I was handed my Master’s of Theological Studies diploma yesterday. It hasn’t become a full reality to me for several reasons, but what’s interesting as a development in this time of transition is that in the past two weeks I’ve only thought of how I got here rather than where I’m going. Isn’t that the popular graduation gift, “Oh, the places you’ll go”? It’s a look to what’s next. What I thought would happen is I’d finish the school year, graduate, and look on to the next step in my life with a kind of disdain or light affection for the place I put up with for a few years. This sounds grim, but I thought this way for a while. I thought one hundred percent of my attention directed toward my career would be the wisest way to go about my life in my 20s, with partial attention to people I'd meet along the way.
Expecting detachment isn’t a stupid prediction simply because it’s how I acted when I finished my bachelor’s degree. I was hardly reminiscent of anything I’d done at Louisiana Tech, and I couldn’t wait to get out of Ruston. In fact, the summer before I left I remember calling a close friend in a near-breakdown state saying my summer was unbearable. It was, and I couldn’t wait to leave.
Oddly enough, when I got to SMU all I could think of was my life in Ruston and how much I missed the friends and familiarity I’d left behind. That year was one of the darkest twelve months of my life. I don’t remember seeing the moon once.
What’s happened at the end of my time at SMU is the reverse of what I expected. I came here thinking I would spend only two or three years studying theology, and eventually move on to a doctorate program that would open possibilities in having a career in theological education. None of that happened.
I feel ready to leave, but I also mourn the loss. The alma mater played at the commencement ceremony and presentation of my class in receiving our diplomas evoked such emotion in me, it’s left me puzzled as to why there’s more attachment to this campus than to my undergrad campus. I have one guess.
I don’t think I was capable of an emotional attachment to Louisiana Tech while I was there. It was only my final year there that I saw a maturation to the point of being able to appreciate what had happened, which was time spent as a graduate not taking classes. I was around college students living that lifestyle, but it involved no class time and it’s purpose was to listen to God in my own life and the lives of others on that campus. That’s the best I can describe that job. We were trying to make sense God and each other. Somehow doing that together reaped lasting rewards that I still benefit from today in the smallest of ways. And you wonder why they paid me for such a thing. Well, they didn’t. I did it for free.
What happened at SMU was another college experience, but this one had the foundation of what I’d done at Tech beneath it. I could see and feel things more acutely and I had the experience to articulate and identify what was happening in myself and the world around me. My understanding of the world was greater. I made more friends at SMU, I was more involved in campus life, I grew more while I was here. This is why my feelings have the volume turned up as I’m leaving.
I look back at my first quarter at Tech in the fall of 2001 and I see an eighteen year old boy. In many ways I’m the same person now. Some similarities between now and then are beneficial, and some I still hold on to, needing to be shed for my own betterment. I know how I felt then, and it’s completely different as I come to a close in my college career. I may return to it. I love learning and the academy may be the place for me, yet it doesn’t seem to be that way at the moment, and not listening to that voice would force me to commit the crime of self-deception.
A nice thing to say at times like these is that I have no regrets about the past. I’m happy with the way things are, so any regret or change in what happened would spoil it, right? It’s beautiful and comforting to hear and say, but it would be a lie. I have a ton of regrets amassed from decisions I made in the past four years. Would I take any of it back? Absolutely. It could’ve been much better. There were times when I clung to things that were killing me, and when I thought I’d dropped them for good they came back in ways I never expected. I shed old habits I shouldn’t have, and I created ones that do more harm than damage.
However, I don't see this as a reason for despair. Someone who gets bummed about realizing things could've been better has bigger problems to deal with. I see this as opportunity for growth. It's saying to myself, "Look, Will. You have so much more you could be doing. If you think that was good, then just wait." I'd say that's a reason for hope.
A good question to ask myself at this moment is whether or not I’ve become a better person in the past four years. I read stories about young people on the path to living out the best of what God gave them, and some tragic thing occurs and all is lost. Years are spent recovering from it. Listen to an honest testimony by anyone over the age of forty and you'll catch a hint of this reality. In a bracketed portion of their life, they came out worse off than before. It happens.
Again, this isn't a cause for despair. However, I will say I do not believe everything happens for a reason, or if it does, that everything happens for a good reason. Horrible, tragic, evil events occur and we're left making sense of them years later. This doesn't mean good is incapable of following these events, or that all hope is lost. It does mean, however, that regret is a legitimate feeling and life actually can be perfect.
First, I must say there are people in this world much better than others. The saying “All men are created equal” is a political term, not one that applies to other human relations. If that last sentence leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then I ask you to think of people that inspire you or people inciting awe when you see them or hear them speak. Don’t they seem so much better? And I mean “better” in the most basic sense of its meaning ("of a more excellent or effective type or quality"). This implies no competition or license to dominate, but it does allow us the wonderful right to be inspired by others. Life is a long battle and there is no question in my mind that I have gained ground that has been crucial to my success. I am a better person than I was four years ago. Growth is hard to measure when it is your own, but I’m nearly certain I am better than I was when I got here. That alone is worthy of gratitude.