“Close your eyes,” I told my teenage recovery group. “Imagine yourself twenty years from now.” I gave them time to conjure up images. “You bump into somebody from this group, and they ask, ‘So, what do you do?’”
I let the question hang in the air.
“What’s your answer?”
As they opened their eyes, I saw a few glints of hope, but mostly just doubt and anxiety. Some of them had already lost the ability to dream, and that’s tragic. In all of them, however, I recognized a familiar fear—the horror of failure—twisted up with self-loathing for not measuring up to society’s standard of success.
So, what do you do?
That question used to shatter me.
Two decades ago when we started our family, I left my teaching career to be a stay-at-home dad. For a while, I embraced the adventure. But little by little, the “Mr. Mom” jokes started to eat at me. The constant reminder that my wife was our family’s bread-winner began to chip away at my fragile ego. Our move back to our hometown soon became a living hell each time I bumped into an old friend.
“So, what do you do?”
“For the most part,” I might have answered if I’d been honest, “I try to pretend I don’t feel like a loser when compared to my friends—the pilot, the bank executive, the electrician, the minister, the lawyer …”
Identifying as a stay-at-home dad was admitting I was unemployed, supported by my wife, and failing to live up to every masculine image society required of me.
In short, this summa cum laude college grad, a once rising star educator, was forced to confess he had failed to prosper.
So, what do you do?
Oh, friends. How we misinterpret that question.
As those teens shared their 20-year life projections, it became obvious how they, too, had distorted the question. They all told me about the jobs they would have. And why wouldn’t they? Our whole education system and most parenting fantasies are hyper-focused on career paths. Earning potential. Status. The American Dream.
Success, wealth and prosperity have even become critical components of faith for many.
Doesn’t the oft-quoted Jeremiah 29:11 promise prosperity? The Creator of the universe has “plans to prosper you” (NIV); so if you screw that up … well, that’s on you. Loser.
Little wonder “So, what do you do?” creates such anxiety.
After three years as a stay-at-home dad, I surrendered to social pressure and set out on a 10-year pilgrimage, chasing status and prosperity, striving to impress a faceless crowd. In other words, I wasted ten years of my life chasing validation.
I lost sight of who I was and wound up a complete mess.
Friends, too many of our kids will be lost to this same treachery if we’re not careful.
As I studied those teens whose lives are currently on a razor’s edge of survival, I silently prayed, “God, be with them. Let them know they are loved. That they matter. And not because of their achievements.”
“Do you want to know how I answer that question?” I asked. They did. “Then ask me,” I said.
“So, Bert,” a voice piped up from the back, “what do you do?”
“What do I do?” I repeated. “I’ll tell you what I do… I cry when I see someone in pain. I laugh at awkward times. I hope to see the good in people and make a difference in someone’s life. I struggle with feelings of inadequacy, of not being good enough, of being misunderstood. I love my family and friends. I try to pray with a listening heart. I let myself dream, but sometimes take on challenges I’m not ready for. I’m learning to embrace life’s chaotic adventures and invite failure as I continue to learn and grow. That’s what I do … because that’s who I am.”
“Oh. My. Gosh!” a young lady exclaimed, throwing her hands into the air. “Bert! You just described me!”
“Then why didn’t you say so when I asked?” I smiled. “You only described yourself twenty years from now as a pediatrician.”
She cocked her head to the side.
“Too many times we define who we are by how we pay the bills, and we lose ourselves in that definition. You are so much more than any job or paycheck. You’re a beautiful mystery waiting to be revealed.” I scanned their young faces. “All of you are. It’s good to have career plans, but it’s far more important to start thinking about who you are.”
Funny thing about that verse from Jeremiah 29. Like “What do you do?” we often confuse the issue. Contrary to some beliefs, God might not have plans for your success, wealth, and prosperity (sorry, social climbers). That “prosper” part actually offers shalom. It means peace, well-being, a sense of wholeness … to be comfortable in your own skin and in harmony with others. And that comes with knowing you are loved. You matter. Because of who you are, not what you do.
Friends, if we want our kids to find the beautiful, joyous lives they deserve, we have to help with the search.
“So,” I repeated to my kids, “what do you do?”
They looked at me, as if hearing the question for the first time.
“Start thinking of what you do in terms of who you are. Not the other way around. Twenty years from now, I don’t care about your jobs. I care about your sense of peace. Wholeness. Comfort. Joy. I care how you’ll answer the bigger question …
“So … WHO did you become?”
Friends, if we really want our kids to prosper, we need to help them with that question.
Thanks for journeying with me, dear ones.
Please share this to encourage others. If we can strengthen one kid’s heart, that’s one less lost adult down the road.
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