David Brooks recently observed that moments of suffering help us to realize that all of us think we are “our plans.” Our lives and identity are shaped around what we are planning for ourselves and our futures. Most of the time we take this for granted; we don’t think about it. But moments when our plans are thrown into question and our expectations are dashed, these are the times when we come face to face with the link between our identity and our plans.
For seven years, I was a university professor. During one memorable semester, I had a student-athlete who suffered a significant injury with one of the core muscles that moved her hip. She was a basketball player and had played basketball for much of her life. Her college experience revolved around her role on the basketball team, including her tuition, since she was studying on an athletic scholarship. Yet all at once, she was unable to play and had to sit out for the rest of the season. Medical professionals were unsure about the best approach to take that might lead to healing. It was unknown if she would be able to play again.
Her injury completely threw her off. Suddenly she was asking questions like “who am I?” and “what now?” The disruption of her plans raised questions about her self-understanding. Previously, she always had an answer. “I’m a basketball player. Basketball is my life.” Yet, when she couldn’t play anymore, the limited view that “basketball is life” was suddenly felt at the deepest level.
Obviously, there was more to life than basketball. Of course, this was already something that she knew in a tacit way. But up to this point in her life, she didn’t have to think about it. Basketball was always there. And presumably it would always be there. But now she was pressed to face a reality, a future, that didn’t align with her plans. And effectively, it called her very identity into question.
If we are not our plans, what are we? Perhaps we are our opportunities. But this sort of answer has to be contextualized and specified for two reasons. First, not all of us have (or will have) the same opportunities. Second, we’re not talking about a pie-in-the-sky idea like imagining the “world as our playground” as if our opportunities are unlimited. The conditions and contingences of our opportunities are numerous, making opportunities limited for all of us. Nevertheless, we all have some.
In the midst of what appears to be the disintegration of our plans, we are presented with an opportunity. We are offered a chance, as it is often said in the business and political world, to pivot. Imagine pivoting, which is an athletic move turned metaphor, as the sort of re-orientation that maintains an anchor point. In the athletic move, one foot remains planted, while the other foot moves and turns the body in a different direction, from which a new move will commence. So, our plans are gone, but if we retain an anchor, a pivot point where we are still rooted firmly in place, we can rest a little and retain a confidence. While our plans are no longer in play, our identity may not be as threatened as it often feels like it is. This is part of what it means to say that we are not our plans.
Another former student found a way to pivot. She had entered college to be a nurse, believing for most of her life that nursing was her future. However, she didn’t make it through the gauntlet that is chemistry, one of the most rigorous gatekeeping mechanisms for students who are pursuing a variety of professional medical degrees. While her experience was crushing in the short term, she didn’t quit. Rather, after a brief period of grief, she ended up finishing her degree in English, writing an undergraduate thesis that was one part memoir, one part guide about her journey into this new opportunity. In other words, she left some notes for others on what she learned about how to pivot.
In the midst of our current pandemic crisis, there are countless people who have had their plans exploded in surprising and devastating ways. Many students have had their proms cancelled. High school and college graduations—some of the biggest milestones of life—have gone digital. Sports seasons have abruptly ended. Jobs have been lost and many more who are just entering the job market have no idea what the future holds. Major world events and traditions are cancelled because people cannot gather. Investments and financial stability are upended. Many of the vital non-profits that serve a vast array of social needs are now suddenly facing significant risk. Some long-established businesses are even calling it quits after just a few weeks.
But we are not our plans. Our identity runs much deeper than what we were planning to do tomorrow, next week, or next year. And that means we have an anchor from which we can pivot. Yet, not all anchors are as stable as others.
If your anchor is chasing the American Dream—a good job so you can make money, find success, marry an attractive spouse, have beautiful children, buy all the best stuff, and make yourself the envy of everyone, all for the sake of being happy—that anchor may have just disintegrated before your eyes. This may be especially true if you’re a Millennial.
If your anchor has always been looking inside of yourself and following your heart, marching to the beat of your own drummer, you doing you—perhaps your anchor seems to have evaporated in a flash. After all, it’s likely your plans emerged out of what you believed you found in your heart. And the passion behind those plans, however real it feels, may be looking for a new target.
So how do we anchor ourselves to something we can be confident in? How do we known which direction to face and what opportunities to pursue when we have to pivot? None of us have trained for this. We’re unprepared. But we want to move forward in hope, and with as much confidence as possible.
Perhaps the suffering we’re feeling gives us the chance to recognize that the “promises” of the American Dream aren’t really the promises we were told they were. Sadly, we were misled.
Even more, perhaps the promises of finding your authentic self and your true passions by looking inside yourself are also turning out to be a letdown. The wisdom of the ages, from philosophical and religious traditions across world history have warned us of this. But our present cultural situation stubbornly encourages us to focus almost solely on ourselves and our own happiness. Our ears are closed to hearing alternatives. Except when we face a crisis.
Years ago, I had a conversion experience. Subsequently, all the plans I had for how I imagined my life would go either disappeared or were radically reoriented. Things I thought I would never do or would never be interested in became the very things I found myself doing and digging into with an almost insatiable vigor. A new anchor emerged in my life and it’s been there ever since.
That anchor was a person, and his name is Jesus. Meeting him was something I had intentionally tried to avoid over the years. Yet it seemed to happen by accident. I wasn’t in the middle of a crisis at the time but meeting him seem to cause one. I had to figure out who I was now, once I came to know my identity not by looking into my heart, but by knowing that he thought of me as his child. His influence over the shape of my life was tumultuous for my original plans. But it’s been a grand adventure ever since, and remains so as I write these words.
The two things that I’ve learned about Jesus are these: he’s the most stable anchor that I know of and when pivoting, he’s always a point of reference for where I should aim myself. He’s never let me down. One of the best parts about knowing Jesus is that my own plans can take a back seat. And to the extent that I’ve been successful at releasing my plans (or when I’ve faced challenges and have had to re-orient), I find myself always a part of a bigger set of plans than I ever could have imagined, even when things aren’t always clear. It’s like he wants me here, part of this thing, this movement that’s bigger than myself, and through which I’ve experienced more fulfillment than I think I would have if I had it all my way.
We’re not our plans. But with Jesus, our plans can easily be reshaped to align with his. Perhaps we’ll never achieve the American Dream that way. Perhaps we’ll have to make some radical shifts. He doesn’t promise it’ll be easy, or that it won’t at times be painful. I’m glad for that, because he’s honest that life isn’t always going to make us happy. Yet, when our identity is no longer rooted in our plans but instead anchored in Jesus, we can be content, fulfilled and joyful, come what may.