On Friday, I participated in yet another high school graduation – not mine, of course, but my students. As they leave the hearth and home for colleges and eventual careers, I have ruminated on what advice to impart as they try to discern their destiny. I would remind them of what the Psalmist says:
The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24)
In verse 23, there is a prerequisite for the promise. We should read the verse as a conditional statement: If and when a man delights in the Lord’s way, then and only then will his steps be established. By established, the Psalmist means “firmly placed” or “ordered.” What is the Lord’s way? The prophet Micah offers a succinct and salient answer: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). In verse 24, there is a recognition that we often fail to delight ourselves in the Lord’s way, falling whenever we join our voices to that lyric of defiant self-reliance once sung by Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” The Chairman of the Board, as Sinatra was called, got it wrong when he asserts, “For what is a man, what has he got / If not himself, then he has naught.” A correct rendering substitutes “God” for “himself”: without God, man is naught (Psalm 14:1). When we stumble, which is guaranteed because our delights are deceptive and disorderly, we can either confess the foolishness of going-it-alone, counting on the Lord’s helping hand to restore our walk, or continue along a path of damnation.
As a fifth-year university student at the University of Copenhagen, Soren Kierkegaard wrote a letter in 1835 that reveals extraordinary self-awareness and insight as he struggles to establish his steps. Kierkegaard was not yet mature enough in his faith to reify the Psalmist’s wisdom in his life. Pay close attention to the two metaphors below, which creatively communicate how the transition from youth to adulthood involves uncertainty and agitation.
Our early youth is like a flower at dawn with a lovely dewdrop in its cup, harmoniously and pensively reflecting everything that surrounds it. But soon the sun rises over the horizon, and the dewdrop evaporates; with it vanish the fantasies of life, and now it becomes a question (to use a flower metaphor once more) whether or not a person is able to produce – by his own efforts as does the oleander – a drop that may represent the fruit of his life. This requires, above all, that one be allowed to grow in the soil where one really belongs, but that is not always so easy to find. In this respect there exist fortunate creatures who have such a decided inclination in a particular direction that they faithfully follow the path once it is laid out for them without ever falling prey to the thought that perhaps they ought to have followed an entirely different path. There are others who let themselves be influenced so completely by their surroundings that it never becomes clear to them in what direction they are really striving. Just as the former group has its own implicit categorical imperative, so the latter recognizes an explicit categorical imperative. But how few there are in the former group, and to the latter I do not wish to belong. Those who get to experience the real meaning of Hegelian dialectics in their lives are greater in number. Incidentally, it is altogether natural for wine to ferment before it becomes clear; nevertheless this process is often disagreeable in its several stages, although regarded in its totality it is of course agreeable, provided it does in the end yield its relative results in the context of the usual doubt. This is of major significance for anybody who has come to terms with his destiny by means of it, not only because of the calm that follows in contrast to the preceding storm, but because one then has life in a quite different sense than before.
Naturally every person desires to work according to his abilities in a particular direction, namely, in that which is best suited to him as an individual. But which is that? Here I am confronted with a big question mark. Here I stand like Hercules – not at a crossroads – no, but at a multitude of roads, and therefore it is all the harder to choose the right one. Perhaps it is my misfortune in life that I am interested in far too many things rather than definitely in any one thing. My interests are not all subordinated to one but are all coordinate.
With maturity, the young Kierkegaard would learn that man is not “able to produce – by his own efforts as does the oleander – a drop that may represent the fruit of his life”; the Spirit produces this fruit by cultivating the soil of his heart (Gal. 5:22). He would learn that man does not achieve clarity after a process of fermentation unless he abides in the vine, which nourishes the doubter with wisdom (John 15:1-11). And finally, he would learn that immobility at the sheer number of choices can be resolved when a man “stands by the roads, and looks, and asks for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walks in it, and finds rest for his soul” (Jeremiah 6:16). These are the lessons that I pray my former students will learn earlier rather than later to avoid needless scrapes and stumbles in life.