Last summer I worked for a program called Summit in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The town was nestled on an incline crowded with crunchy-granola hippies and tourist shops between Garden of the Gods and the base of Pike’s Peak. It was glorious, gorgeous, and lacked the despicable east-coast humidity. But what Manitou lacked in sticky condensation, it made up for in dry heat. One fiery afternoon, I decided to walk down to the pool to cool off for a bit. I had the day off and the sound of children’s voices flooding over the ridge told me that the super cool neighborhood kiddos were there to play. Once I set my things down I walked to the side of the pool to join the cannon ball crew competing for the biggest splash. “You can’t jump in here!” Rafferty, age 3, proclaimed emphatically followed by a laugh of disbelief. “Why not, Raff?” I asked. “Because you are a grownup! Grownups don’t jump into the pool, silly!” I furrowed my brow mischeviously and cracked a smile as I asked Rafferty another question, “How old do you have to be to be a grownup?” “Twelve,” he said with a grin, then he held his nose and immediately jumped into a ball and into the water.
When I was a kid, I associated being a grownup with having life figured out. I may not have discerned a definitive age like Rafferty of when someone became a grownup, but I did imagine what it would be like when the time came. Needless to say, the grown-up territory comes with lots of surprises.
What I have learned since I passed beyond the 23-year mark is that growing up is full of misleading ideals that are at the root of a lot of anxiety and confusion. Many of us face a series of crossroads in our early adult life, and sometimes they turn into what we term ‘quarter-life-crisises.’ How do we discern what to do as we navigate the transitions into adulthood and begin to make decisions for ourselves? A few years later we must face the question “what am I doing with my life?” yet again post-grad school or post-disasterous first entry level job. It’s not all bad, just unexpectedly confusing. But what I’ve learned is that the seasons of change and uncertainty-those growing up pains-don’t have to lead to anxiety or indecision if they are wrapped in the fabric of faithfulness.
Some of the best wisdom I’ve gained along the way has been from my delightful friend GK Chesterton. In an essay titled On Scandals and Simplicity, Chesterton says that we don’t need more “high thinking and plain living” sorts of people. Instead, the world needs people of high living and plain thinking. High thinking can get us into trouble. I don’t think Chesterton conflates “high thinking” with thinking well and deeply about something to know what it is and if it is true, rather this precisely is what he means by plain thinking. He says high thoughts are the “harsh and fanciful” mass of popular ethics; they don’t often conform to reality. Today, this amounts to what Dr. Anthony Bradley writes of in his 2013 article on “The New Legalism.” High thinking causes us to shoot towards ideals and distractions and miss the real stuff of life. High thinking can give us the crescent of a vision for our lives, but it can’t set down a true course of action for us to follow. It also brings us anxiety when we try to figure out what the contours of our life ought to look like outside of living well and inviting others to live well too – according to the way God has ordered the world.
Instead of seeking first to change culture or the world, to be extraordinary or awesome, we are called to fidelity to God and to others: to seek first His kingdom. This is the fountainhead of a virtuous and fruitful life. It’s about my faithfulness, and not so much about the quantifiable result. This is what Chesterton means by high living. A wholesome understanding of high living diminishes the gravity of our daily decisions, while increasing their weight. With virtue at the epicenter, the crucial questions we have to answer shift from which school I should pick to whom I should be while I am there. For sure, these decisions of what to do are important, but they are of secondary importance next to the decision to live highly.
Oftentimes we don’t know what will happen two steps down the proverbial road, but we usually have an inclination of what that first step must be. Even so, we tend to over think our way into indecision and inaction, we wonder “What am I even doing?” We have lost our aim. We could be doing something, but are too afraid of making a wrong decision to take a step forward. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote that “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed.” Now, he says a new humility has been introduced into life. “The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
Indeed, paralyzing indecision and anxiety often result from fear or a desire for control the outcome of a situation. We must be content to remember what CS Lewis says, that success of any outcome is up to God, our task is to be faithful. Or what TS Eliot says in the Four Quartets, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I don’t know when exactly someone becomes a grownup, but I do know that forgetting the first thing, faithfulness wherever I am called, is plain living and the least grown-up thing in the world.