The HBO movie Wit, with Emma Thompson, explores the consequences over a lifetime of the answers we give in college to the big questions of life, sometimes to devastating effect. There is a crucial moment in the film when Emma Thompson’s character, Vivian Bearing, a university professor unexpectedly faced with the threat of death from cancer, recalls a conversation with her mentor at university. The conversation offers the possibility of reading poetry merely for its formal characteristics, or instead responding as a whole person to the meaning of a poem. The choice she makes shapes Vivian’s entire adult life.
Over the next few weeks our Comment articles online will explore the possibilities and challenges of college life, with an emphasis on the big questions of life. Comment is committed to cultivating the next generation of cultural leaders. It is, indeed, in the college years that most people make the decisions that will guide them as they provide leadership throughout their adult years.
Steven Garber, author of The Fabric of Faithfulness (1996), suggests that if we want to understand the way in which people weave together belief and behaviour—how we make the connection between our most serious convictions and our everyday life—we need to ask the question, “How does someone decide which cares and commitments will give shape and substance to life, for life?”
To answer these questions, Garber argues that we must draw on the disciplines of the history of ideas (with thinkers like Thomas Oden), the ethics of character (with thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas), and of the sociology of knowledge (with thinkers like Peter Berger). Like other students of human character development (such as Sharon Daloz Parks), Garber argues that for most people their young adult years provide the crucible in which character is decisively formed. There are obvious exceptions. In his study of leadership in Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins suggests that a crisis later in life, such as a struggle with a life-threatening disease, the loss of a marriage partner or child, or a religious conversion, can serve as a similar crucible for the (re)formation of character. But, given the exceptions, let us for the time being take it is a working proposition that Steven Garber’s eventual conclusion is true for most people:
Over the course of hours of listening to people who still believe in the vision of a coherent faith, one that meaningfully connects personal disciplines with public duties, again and again I saw that they were people (1) who had formed a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world, (2) who had found a teacher who incarnated that worldview and (3) who had forged friendships with folk whose common life was embedded in that worldview.
Expanding somewhat on Garber’s conclusion, I suggest that:
- A person’s entire life is shaped on the basis of that which we care for most, what we love most deeply—our ultimate commitment. While all the things we love help shape who we are, that which we love most deeply functions for us like a god, demanding our complete allegiance and forming us in its image. The first big question of life that young adults must answer is “What and whom do I love?”
- What we love shapes what we believe—our commitments determine the direction our most serious convictions. Most people have a hardwired urge toward intellectual coherence, so that we fashion our convictions together into a framework, or story, or map, by means of which we understand the world and our live—a worldview. The second big question of life young adults must answer is “What do I believe?”
- What we love also shapes with whom we make friends—common commitments found our more intimate communities, including friendship, family, and communities of faith. The third big question of life young adults must answer is “Who are my friends?” or “To what communities do I belong?”
- In the context of commitment, conviction, and community, we find heroes and mentors who incarnate a way of life that we can follow, serving as models of character—the embodied, habitual patterns of virtue and vice that over time identify who we are. The fourth big question young adults must answer is “Who do I want to be—and like whom do I want to be—when I grow up?”
- Commitment, conviction, community and character interact to forge our “deep gladness,” which in interaction with the “deep hunger” in our historical and geographical context serves to bring forward our calling or vocation. Young adults must pay close attention to the cultural situation into which they are being called. “What is happening in the world? What are the big influences on the events of our time? What crises and possibilities are distinctively calling forth a response from the present generation?” And growing out of the answers given to all these big questions of life is the question perhaps foremost in the minds of most young adults, “What should I be doing with my life?”
In particular if you are a young adult on your way to or already in college, please let us know what you think of the suggestions by our authors over the next weeks as they write about their own answers to these questions, and how they have seen college students struggle with the big issues of life. You can leave comments at any of our articles published online, or write to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.