Once in a while, I come across a quotation that clears away the fog and threatens to fundamentally reorient my thinking. I had such a moment recently, reading an excerpt from a letter written by a father to his 18-year-old adopted son. Here it is, taken from Gilbert Meilaender’s thought-provoking book about adoption, Not by Nature but by Grace: Forming Families through Adoption (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2016):
Much too often we suppose that the way to live is to think through what we want to do and then figure out how to do it. People talk constantly about setting goals. (Colleges and universities love to do this, except they get even more pretentious, talking about their “mission.” How I dislike it.) Thinking this way does not really prepare us well for living as responsible people, because the truth is that life seldom works like that.
Much of the time we are already committed in important ways before we really decide what our goals should be. And, because we’re already committed, other people have expectations based on those commitments. The trick of life is not to figure out who I am and then decide what sorts of commitments such a person should make. Don’t imagine that the point of life is to set goals. Think, instead, that its point is to be faithful to the commitments already built into your life. People who make goals central are people who think the most important things in life are consciously chosen. People who make faithfulness central are people who realize that, quite often, our obligations come to us in ways that are unexpected, unchosen, and even unwanted.
The parallels to a woman carrying an “unwanted” baby, particularly a woman with certain goals that will be threatened by her unborn child, are obvious. But that would be too easy. It is always tempting to apply truth to others, rather than to oneself, which is precisely Jesus’ point when he calls us to remove the log in our own eyes before attempting to remove the speck in another’s (Matthew 7:1-5).
I am a goal-oriented man, and I live in the midst of goal-oriented people. I see it in many of the young women and men at Appalachian State University, where I teach. I see it in the number of self-help books written to inspire us to realize our dreams, accomplish our goals, and live our best life now. I see it in my irritable response to my six-year-old son when he interrupts me while I’m doing something oh-so-important. (I remember Peter Kreeft’s answer when he was asked which of his dozens of books he considered most important. His said it was the books he didn’t write, so that he could be present to his children. Just so.)
“The trick of life… is to be faithful to the commitments already built into your life.” The Scriptures would agree, for they say much about faithfulness, about fulfilling duties that fall to us whether we have chosen them or not. They also say practically nothing about goals as we understand them. I realize that setting faithfulness and goal-setting over against each other can be a false dichotomy. But sometimes it isn’t. Many of us would do well to ask a simple question: Why do we do what we do?
Is it possible that the church herself unwittingly feeds into the culture of abortion by being as goal-oriented as the rest of the world? Or, asked differently, if Christians were known first for faithfulness, rather than for achievement, might that quiet witness help men and women faced with the temptation to choose their goals over their duties choose faithfulness instead?