There are many upsides to living on a school schedule. Regular breaks. Work that changes with the seasons. Starting and finishing, feeling accomplished at the end of a semester.
But there is at least one downside to living a life of almost-perpetual studenthood (which, except for a five-year gap, Tim and I have been doing since early childhood). Being a student is about getting you ready for the next thing. Elementary school prepares you for junior high prepares you for high school prepares you for college prepares you for the career you want when you graduate. It’s about equipping you with the skills and tools and experience you’ll need to be successful–one day.
Being prepared for transitions is smart. Tough consequences usually await people who don’t plan at all. The problem comes when the next thing becomes the thing that we live for, and everything we do today is in preparation for tomorrow.
The Common Core Standards (not that I want to open that can o’ worms on this post, but it’s a good example) drill “college readiness” into teacher’s heads. Give them all the reading/writing/speaking/thinking skills they’ll need for college. Make sure what you’re doing is transferable to other contexts. Your job is to get them fully prepared.
Sometimes it seems like education has no present relevance at all.
But that’s not how it should be. There are voices in education (like that of the wonderful Eli Goldblatt) who protest this future focus and insist that students need education that is valuable for them today. Teenagers, for example, ask pressing, current questions about their identity. They are making ethical choices, dealing with interpersonal conflict, deciding how to spend their time. School can help them with those things today. Reading about Hester Prynne’s alienation can help an ostracized teen process her loneliness. Writing a paper reconciling two opposing viewpoints can help a student understand mediation strategies. Studying the effects of pop culture on the mind can make teens more aware of what’s influencing them.
As a student again, I know that I need to be focusing on those aspects of my education that are developing me as a thinker and scholar today. And yet the “living for the next” mentality so easily creeps into my thinking. I couldn’t wait to be done with this semester. I know next year I’ll be so excited to be done with winter term, then with my summer fellowship, first year exam, second year classes, second year exam, third year classes, prospectus, site research, dissertation.
It’s not just education that creates this mentality. Sometimes, it’s phases of life. Kids can’t wait to be teenagers. Teens can’t wait to be adults. Singles just want to married. Married couples just want kids. Parents of young kids can’t wait for them to get older. Parents of teens can’t wait for them to leave home. People chase after better careers, better homes (and gardens-ha ha), better ways of life. We think, “Once I get there, life will be perfect.”
There’s nothing wrong with anticipation…until it start to rob us of the present. When the only place we find joy is in something we don’t have yet, we’re in trouble. Because the truth is that we’ll never make it there. “The next thing” has some distinctly mirage-like qualities, and sometimes, it’s just an out-and-out lie. “The next thing” may alleviate certain present discomforts and challenges, but it will bring a whole set of new ones.
Jesus said to let the day’s own troubles be sufficient for the day, and I think there’s also truth to be found in letting the day’s own joys be sufficient for the day.
Discontent says, “What I have today isn’t making me happy. I’m putting my hope in tomorrow.”
Contentment says, “I choose to find joy where I am now. What God has given me today is enough.”
I don’t think this means slapping a happy face on bad circumstances. (That’s not what joy is.) I think it means resting from our constant striving for the next so that we don’t find ourselves suddenly full of regret that we missed present blessings in anticipation of future ones.