Something I hear often from grad students (and say often myself) is “When I have a real job…” followed by some fantasy about the future like saving for a house downpayment or going on a big vacation or not being in the lab after midnight.
Since these sentiments come out of my mouth, too, I obviously understand where they’re coming from. In grad school, like in college, during an engagement, or just before starting a family, there is a sense of now-but-not-yet. I have this life and it’s not quite what I want it to be because there is a waiting period, a working period until I can achieve something that will usher my life into its next stage.
But the fact is that just because I don’t have a real job and I don’t yet have what I’m hoping and striving for doesn’t mean that my life isn’t real, isn’t going by moment by moment.
When I was a kid playing sports, my coaches would tell our teams to treat practice like the game. You were supposed to work hard in practice, to take it seriously and not beg off from attempting the killer shots or sprinting all-out for the ball. That way when game time came you were fully prepared for the level of play required in competition.
I believe that our ordinary, everyday actions form our character and what we’re currently practicing is a good indication of what we’ll do in the future. Another way to look at this is that whatever our intentions are to be something different, how we act every day further entrenches that behavior into our character. There is no such thing as a time-out from real life that we can take during college or grad school or while on vacation or on Halloween.
One of my favorite movies in college was Mean Girls (instantly available on Netflix!). The premise is that a nice, innocent girl, Cady, is made a pawn in a powermatch between two former friends – the artsy outsider, Janis, recruits Cady to spy on her “plastic,” popular, mean-girl enemy, Regina. Cady pretends to be like Regina and her friends to get close to them, but through the course of the movie her real personality comes more and more to reflect their mean, shallow, manipulative ways. Finally, Janis confronts Cady with the truth of who she has become – at some point she transitioned from a nice girl to a mean girl despite the fact that she thought she was just faking it.
The reason that Kyle and I don’t put off saving for retirement or tithing is that we are paid real money at our not-real jobs. And we have grown our real relationship into a marriage and have developed real friendships and really invested in our church community during this ‘magical time-out’ period of life. We practice now how we want to live in the future to the very best extent that we can – of course given money and time limitations, our values have to be prioritized, but we’re hitting the top ones.
I encourage you to practice for your real life, even if you don’t consider it quite arrived yet. Implement percentage-based budgeting no matter how low your income (above subsistence!) so that you can live out your values now. Don’t put off saving for the long term in favor of wants because you don’t want to look back with regret on the time and money that slipped away. Cut up your credit cards before two months of carrrying a balance becomes twenty. Give generously now and watch your character be transformed. There’s always a reason that it’s hard to live how you desire now, but it will probably be hard later, too, and with every day that goes by you more deeply etch your habits and personality traits.
Of course, this principle goes way beyond money issues. I’m glad we’ve been sending our money where we have, but I don’t have a daily habit of prayer and I’ve become more of a TV-watcher than an avid consumer of books, which I was when I was a child. Be who you want to be now because it’s getting harder to change all the time.
I know there are some slivers of life that do have to take a time-out in some situations. When you are intensely working to pay off debt, no, you won’t be directly living out the value of saving for the future, but you are striving hard to get to a place where that is possible for you. When you are enrolled in a demanding graduate program, your personal relationships might suffer, but you hope that they will still be largely intact when you emerge on the other side. When you are taking a time-out, though, for whatever reason, I encourage you to keep visualizing what you want your life to be and make it like that vision in every way that is not directly prohibited by your situation. As soon as the external pressure keeping you from your real life is removed, you should snap into what you visualized for all that time like a rubber band returning to rest. Don’t continue on in your time-out habits for longer than absolutely necessary.
P.S. For those of you who like listening to sermons, our pastor preached one on a similar topic a couple years ago that spoke to many of the 20-somethings in our church. It’s about David’s time as a shepherd after he had been anointed king and how God used that time to build his skills and character.
Is there anything keeping you from living (a component of) your real life now? What practices do you have the ability to change but just haven’t yet? Do you have experience in the difficulty of altering a way of living that you had for a long time?