I knew the question before the words even crossed my friend’s lips. It’s the inevitable question we’re all asked at some point in our life. Actually, it’s the question we’re asked at almost every point in our life, though it’s phrased differently at each point: the “what’s next in life” question.
In this particular instance, it took form as “You’ve done most of the expected things in life, when are you going to settle down and get married?” Up until this point, I had answered various forms of “what’s next” questions with my perfectly outlined five year plan. However, this time the answer wasn’t as simple, and I fumbled for words to respond.
Like a lot of people, I lived my early life on autopilot. We come to understand that that if we do the right things, the next stage in life will come naturally. If we graduate kindergarten, we go to first grade, after middle school, we go to high school and so on. Life just progresses as expected.
Sooner or later we start just checking off the boxes on our life plan while subconsciously wishing away the present in eager anticipation for whatever comes next. This is what I did. I thought I’d attend college, work couple years, get married and settle down to have kids by the time 30 rolled around. I was wrong.
My life is taking a very different path than I planned. Some of it is amazing and exciting: I’ve traveled, advanced my education and started a great career. However, despite all the good things happening in my life, I found myself swimming in disillusionment as I turned 30. At the time, I was reeling from a messy breakup that left me feeling as far as I had ever been from checking off that marriage and family box. My longing to achieve the next target in life began to kill my ability to enjoy living life in the present. I simply couldn’t see that success and fulfillment in life are not measured by the number of milestones we check off a list imposed upon us by an intangible source.
We’ve all felt this way at some point, and in order to find true fulfillment, we must put our longings into perspective. We need to trash the milestone check list and start living purposefully in the present by doing the following:
Think through your ultimate goal.
If our compass on the roadmap for life is set toward a destination like marriage, children or success in a career, we are subject to disappointment. The fact is that there is no formula or amount of effort that guarantees that you will obtain any of these things.
We should instead set our compass on a source of direction that will remain constant. That source of direction is the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). As we daily respond to the call to seek first His Kingdom, we can be assured He will lead us to a fulfilled life despite our peripheral circumstances.
As Jim Elliot once said, “We have planted (in our integrity) the banner of our trust in God. The consequences are His responsibility.”
Recognize that taking alternate paths doesn’t mean settling.
When things don’t go as planned and we find ourselves in the middle of disappointment, some common adages can sound pretty trite. We often hear things like: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” or “when one door closes another door opens.”
It can be extremely difficult to hear those things while we wrestle with disappointing situations. This is because any option outside of what we originally hoped for can seem second rate to our initial desire.
However, I was challenged to stop viewing all other paths as inferior. We are finite beings without the ability to predict the future. Until we walk down a path, we cannot fully comprehend the great possibilities opened to us when that original door closed. Make wise and informed decisions, but know that God’s plan for us sometimes defies our logic and initial feelings.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
Every day, social media bombards us with announcements about engagements, weddings, babies, exciting travel plans and more. We hear about our friends who have been accepted into universities, received promotions at work or are building new houses. We see all the great things happening in their lives and we can begin to wonder if we messed up somewhere or have fallen behind.
It can be easy to fall into the unsettling “fear of missing out.” Instead of embracing those thoughts, we need to recognize that comparison and jealously are meaningless in the light of eternity. Scripture says in Romans 12 that God has given each of us unique gifts, callings and paths in life. Consequently, we shouldn’t view our current situation in life as greater or less than our peers.
Allow each season to shape you.
When you are in the in-between place and things are not progressing as expected, know that there is purpose and value in the season of waiting. James 1:3 says, “The testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Each delay or redirection in your life can work to mold your character—if you let it. However, the choice is yours in whether you will take advantage of the opportunity or give in to impatience.
Practice being mindful of the present with gratefulness.
Multiple studies have shown that both mindfulness and gratefulness have significant mental and physical health benefits. Mindfulness starts with purposefully focusing your attention on the present moment. This allows us to move away from thoughts that cause anxiety and stress.
However, to take it a step further, we can purposefully be thankful for the things currently happening in our lives. Part of discovering the life we hope for in the future begins with thankfulness of the life we have been given in the present.
In the end, we must recognize that as followers of Christ, we may plan our ways, but the Lord directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9). We must place our hope for the future in Christ and press on by being faithful in what He has in front of us right now.