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When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Human Being

Two recent conversations have me thinking about what I want to be when I grow up.

The first was with a recruiter for a Christian university over coffee a few days ago. I asked her about common questions that she gets from parents considering post-secondary education for their kids. She sighed, and listed off what was an unsurprising itemization of the requisite programs and degrees that would get their child the right kinds of jobs in the future. We mused about how little interest students (or educators) seem to have these days in things like virtue or being properly formed as human beings. Education is about dumping facts into brains so that these brains can then go out into the world and make money. You can figure out what kind of a person you want to be on your own time. Or not. So it seems, at any rate.

The second was with a good friend in the business world who is well acquainted with hiring and firing, assembling and disassembling teams. He told me that when he was younger he carefully scrutinized resumes, looking for the right credentials, the appropriate degrees, etc. “Now,” he said, “I mostly just try to make sure they’re not a**holes.” Anyone can accumulate a list of professional credentials (or make it look like they have). More valuable (and rare), apparently, is the ability to simply be a kind and considerate human being who can work well in a team. My friend went so far as to say that character accounted for 70-80 percent of what he looked for in an interview these days. “You can teach good people a lot of practical skills,” he said. “It’s much harder to teach skilled people to be good.”

These two conversations are probably not terribly surprising to you. And yet, we continue to prioritize human doing over human being. We routinely ask kids the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By which we mean, of course, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” We’re not really asking what kinds of people they aspire to be; we’re asking about what job they want to do. We’re not much better as adults. What’s the first question you get in any new social situation? “So, what do you do?” I suppose we’re at least more honest about it than with the question we ask kids—we don’t even bother with the word “be” anymore. We know by now that we are human doings not human beings.

So I was busy lamenting these regrettable realities when an uncomfortable question began to worm its way into my brain: What about you? It’s easy to self-righteously whine and pine for some idealized past where human beings appropriately valued character and virtue and could barely have imagined it not being a part of anything resembling a proper education. But what about me? How am I doing with being?

I decided to write my own answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Or, at least, to write the kind of answer I would admire or aspire to. Here goes…

  1. I want to be kind. I want to live by the rule that really is golden. I want my doings to be constrained and shaped by what I would want done to and for me.
  2. I want to be resilient. I don’t want to be bowed low by adversity or ground down into cynicism by pain and struggle. I want to rise to challenges.
  3. I want to pursue the truth. And I want to learn that truth is not just about collecting the right amount of empirically verifiable data about the world. I want to know what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. And to live accordingly—as if the good, the true, and the beautiful had a claim upon me.
  4. I want to tell the truth. Even when it’s not convenient for me. I want to be honest about my motives. I want to do what is right and honourable, even when nobody is watching. I want to avoid flattery—seeking it out to boost my ego or dispensing it to grease the machinery of various social contexts.
  5. I want to wean myself from the disease of doing good deeds to be noticed by others. I want to jump off the merry-go-round of constantly trying to sell ourselves and our ideas to one another online. I want to be able to subsist apart from easy applause.
  6. I want to be a person of courage. I want to have the moral character to refuse to go along with the herd. I want to have the strength to follow my convictions, even when I will not be praised for doing so.
  7. I want to be comfortable with silence. I want to not need to be entertained.
  8. I want to be one who is formed in prayer. I want to have my way of being shaped by the discipline of confession and praise. I want the words of Scripture to sink into my marrow that I might know how to live in response to the words, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
  9. I want to assume the best in people rather than the worst. I want to be a principled abstainer from the ugly forms of discourse that dominate the public square. I want to steer clear of mobs and their insatiable desire for scapegoats. I don’t want to have to have to constantly be convincing myself of my rightness and goodness by gleefully heaping scorn upon the wrongness and badness of others.
  10. I want to be  willing to say, “I don’t know.”
  11. I want to laugh more often than is appropriate.
  12. I want to weep with those who weep. Or at least I want to want to.
  13. I want to be someone who is willing to say, “I have done wrong. Please forgive me.”
  14. I want to be a prodigal forgiver. I want to somehow be part of binding up the wounds that fester between human beings. I want to somehow be part of creating little rivulets of freedom and grace that can move between people and among communities.
  15. I want to be suspicious of my own motives. I want to recognize that a view or an approach to an issue isn’t necessarily right just because I happen to hold it. I want to retain the ability to be self-critical, to hold up a mirror to myself and my motives, even when what I see looking back isn’t terribly pretty.
  16. I want to be a person of rooted faith in and devotion to Christ. I want to believe his gospel and participate in his kingdom. I want to experience his forgiveness and embrace his summons to rise to new life. I want to see him as he is and not in the many ways I am tempted remake him in my own image. I want to (gulp) share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and resurrection.
  17. I want to learn how to die.
  18. I want to be a lover of God and neighbour. Because this, apparently, takes care of everything else. Or so Jesus says, at any rate. And I want to believe him.

When I grow up I might be a pastor or a writer. I might also be a truck driver or a garbage collector or a labourer or a gas station attendant or a welder or a farmer or a clerk at a grocery store or a FedEx delivery person… I might be unemployed or underemployed. I don’t really know what kinds of human “doings” my future might hold. But whatever the doings end up looking like, this is what I want to be when I grow up.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great list. To add one quickly: I want to learn to grow old (to borrow a title from one of Paul Tournier’s books, “Learning to Grow Old”). That’s where I’m at, at the moment.

    Last night, the men’s group I facilitate considered Romans 12:9-16 as this kind of list of what we want to be when we grow up. Let us be human and humane; let us be Christ-like; let us be like Christ. Shalom.

    October 25, 2017
    • Thank you, Rusty. And thank you for adding to the list! I suspect I could have made it a lot longer than it was. There are so many things that humans ought to aspire to be (many of which are summed up by that marvelous passage in Romans!).

      Yes, let us be Christ-like.

      October 25, 2017
  2. Heather G #

    Ryan,
    When I read your blog I feel like the top half was someone bothersome and the bottom half was brilliant. So if I may share both my criticism and my praise?
    When I went to University, I wasn’t looking for my university to teach me character or how to be a human. I look to God for that, and to fellowship with other believers. When I go into my auto mechanic’s office, I don’t expect him to say to me,”Everyone who comes in here just expects to get their cars fixed! No one seems to care about getting their heart fixed!”
    That’s my criticism – the first half of this post reminds me of the Christian-y way of complaining about the world, complaining that say, there isn’t enough “Christ in Christmas” (when Christmas isn’t a christian holiday anyway) or Starbucks should have had cups that were more decorative for the holiday (red cups were somehow antiChrist) or that shoppers are too materialistic and want too much stuff (which, Christian business owners profit from and which keeps their business afloat.) It’s seemingly self-righteous ranting to go on about such things. Universities sell a product – no, it’s not personal formation, but does it need to be? Universities teach practical work skills, and their concern with personal formation begins and ends where it impacts someone’s ability to do whatever they’ve signed up to be trained in (so nursing programs do foster caring, and elementary teaching programs foster attentiveness to children.)
    But this doesn’t mean people don’t want personal formation. It’s just that our lives exist on several different levels – I need character, and emotional regulation, and above all a deep relationship with Jesus. But I also need to know how to prepare a slide and run chemical analysis if I’m going to work in a medical laboratory and thats what a University will give me. Why take the fact that University students and University professors see their job as training young people in work skills and not character as something else to complain about and softly condemn the world for?
    The second half of your blog post is, as I said, brilliant. You did an excellent job of stating so many aspects of what it means to be a well-developed human emotionally and spiritually. I just think you could have posted such a brilliant list without finding some innocuous element of society to point a finger at in the process.
    And, there are still Christian colleges and Christian Universities, if one really needs their job skill training to be immersed in character building material too. Heck, at my secular university, we had a very vibrant Christian fellowship with cell groups and vibrant teaching weekly. Anyway. For what its worth. If you want to encourage character development at a university, I’d encourage you to help pay the support raised salary of a Campus Crusade leader or some other campus volunteer worker who pours into the students.
    Peace out,
    Heather

    October 25, 2017
    • Thanks, Heather, for both your criticism and your praise.

      I won’t offer too much by way of response—I suspect a lot of what resonates or fails to resonate boils down to taste. But I would say that the view of university that you describe above (i.e., the comparison to the mechanic) is a relatively recent and uniquely modern view of what education is for. For much of human history, education was about producing something like well-rounded citizens, not just training them for a vocation. You couldn’t claim to be well educated if you hadn’t studied a bit of philosophy and ethics. Certainly the ancient Greeks would have considered the training of virtue as intrinsic to the task of education. Our present-day assumptions about what education is for is, in my view, part of the problem. Same goes for the assumptions buried in our questions of kids and adults (“What do you want to be?” “What do you do?”). What we do is more important, it seems, than who we are or are becoming. In that sense, the first half of the post is deeply connected to the second. At least in my view.

      Of course, I regret that this strikes you as a “Christian-y way of complaining about the world.” I can assure you that this is not what I intended. I suppose all I would really say in my defense is that conversations with people are often my “way in” to certain topics and reflections on this blog—they give me a bit of a spur to reflect on our cultural moment and how we ought to inhabit it.

      October 25, 2017

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