What Can We Do?

The other day I overheard an exchange between the cashier and a customer at the grocery store.  At first, I was mostly annoyed.  I was in a hurry, and rather than moving things along the cashier was talking to this other guy.  The conversation continued as the cashier scanned my items.  More annoyance.  I finally tuned in to their topic of discussion, and they were each lamenting their daughter’s expectations in terms of college.  How many tens of thousands of dollars it was going to cost in order to fulfill their daughters’ collegiate aspirations, at least one of them at a big university ‘back East’.

One of them made the comment that it was all just “crazy”.  Having finished my transaction (without the cashier ever having acknowledged my presence, looked at me, or otherwise done any normal, human interaction sort of thing), I replied on my way out “No, we’re the crazy ones because we think it’s our job to pay for it all”.  Over my shoulder I heard one man lament “Yeah, but what can we do about it?”

Hopefully, quite a bit.  But it might not be fun or easy.

We are prone to complain about things but reluctant to make the changes necessary to alter outcomes, usually because there is a perception that making such changes is detrimental in some way.  So we collude with things we don’t like in order to avoid possibilities that we think we won’t like.  This seems like problematic reasoning.  Here are a couple of examples.

Our family doesn’t use traditional health insurance, as I’ve discussed here before.  Our reasons for such are philosophical and theological.  Opting out of the typical way of doing things has costs associated with it, costs that service providers aren’t used to considering because they’re used to people being on insurance.  So in a recent dental appointment with our daughter, the dentist noted the size of her tonsils or adenoids.  He mused that those might cause sleep apnea, which might be a source of multiple other problems for our daughter.  He suggested that we see a specialist to follow up on that concern.

Our daughter has no problem sleeping.  Nor does she have any of the other issues that poor sleep might lead to.  But his assumption was that we should explore all those possibilities.  That assumption was based at least in part on the assumption that we wouldn’t be actually paying for any of those services, but rather would bill our insurance.  A fear of something that we have no actual experience with or evidence for is the justification for procedures and tests that we wouldn’t have to pay for if we’re on insurance.  Bizarre.

Back to the guys at the grocery store.  What options do they have – or did they have?  Set some different expectations with their kids, for starters.  Those expectations needed to start years earlier, and include the reality that mom and dad wouldn’t be destroying their financial lives to pay tuition to wherever the child wanted to go to school.  Those expectations might include the reality that college might not even be the best choice, depending on what the child wants to do in life (or if the child doesn’t know what they want to do in life).  But the idea that the child is in control of this all, and the parents are just helpless servants, is either an attempt to evade personal responsibility for the expectations you’ve deliberately set, or fatalism.

We’re already talking to our children (who aren’t even teen-agers yet) about their futures and what they might like to do.  We’re already setting the expectations that while college is an option, it isn’t a requirement.  We do so knowing that there are risks to this.  Our culture increasingly treats undergraduate degrees like high school diplomas a few generations ago – something everyone should have.  I worry that not having that piece of paper may some day prove challenging for our kids.  But I also trust and pray that we’ll be able to help them sort through those sorts of things as they grow, placing as much responsibility in their hands as they are capable of handling at each stage of the way.  If they do decide to go to college, we’re going to be very practical with them in terms of choosing where to go, because we aren’t going to pay for it.  We might help, but the major burden will be on them, which hopefully will help them think through their decisions a bit more soberly.

Changing the way we do things has risks.  We can’t seek to avoid every risk in life and still complain about what that requires of us.  If we aren’t happy with how things are done, we should choose to accept the risk of doing things differently.  We acknowledge the risks and the losses, and accept them as necessary or ultimately beneficial.  As Christians we should be at ease with this concept, but we apparently aren’t.

Despite clear and repeated Scriptural admonitions that followers of Christ are not to expect a smooth ride in life because of their association with him, Christians in America have grown accustomed to expecting that they can have the best of both worlds – the acclaim and agreement of popular culture as well as the blessings and benefits of their faith.  It was a blessing that this was the case for a while in our country.  But it can hardly be surprising that this state of affairs won’t last.  If we are going to be faithful to our Lord and his teachings, that’s going to require us sooner or later to reject the standards that the world wants us to live by, and this tension is not going to be pleasant.  It will culminate in our rejection from society, first passively and then violently.  This has been the case historically around the world, and we are foolish to presume that it can’t and won’t happen here, that we’re too civilized for that sort of thing.

We need to live our lives by our convictions, acknowledging that to do so has risks inherent with it.  Sacrifices that might need to be made.  Lower expectations than what our culture claims we should have.  Not every child is a budding genius, an artistic mastermind, a mathematical whiz, a world-class athlete.  We do our kids a disservice by pretending that they are, or setting expectations that they should be.  We do our congregations a disservice by claiming that every one of them can and should be a mega-church.  Ultimately in both cases a lot of money is made off of false pretensions.  Off of vanity and foolishness.  Off of good-intentions.

We might not like it, but if we aren’t willing to personally pay the price of change, to set the example, then through our conformity we forfeit our right to complain.  We have to make up our minds and then make up our plans, rejecting the platitudes and lies that if we do everything just so, everything will turn out fine.  Life isn’t that simple or pretty or easy.  It never has been.

We ought to live in that reality and determine the best path that deals with this reality.  That’s what we can do.

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