a can of Chef Boyardee, I quit baseball in the eighth-grade and NASA won’t return my phone calls. So I’m 0-for-3 on my childhood dream occupations. I have, however, attained the rank of college graduate. As is the case with most college graduates, my path wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t a straight line.
Throughout my college career, I frequented the offices of career counselors. I was on a first-name basis with the majority of my school’s counseling staff. I’m pretty sure they got sick of me after a while, because I would repeatedly show up and ask the same questions, and they would give me the same answers. I would tell them I didn’t know what to do with my life, and they’d ask me what I liked and what I was good at. I didn’t have concrete answers for these questions, despite the fact that I always knew they were coming.
I wanted them to tell me what I was supposed to do. I took a few tests and answered hundreds of questions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with choosing a career. When I got the results back, they recommended that I become a police officer or an accountant. Neither of those jobs sounded appealing to me. Uninspiring test results caused me to grow increasingly frustrated.
In my junior year of college, after changing my major three times, I settled on a general communications degree. I always envied friends who had, in my opinion, more legitimate majors. Those are ones that lead directly into a specific line of work. Accounting majors can become accountants. Biology majors can become biologists. But I had no ambitions of becoming a general communicator. I chose that major simply because I was deep into my college years and I felt like time was running out.
Until you’re done with your education, older adults never stop asking you what you want to be when you grow up. The question never really goes away. They change the wording a little bit – “What’s your major? What do you want to do with it?” – But this is pretty much just like asking a 6-year-old what he wants to be when he grows up. People from church, parents of friends, and my peers gave me the tweaked phrasing a lot, especially with a general communications major, and it stumped me every time. I figured it was self-explanatory that someone with that major was either very confused or a football player. Or both.
Career counselors reassured me that the degree I was pursuing offered endless options, but I was still unhappy. My career struggles became a full-blown identity crisis. Not being able to choose a career meant not being able to choose a future. Not being able to choose a future meant missing out on my calling, whatever that was. Surely, I thought, my purpose in life would somehow hinge upon my education. I was constantly praying to God, begging him for a little instruction, waiting for some specific guidance. I had heard stories of people receiving their call. One day, they were sitting in traffic when suddenly God told them to go to Bangladesh and start unloading sacks of potatoes. God didn’t seem to speak to me like that. I wanted to know what I was supposed to do with my seemingly pointless degree; I wanted to know what my call was in life. I was demanding my own Bangladesh potatoes moment, and He wasn’t giving it to me.
Sometimes, I would sit down and wait. “Alright, God,” I’d say, “Tell me what I’m supposed to do.” And I would be quiet. And He would be quiet, too. I couldn’t figure out why He would be so quiet when I was in such a state of need, and I started to get angry with Him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was essentially asking God to unveil his grand scheme right then and there. I was holding out my little hands, waiting for God to drop down some instructions. I expected Him to be a vending machine.
Fortunately, God is not a vending machine. Vending machines break. They’ll occasionally steal your money, and sometimes you hit the wrong buttons and get something you would never ask for, like a full-size Bit-O-Honey. God will not always give us what we ask for, but He will always give us what is best for us. Sometimes, His silence speaks louder than anything else.
There came a point when I had to deal with this. I was on a spring break trip to Washington DC, and our group had gone to the Washington Monument to sit in silence and reflect on the week. As we sat there in the cool night, watching the cars go by, I looked up at the stars and listened. I was less than two months away from graduation and I desperately wanted some direction. Soon, student loan payments would come due, my insurance coverage would end and I would have to start real life. I was good and ready, and I expected God to show up and give me some specific instructions.
God spoke, but all he said was “Keep waiting.” And as I sat there with my hands open, waiting for him to dispense my future, I realized that I was making some pretty unreasonable demands on the Creator of the universe. “What am I doing?” I thought. “He doesn’t answer to me. He doesn’t owe me anything.” Although I didn’t get any specific instructions, my burden of anticipation was lifted that day. I have been waiting ever since. It is possible to have peace without answers.