Do you have a fulfilling job doing what you always hoped to do, a happy marriage with kids, many close friends and an active social life, a spiritually rich religious life in a strong community, and time to work out and look after your health? If you do, you are one of the lucky few.
The pressures most of us are facing — from deep economic inequality and its consequences to the fraying of social bonds and the epidemic of loneliness, to delayed marriage and skyrocketing childcare costs — have made “having it all” feel out of reach to many.
In one sense, the desire to “have it all” might merely reflect the aspirations of those who are obsessed with status and reputation and long for a comfortable, affluent life. But in another sense, it can mean trying to foster conditions that allow us and our loved ones to reach our full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual potentials. It can reflect a desire to have a life of meaning, purpose, and flourishing. So how should young adults in the U.S. react when that flourishing feels out of reach?
We can persevere through disappointment
Too often, those offering advice to us when we experience setbacks, disappointments, and a lack of fulfillment are only pushing trite positivity that asks us to ignore reality. When a person can’t find a way to get their career on track, or is overwhelmed by the challenges of caretaking, or is in a new city without any close, intimate friendships, it is not a moral failing to be disappointed or to experience sadness. Likewise, when someone who hoped to marry at a relatively young age and start a family is in their late 20s or their 30s and can’t seem to find the right partner, it is perfectly normal to feel unsettled by this or experience the uncertainty of life in what they believe (or hope) is the in-between. The answer is not that they should just enjoy the benefits of being single and pretend that this desire does not exist.
For the person to really move forward and adjust to new realities — while trying to still reach their full (and ever-evolving) potential — an important step is recognizing disappointment. Life throws everyone curveballs. Good plans get ruined. There is tragedy and brokenness in this world. People get exploited and cheated. They get blindsided by a terrible illness, the death of a loved one, or unexpected infertility.
Only when we are grounded in truth can we move forward with courage. Instead of running away from disappointment, we can push through it. We may always be wounded, but this reflects the desire for wholeness, communion, and flourishing that we believe will reach fulfillment when the kingdom of God is fully established.
We can develop a sense of gratitude
Gratitude can exist alongside disappointment. We truly can enjoy the beauty of creation, taking a trip, the company of a good friend, or the countless things so many of us overlook every day — from good health to simply being alive. And even when we’re dealing with the breakup of a long-term relationship or feeling immensely frustrated by the search for a job, we can still enjoy these things and be grateful for them.
Some disappointments offer no silver linings — they are too tragic — but many situations allow for both dismay and gratitude. In my own life, a huge obstacle was thrown in front of me during my time as a PhD student. Despite having a 4.0 and meeting every requirement needed to move forward, three professors arbitrarily added an extra year of coursework to my load, simply because they felt I should take more of their own classes.
Because my funding was limited to four years and I had no desire to go into debt; because my doctor told me I would “literally die” if I kept studying and working at the same rate; and because I was completely unwilling to further delay starting a family, it ultimately meant walking away from a dissertation I spent a decade researching. The unfairness is still disappointing. That promises were broken is disappointing. That I picked the wrong school is disappointing.
But other PhD students finished and got divorced, or missed almost the entire first two years of their first child’s life sitting behind a laptop. My marriage and children mean more to me than any degree ever could (which is not to say those students who aspired to be professors were wrong to sacrifice that time away from their kids). And the primary reason I entered the program, unlike those whose dream was to enter academia, was to become an expert in political science — simply to learn. So alongside the disappointment, I have deep gratitude for everything I learned, the people I met, and the positive impact it has had on my current work, all without it jeopardizing that which I value most.
We can choose joy
Being joyful doesn’t mean being happy in every moment. It’s not simply the result of our surroundings or how much pleasure we experience. It’s rooted in gratitude, powered by love, and oriented toward communion. So when we practice gratitude, commit to living a life of love every day, and try to help others flourish, we can experience joy — even when our plans have been derailed or we feel stuck in neutral. By committing to live joyfully, we can adjust to new realities and find new ways forward, move past resentments and the desire for revenge, and refuse to let disappointments overwhelm the good that exists in the world and in our lives.
We can remember that life is about faithfulness, not material success or accumulating accomplishments
As we roll with the punches, it is critical to stay centered on the values we hold dear. If we focus on the things that last and try to be the best people we can be, regardless of the circumstances, we can still build the type of life we ultimately want (though it may differ greatly from what we imagined before we experienced a tragic loss, suffered an injustice, or had to set something important aside to hold everything else together).
But we have to be on guard against the very reasonable-sounding arguments that allow materialism, consumerism, and the excessive desire for security to infiltrate our values. And we have to disentangle the positive (nevertheless ambitious) desire to serve others from the ego-driven desire for recognition or worldly success that can push us in a different direction. Only by recognizing our innate worth and dignity, dismantling the insecurities that deny these, and committing to values that reflect human dignity and the worth of all people can we reach our potential and hope to carry out the will of God.