The Price and Promise of Progress

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

This past season saw the culmination of my graduate studies, and, very likely, the end of my collegiate career. The graduation ceremony itself was preceded by the strenuousness of finals, and succeeded by all the usual pomp and circumstance associated with the consummation of the academic tradition. Then, no sooner than it had begun almost six years ago, having certainly been not soon enough for some, it was all over. The only tangible remnant is a slightly nicer-than-average sheet of paper with some slightly nicer-than-average printed font at the cost of a slightly larger-than-average student-sized debt.

It might seem somewhat unfitting to burden a piece of paper with representing the exploits of forty thousand hours, and the resulting characterological overhaul, but, of course, that was never really the intent. Most people don’t anticipate that graduation day, at least in and of itself, will transform them into anything other than what they already are, or, for that matter, what they were the day before and will be the day after. Indeed, the degree itself matters a great deal for certain non-trivial things like employment marketability, but real acumen accumulates much deeper than the hand can reward, or the tongue can praise.

For who can decide at what point along the journey to knowledge we become sufficiently endowed to merit distinction? And how does personal transformation get aggregated into a singular critical mass worthy of regard? The easily measurable acquisition of technical knowledge can often steal the spotlight from the messy and complicated process of development that occurs at the level of being itself during these formative years. And, although the nature of this change is by no means well-understood, it nonetheless comes to direct, across time, the process of our becoming.

We are indeed creatures of habit, and the biological utility of our comfort zone is largely self-evident. It makes sense for a living being to consistently seek out and maintain a familiar context to preserve this state of being for as long as it can. After all, life wouldn’t be very good at itself if things went around indiscriminately dying all the time. And nine times out of ten that answer would suffice, but then again, I don’t write these things nine days out of ten either, so please bear with me.

Change constantly threatens to tip life’s volatility against us and place us squarely in unfamiliar territory. Like cats in a new house, most of us aren’t particularly happy when unexpected change transmutes our creature comforts into chaos. We all know, as a matter of instinct, that danger brews beyond the pale, so it’s probably best to just play it safe, stay inside, and live to die another day. But another day we all die. Even if you do make it, healthy and in tact, all the way into ripe old age, cellular senescence and organ failure are sure not to be so serendipitously inclined.

We also know that discovery and self-definition are to be found far outside the confines of our various well-circumscribed shires. After all, that is the premise of legends, and the greatest adventures do not come without their perils. Those who incautiously probe the boundaries of their transformative capacity do not return themselves unchanged. They addict themselves to an entheogen of unknown magnitude, but those who spend their lives running away consign themselves to a far worse fate. Because, try as we might to avoid it, change finds us all in various stages of preparedness or flight, and presents itself simultaneously as savior and judge, donor and debt collector. Which of these you encounter appears to be a matter of personal determination. For example, it is already well-documented in the relevant psychological literature that the only consistently reliable cure for any phobia is voluntary confrontation with and incremental exposure to that which is the subject of the fear.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Socrates was among the first to capitulate this idea into his memorable maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and then again perhaps more succinctly in the even shorter adage, “Know thyself.” At first glance, both these axioms may appear to be of little worth. After all, who better to inherently, and without additional effort, know yourself in the most profound manner than you, having possessed and been possessed by yourself for the entirety of your conscious existence? However, there is a distinction to be made between the sea of subordinate yous that take on various purposes throughout the course of any given day, and the superordinate You that mediates between them and selects for optimal self-composition.

Although such a process may seem foreign and highly cerebral, everyone knows what it’s like to be confronted by themselves with an urge to do something spontaneously immoral, which is then hopefully overruled by the moral conscience. As as result, it’s not particularly useful to ask “who am I?” since it isn’t so obvious whether you are the tempter or the tormented. Existing conditions act as a single snapshot in the collage of our lives, not the other way around. It is more appropriate to ask “who am I meant to be?” since aspirations define a person much more completely than their present circumstances. The parts of ourselves we despise are no less a part of us than the parts we love, and refinement comes at a price. After the dragon skin is torn off, we won’t be left with much, but far better to do so than to live and die a monster.

So you might start to feel like you grew up too fast… And if only you could return to your childhood, you could better integrate your experience to form yourself into the sort of person you always wanted to be. If you could turn back the clock, you’d make sure the light defeated the dark, because, if life were a movie, it surely wouldn’t end like this. So we return again to reacquaint ourselves with the past in order to mine as yet undiscovered revelation for use in the present. But memory fails and regret too readily takes it place. The past quickly fades, the present evades, and the future parades a new day always just one more away. Sometimes the only thing waking us up in the morning is the conviction that we could have done better yesterday.

It becomes all we can do to call forth the fortitude required, when the time comes, to discern between reality and the dream. Return too soon, and you’ll always wonder if you could have come back greater and stronger, but stay too long and you might not make it back at all. So we fumble like fools through the impossible decision that everyone must make — to keep going until we find it all, or to come back before we’ve lost it all. Either way, we will go further than we ever wanted to go, stay longer than we ever wanted to stay, and pay more than we could ever afford. But we’ve all already bought the ticket, so the least we figure we should probably do is take the ride.

We are often faced with two paths — one of sand and one of snow, having a sense that we are not evanescent, but rather created in a short time for all time. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “of what is great, one must either be silent or speak with greatness”, but we so often content ourselves with whispers and wishes as we inhabit disparate consciousnesses — one of potential, and one of reality — uncertain as to the nature of their coincidence.

But I hope all of this doesn’t sound too discouraging, since I merely mean it to be an exploration into a thought process that, on some days, can be all too familiar. Fortunately for us, the simplicity of grace provides the perfect backdrop to the complexity of our daily wanderings. It remains our honor, as it always has been, to be a part of what happens when the unstoppable force of God’s love crashes into the formidable pain found around every corner in human hearts. What greater call to being is there than that? Remember that you are not alone as you find what it means to be a light in the darkness, and don’t let your uncertainties and insecurities get in the way when you are called upon to shine brightest of all. Don’t be afraid to make your home on the shoulders of giants and set your sights on the highest horizon.

Times change.

Our God is forever.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash



I aspire here to nothing more and nothing less than accompanying the human spirit on its journey home — to dwell deeply, challenging and uplifting the soul.

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The Searching Soul

I aspire here to nothing more and nothing less than accompanying the human spirit on its journey home — to dwell deeply, challenging and uplifting the soul.