The Best is Always Yet to Come: A Message for the Young

Doug McManaman
Winter, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

I think I speak for all teachers when I say that the most stressful part of a semester is that time when we are required to show students their final marks. During the spring semester, this stressful point occurs at mid-term, for these are the last set of marks on which the universities will base their decision to accept a student or not. This is a frustrating period because some students are quite adept at making the teacher feel entirely responsible for the mark the student has received and for the future that these students believe is theirs as a result of such an average.

I do think that teachers have to be careful not to play with a student's future, and we must take care to evaluate them with a very objective, fair and equitable approach, and I do believe the latest approach to assessment and evaluation is the right one and the direction that teachers ought to take. But I also believe that the current level of anxiety among students regarding their marks and future is highly inordinate, and it is this inordinate anxiety that can and often does lead them to do very imprudent and sinful things, some of which include lying, cheating, plagiarizing, and sometimes very serious acts of revenge that murder the reputation of a teacher. This latter response is tragic, for it not only damages innocent lives, but the liar's lie returns to destroy him: "What does it profit a man to gain the world, but lose his soul?" (Mt 16, 26), and deliberately destroying a person's moral reputation is worse than murder and ends ultimately in the loss of heaven (Mt 5, 22).

In recent years I find myself challenging students to fear less. I've tried a number of approaches. First, a biblical approach. More than twenty-three times Jesus exhorts his followers not to be afraid. The New Testament is replete with "fear not..." "do not be afraid...", "let not your hearts be troubled...", and the Old Testament is filled with much of the same. "So why are you worried?" I ask my students. The source of their worry almost always seems to center around their ability to eventually acquire temporal goods and life's necessities. But consider the following:

I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing...Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? first his kingdom of God, and these other things will be given you besides. Do not be afraid any longer. (Lk 12, 22-32)

There are a number of things in these passages that are striking, in particular verse 25: "if even the smallest things are beyond your control..." In other words, we are not in control. As my friend the late Monsignor Thomas Wells would often holler: "God is in control!" If God is in control, and if God loves each individual person with a boundless and everlasting love, then no one has any reason to fear what the future will bring except, perhaps, those who refuse to relinquish control and place themselves at God's disposal. There was a great deal of wisdom in Roosevelt's "there is nothing to fear but fear itself." If we should fear anything, it is our own lack of trust in Divine Providence. For it is this lack of trust that is at the root of our decision to make ourselves our own god, and when this happens, things begin to fall apart in our lives. "Why is there so much suffering in this world?" students often ask. The great saints and doctors of the Church always delivered the same answer, namely, because we choose to do things our way, not God's way.

But for some students, the biblical approach is not enough. There are, however, other approaches. I was once asked by a class of OAC Philosophy students, just prior to their first test of the semester, to say something that would ease their anxiety. I was more than happy to accommodate their wish. So I began: "Imagine a cemetery, and a tombstone. Imagine the name on the stone, and realize that this man lying there had all the same worries that you have now, and look where he is. And in no time at all, you'll be there too. You're going to die. So don't worry too much about this test. Does that help?"

Needless to say, they were not too pleased about my chosen means of anxiety reduction, and my remarks only seemed to increase their stress level. After returning the class to reasonable order, I called the students' attention to the Wall of Life that is next to the school's chapel doors, and which is in full view of anyone ascending or descending the main stairwell of our school. On this wall are hung the beautiful portraits of all our former students who have died and gone before us. "Next time you behold those smiling faces on the wall as you proceed to your next class, consider that they're smiling at you, waving, as if to say 'you're next.'" Once again, my students became rather unsettled.

But there is nothing that more effectively awakens us to life than does the habit of regularly recalling our death. St. Thomas More, who was recently declared Patron of Politicians, always kept the fact of life's brevity before his mind's eye, and there is no doubt that it was this habit that kept him from "selling his soul" for the sake of temporal advantage as do the vast majority of politicians today. He writes:

There is nothing that can more effectively withdraw the soul from the affections of the body than the remembrance of death, but only if we recall it carefully, as opposed to allowing it to go through one ear and out the other, without allowing it to penetrate into the heart. Instead of merely hearing the word 'death', if we allow the stark image of death to sink into our hearts, we shall realize that not even the Dance of Death at St. Paul’s could stir and change us to the degree to which this image can, if allowed to penetrate into our hearts. And no wonder. For those pictures only show the loathsome sight of our dead bodies with the flesh bitten away. Although it is pretty ugly to behold, yet neither the sight of all the dead skulls in the charnel house, nor the sight of a very ghost is half so grisly as the deep concept of the nature of death which a lively imagination engraves in your own heart. For there you see not just one grievous sight of bare bones hanging by the sinews but, if you picture your own death, you see yourself lying on your bed, your head shooting, your back aching, your veins throbbing, your heart panting, your throat rattling, your flesh trembling, your mouth gaping, your nose sharpening, your legs cooling, your fingers fumbling, your breath shortening, all your strength failing, your life vanishing and your death drawing on.

St. John Bosco, whom Pius XI declared the Friend of Youth, and who devoted his life to young people, included much more lengthy and vivid detail in his Exercise for a Happy Death, which his young students and Salesians were required to do once a month. This very striking Exercise ends with the Our Father, which was always said for the person among them who would die first. The point is that we are too attached to the "affections of the body", to use More's expression. We tend to forget that we are going to die. We tend to forget that we are just passing through, and that we are destined for something else. Certainly any one of our senior students serious about school readily sees how irrational it is for a student to waste the opportunity that high school provides by skipping his classes and living only with a view to the moment. We all know students like this, and I have spoken to some who regret the day they decided to spend their high school years in the same school as their "friends", who only drew them away from their responsibilities. Why is it so irrational to waste such opportunity? Because high school is temporary. Our students are only just "passing through". The high school years are a period of "preparation for". "But that is precisely why we worry," reply my students. "We are working to prepare ourselves for university." Indeed, but the point I make here is that it is even more irrational to forget what this very life is a "preparation for", and that we too are destined for something beyond "here". This very life is our only opportunity to prepare ourselves for eternity, and it is the constant remembrance of death that allows us to keep everything that is happening to us in our lives in proper perspective. St. Thomas More continues:

I warn you to never forget these two things; that both the son of God died for you and that you shall also yourself die shortly, for you never live that long. With these two, as with two spurs, the one of fear, the other of love, spur forth your horse throughout the short way of this momentary life to the reward of eternal happiness since we must not live for any other end than the endless fruition of the infinite goodness, both the soul and body in everlasting peace.

If there is one thing that young people should try to remember, it is that the best is always yet to come. This is true for every stage of human development. Life at infancy is better than life in the womb; for life in the womb is ordered towards life in the world. And life at childhood is better than life at the breast, and adolescence is better, richer, and more exciting than the life of the toddler. Furthermore, I have yet to meet anyone who wishes to return to his teenage years. The fun of playing with your own children and the joy involved in watching them grow up is far richer and more meaningful than going to a club or dance unless, of course, one is mentally still a child, as many adults in fact are. But even this stage is far from being the best; rather, the best is still yet to come, although this becomes more difficult to explain. The preoccupation with looking young, like the fear of commitment, stems from a chronic fear of death. For as we approach the grave, life is characterized by a gradual increase in responsibility and commitment. But the young person who fears commitment and thus wishes to remain free from anything that "ties" him down, longs, in fact, to return to the security of the womb, in which we lived an existence entirely free from burdensome responsibilities. So too the adult who is possessed by a longing to appear young and who is devoted and determined to defeat the aging process. To the person who isn't governed by the fear of death, the thirties are better than the twenties, and the forties are better than the thirties. Even memory loss, which usually begins at forty and increases with age, is in many ways a blessing in disguise; for it tends to make life simpler, and it is the simple things that become increasingly more attractive as we get older.

Contrary to the nihilistic philosophies of pure becoming, Aristotle points out that "every agent acts for an end." And every stage of human development is for the sake of an end. And so the most important question we can ask ourselves is precisely that question which Socrates spent his life asking himself and others, especially young people, namely, "what is the chief end which alone is worthy of desire?" Things have not changed since the days of Socrates, for the human race can still be divided into three groups on the basis of what each one regards as the chief end which alone brings human happiness, namely, those who regard pleasure as the supreme good, those who make social standing their principal goal in life, and finally the minority who regard knowledge and wisdom as happiness. Now although their answers differ somewhat and may conflict in certain respects, the great thinkers who follow after Socrates, namely, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, all are in agreement that the fundamental direction proper to human development is from the complex to the simple, from potentiality to actuality, in short, from the material to the immaterial. Plato saw the perfection of human happiness to consist in the soul's return to the realm of eternal Ideas, the World of Forms, which transcends this sensible realm in which we find ourselves. And even though Aristotle denies the existence of the "realm of eternal Ideas", human happiness nevertheless consists, according to him, in activity that is in accordance with what is highest in us, namely, intelligence, and so happiness is the contemplation of truth. And St. Augustine, who points out that the human heart is restless until it rests in God, writes: "Our whole business therefore in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. To this end are celebrated the Holy Mysteries; to this end the word of God is preached; to this end are the moral exhortations of the Church made, ...To this end is directed the whole aim of the Divine and Holy Scriptures, that that interior eye may be purged of anything which hinders us from the sight of God." And finally Aquinas, who argues that the Supreme Good is God Himself, who is Being Itself, the direct knowledge and love of Whom constitutes perfect beatitude.

Each stage of human development prepares us for higher goods, and as we move forward, these goods become less sensible, more intelligible, and more enduring. For example, adolescent development is a preparation for parenthood, the generation and education of offspring. And the difficulties involved in parenting are a preparation for a love that is purer and more disinterested. And this life is ultimately about preparing for the Beatific Vision, that is, the vision of God as He is in Himself. And we prepare by reaching higher, by reaching for the stars, by learning to transcend ourselves and the tendency within us to immerse ourselves in matter. Consider the very word 'depression'. The depressed person is 'pressed down' and, for one reason or another, cannot rise above the self. It is by rising above and beyond the self towards the divine that we move out of depression and into joy. And so Jesus exhorts us: "Seek first the kingdom of Heaven, and these other things will be given besides" (Mt 6, 33). Focusing first and foremost on one's own personal security has never succeeded in bringing anyone the happiness for which the human heart longs.

Certainly no one is suggesting that students sit back, do nothing, and let God provide. We have a duty to do our best, to be in class, study, and move forward. But the end of that movement is not the working world. Rather, our predominant passion in high school and university ought to be the love of learning, the love of truth, and not the fear of whether or not we are going to be find a job and be successful. Do you believe that the Lord has a place for you in this world? Indeed, God does have a place for you, but you have to find that place and accept it, and you can only find your vocation through prayer. If you fail to discover it -- which seems to be the norm, because prayer is not the norm -- you will not achieve the happiness here that God wills for you to enjoy. But when you find it, you will be given all the gifts and charisms you need to fulfill your vocation. Prayer is how we begin to purge the interior eye of all that hinders us from the sight of God, to use Augustine's expression. We simply have to pray more. It is the only way to relinquish control -- which we never had in the first place -- and allow our life to unfold as God wills it to unfold. And so, the next time you experience fear creeping into your life, eating away at your intestines only to eventually destroy your health and your peace of mind, let's try to remember what the late Monsignor Wells would say repeatedly to his friends, which is that "fear is useless, what's needed is trust."