For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11, RSV
A few weeks ago an old friend stopped by for a visit. In between discussing the finer points of the new Star Wars movie and drinking Irish whiskey, somehow he and my husband and I got on the topic of building friendships. The long and short of it was a no-brainer: friendships don’t occur for the sake of friendship. As in, you can’t go out and claim someone and say, now we are friends. Now let’s be friends together. As we Jane Austen fans know, Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey is a little off her rocker, signaled at the start when she claims the young heroine Catherine at their first introduction with the overly-sanguine assertion that they are already friends. Friendship doesn’t work unless you have something outside of the need for friendship on which to build a relationship. And neither should this conundrum necessarily be approached with the idea of: if I do X, Y and Z, I will get friends. Therefore shall I do them. That would, I am afraid, miss the point.
My father told me a long time ago—one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from him—that if I did the things I loved the most, the things that made me happy to the core in a way nothing else could, that I would find myself surrounded by the people who loved those things as much as I did, and that I would then be gifted with a rich and fulfilling life full of common loves and blessings. It took me a while to figure out that the reason he is right is because the things that make us happy to the core are the things that God put on earth for us as individuals; what I mean is that we all have these particular things that we’re either good at or delight in—and sometimes both!—that are special just for us, God-wrapped variety parcels for each of us particular people.
I’m not even necessarily talking about the huge things here. Does baking a cake and seeing it rise and watching chocolate melt and swirl in a warm saucepan fill you with an overwhelming peace and contentment? Maybe you should take a cooking class, invest in some quality pots and pans, and learn all the tricks of the trade. Is there nothing that lifts your spirits and brings you closer to God more than an epic hike? Get a solid pair of boots, and hit the trails. Does singing make your heart hurt in all the right ways, even if you’re not very good at it? Take some music lessons, or join a choir.
But what about those big things? What should you study in college? What should you do for a living? Should you quit your job and go back to school for something else entirely? If you have been ill-at-ease, lonely and discontented, and if there is no vocational road-block to major changes (such as, if I quit my job my three toddlers and my wife will starve to death, or, you know, something like that), don’t be afraid to switch it up. If you get the sense that you have loves that are dormant or even moldering, that probably means that God has given you talents that you’re hiding under a bushel. (Of course, it might mean that you need to reexamine your priorities and realize that God has plans for you that are bigger than what you wanted for yourself—think George Bailey, people.)
Remember that the wonderful job you’ve been thinking about, or the ability to tap dance, or the perfect spouse and family that you might wish you had, are not going to hand themselves over to you if you sit at home and don’t do anything to make yourself into the person you’re supposed to be. Don’t waste your time wishing things would happen to you; make them happen, to the extent that you can. The great thing about going after your dreams (for example, studying 16th century polyphony, midwifery, baking, or copyediting, not that I personally would know anything about pursuing any of those dreams) is that, like my dad said, you meet some really cool people, and, what’s more, you find yourself with options instead of being stuck with nothing or feeling like there is only one path open to you.
Side-note (read: the whole point of why I wanted to write this post in the first place): Five days after my now-husband and I became engaged, I left Virginia for a month to go study publishing in Colorado at a program I’d had my eye on for absolute years. The stars had finally aligned, albeit at a somewhat odd time, and I was taking my chance by golly and going for it. All of a sudden I was back in school, living in a dorm, eating at a cafeteria, talking about career options, and, between writing papers at midnight and sneaking late night smokes, feeling like I had stepped back ten years in my life, back to a time when I wasn’t dating anyone, where my future was wide open, and all that I had to factor into my life plans was me and God. And as my classmates talked about moving to New York City and working with the Big Five, I knew with a strong certainty that I had that option. I could choose to not get married, and it would hurt for a bit, but I could have a pretty good life in publishing; all my teachers said so. And I would love it, and be good at it. Now, you should know, this guy back home was (is) phenomenal and entirely wonderful in all the right ways for me, and that we fell in love over shared practical pursuits like metaphysical poetry and inappropriate limericks (my English degree has been extremely useful, thank you very much). But it was made very clear to me, that month away, that he was but one path, and one of several I could choose. There was no sense of, “My life will be meaningless if I don’t marry him.” I had lots of other good things I could do, things I would be genuinely happy doing instead! I felt terribly guilty when I realized what was going on in my head, but in retrospect I cannot express how grateful I am. I had options, because, with God’s help and lots of work in lots of directions, I had figured out what I’d be good at. In the end, I married him instead of going to New York—and, alternatively, instead of becoming a midwife—because I wanted to, not because I had to.
Once you go after those dreams, big or small, you get your foot in a lot of doors, and you’ll find that all of a sudden you know enough to know if you actually want them instead of being tied in all of these knotty what-if scenarios. And you’ll know so many interesting people! And have friends absolutely all over the place, who care about all the same things you do, and you’ll realize that you could never be truly lonely again, even if you tried. And you’ll know at the end that you can face God squarely and say, yes, I did my best to figure out how you wanted me to use my loves and talents, and thank you to the ends of the earth for giving them to me—they made me so happy.