I was having a bad day. You know the type of day: the children are getting into trouble, my back hurt, whatever I tidied was undone within three seconds flat, my youngest was teething, and I had not had nearly enough sleep in the last week. All that on top of a family situation that was making me stressed out, and in the middle of a big push to get the house cleaned up. Not a good day. While I was washing the dishes, a disgruntled feeling came up in me. I knew I was doing what needed to be done, I knew I loved my family, and that most days I feel insanely blessed. But as my son came running up to me with the six hundredth request of the day, I gave him his sippy cup, put my hands back in the sudsy water and while trying to contemplate what to make for dinner as well as scrub a dish that had caked on cereal flakes I thought: “I want to be eighteen months old again and not be responsible for anything.”
I knew it was a sinful, egoistical thought the moment it popped in my head, but it was something other than virtue that came to my aide: reason. Washing the dishes is a good time to contemplate things, apparently, because I almost immediately realized that being eighteen months again would not be fun at all. Everything is so hard: climbing things, everything is too big, and people are constantly telling you not to touch things that others can touch. No, I wouldn’t want to be eighteen months again.
Well, what about three going on four–the age of my other son, currently trying to build a new Thomas the tank engine track while his little brother tried to ride his train over the unfinished route? No, three would not be fun either. People start to expect things of you. You should always go on the potty. You need to use your cutlery. You need to be patient with your brother, and there are so many things that others decide for you.
I went back through the timeline of my life trying to find the “perfect time” again that I wanted to be for a day. Ten? No, still too few choices in life, and so many difficult subjects to learn? How about 12? Brrr… too many physical changes going on with all those hormonal swings–no, thank you! Once was enough. 15? 17? No, I do not think I want to go back through the awkward years.
Then I found it… my college years! Yes! I didn’t have any wild college years, actually. In fact I grew so much closer to my faith during my college years. They were good for me. But what attracted me to them in my sudsy reverie was the lack of responsibility. True, I had the responsibility to go to classes, to learn, to live a good life, but there was no one telling me how and what to do. And there was nobody dependent on me doing what I was supposed to do, either. My choices seemingly affected only me. The only person I had to answer to on a day to day basis for the choices I made was…myself. A life lived only for myself–how easy that sounded looking back on it!
Drying the dishes and uttering a quick prayer of gratitude for the blessed silence, except for train noises coming from the playroom, I grabbed a pepper out of the fridge and started chopping it. I regretted my earlier impulse of wishing my current life and responsibilities away, and repeated the quick prayer that has become my great help over these last few months: “God create in me a servant’s heart.” After looking in on the children for a moment, I went back to chopping and to considering. Maybe, just maybe, that “easiest time” had not exactly been good to me. I don’t regret going to college. I think I benefited from what I learned. I grew stronger in my faith while at college and I learned a lot about myself. It wasn’t college that was the problem for me, but the fact that there was a period in my life in which I did not have to answer to anyone and yet had no responsibilities towards anyone. I can’t recall another time in history that there was such a period. And I think it might not be a good thing that there is.
If I look at the lifespan of a person throughout history, responsibility always grew equal to independence. One was never completely “free” to be selfish. As soon as skills were acquired, they were turned into responsibilities. As soon as you learned to do something, you were expected to help teach a sibling. As soon as you had the abilities to do a chore, it became your responsibility–not as a punishment, but because you were part of a family, part of a community, and, from young to old, you were a vital part. You were important. People were counting on you. From childhood on, you were prepared to become an adult, and the transition was almost seamless. You did not stop being a part of your family and having responsibilities to them until you took on responsibilities for other people through marriage or vocation.
Even those who went to college most often did so while working hard. If there were vacations, they were spent either working or returning back to the family to help out, because your absence deprived them of what they had a right to expect: your help. Certainly you were expected to study hard, but studying was a right you earned by working, not a pursuit that you could follow just because you wanted it or because it might help you get an easier life later. Being in college was not a “time off” from the real world to spend on the pursuit of wisdom and fun. It was a matter of working hard to get through it as fast and expediently as possible so that you could repay those who had made sacrifices to give you that opportunity: parents who had saved to help you, a fiance’ who consented to wait, or a wife who shouldered a larger burden so you could get this degree that would serve your family later.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I learned a lot during my years in college both in the courses that I took and personally. I actually learned to cook, for example. And I learned more about my faith and about prayer. But I also got used to having hours to spend in prayer. I got used to deciding exactly how my day would look, when I would do what, and choosing all by myself what I would have for dinner. I doubt it is good for anyone to have a period in your life in which you get to live all for yourself on a day-to-day basis, even if the things that you choose to do during that period are unobjectionable or even worthy. There are alternatives: a friend of mine stayed in a religious community with certain rules during her college years. Other people study from their parents’ home. Others marry first and find ways to make it work.
I finished chopping everything up for dinner, praised God both for the insight and for the blessed ten minutes of silence that had given birth to the insight, and, instead of picking up a book, I went to sit with my boys and push a train around. It’s not good to have several years to learn selfishness: dear God, create in me a servant’s heart!