A proverb tells us, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
When I look back on my 48-year-old life, I celebrate satisfying successes and reckon with painful regrets and losses. I try to draw connections between all the stops and starts, all the ups and downs, all the straight and curved lines. Ultimately, I see my life like a young child’s work of art, proudly displayed on a refrigerator: crooked, colorful lines drawn all over the page, decipherable only with the eyes of a loving parent.
I reflect on my choices, the times I played it safe and the times I took a risk. Robert Frost’s poem echoes in my memory.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both…
Unless we are too stagnate, we must choose between the well-worn path and the road less traveled. At this juncture, we are a mix of excitement and fear. We find ourselves equally excited about something new and fearful of failure, of being different. There are times where we should follow the lead of others, yet, at times, we must make our own way.
Jesuit education helps us to discern such choices and liberates us from fear and distraction so that we can embrace the person God calls us to be, and then walk accordingly. We learn to choose from the deepest sense of who we are. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it best, “What I do is me: for that I came.”
Technology and the pace of modern life have slowly changed this calculus. In the busyness of our lives – with constant electronic interruptions and to-do lists that never end – we fail to carve out time to discern our deepest longings and most serious choices. We buy into the illusion that our lives are straightforward functions, that certain inputs lead to certain outputs, that we are always in control and that success and failure are our doing alone. Somewhere along the way, we changed the equation: not what I do is me, but what I achieve is me.
We started to define ourselves solely by external measures: money, honors, titles, occupations, accolades and number of friends. Even our body, which is entirely our own, and God’s most beautiful creation, became subject to the measure of another: the perfect body, the six pack abs, the curved physique. Comparing ourselves to others only increased our anxiety and made it very difficult to find the “me” who needed to be expressed in order to find peace.
We ran away from who we are and started to fear failure, fear being different and fear being on our own. We played it safe too often. We began to tell ourselves: stay with people who look like me, follow people who think like me, get the easy “A.” Don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t let your heart break. Follow the road well-traveled.
We feared that God would not be with us if we took the wrong road, like some mouse in a maze, scampering to avoid the dead-end.
A God who creates us in freedom and love, a God who glories in the human choice, does not play that way. We choose, and God works with it. There are no dead-ends because God wants our joy. God is with us, wherever we go. So there is no reason to be afraid, as the Bible reminds us in some form at least 365 times.
We do not need to be afraid because God writes straight with crooked lines, creating beauty out of our chaos. We do not need to be afraid because God wastes nothing, because our failures are formative, our losses illuminating. They shape us, but they are not us. We are not our failures, nor our successes.
What I do is me, for that I came – you are what you do, not how someone reacts to or assesses what you do. The path you choose is yours, whether you walk with others for some noble cause on well-trod ground, or you summon the courage in the face of fear and take Frost’s advice:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is vice president of mission and ministry. This is the final appearance of As This Jesuit Sees It … this semester.