Top 8 Lessons from the Past 4 Years

When I started this crazy college journey, I wrote a post with my top ten lessons from the first two weeks. In it, I share, with the honesty of an eighteen-year-old, some of the things that I hadn’t realized would be so prevalent in my transition away from home and into autonomy. Some of them are particularly nuanced to my specific move into a Christian, higher education institution, but some of them are universally applicable when it comes to general transitions. The fact that relationships take time, small talk is necessary, and it’s important to be real with people are things that proved important beyond my first couple weeks in a freshman dorm.

Some transitions are more daunting than others. Going away to college is a big one, especially as teenagers stand on the precipice of the “emerging adulthood” life stage. Regardless of how life changing a transition is, the reality is that we all experience a level of shifting emotions when we transition – excitement, unknown, fear, lament, gratitude. New seasons, new experiences, and new relationships change us. It’s important to give ourselves space to reflect on that, both to process unmet expectations and unanswered prayers and to celebrate what the Lord has done beyond what we could’ve imagined.

With that, it felt fitting to bookend my time at Wheaton with more lessons that I’ve learned over the past four years . . .

1. Remember that wherever you are maintains a level of imperfection, full of imperfect people and imperfect circumstances.

I came into school with a level of expectation – most of which I hadn’t realized. Some of it came out of season of boldness in prayer, believing the Lord and expecting certain things of Him. Some of it is just the nature of entering into a new space. We hold dreams, desires, and visions of what a place will be, of who the people we’re in relationship with will be. The hopes are important in driving us to particular things and in giving us a sense of expectation for the Lord’s movement. The problem becomes when we weigh everything against our sense of expectation, when we’re unable to cope when things fail us. Because they inevitably will. There will be rejection, hurt, and things that we thought would or would not happen that did (or didn’t). We need to learn to acknowledge unmet expectation and grieve the loss of our dreams in a way that doesn’t hold those things as offenses against God or others.

2. Don’t forget to give yourself grace; failure isn’t a bad thing because it leads to humility.

With that, it’s also important to remember that you’ll face a level of personal failure. I don’t know that there’s been anything more formative in my pursuit of humility than the ways I’ve failed at Wheaton. There were relationships that I royally screwed up, classes that were a weekly struggle to get through (shoutout to calculus), times where I was wholly dependent on others, opportunities where the door was slammed in my face (which happened as recently as this morning), places that I dropped the ball, hurt others, and altogether missed the mark. In a world where it often feels like I’m balancing spinning plates, I’ve broken my fair share and often had to watch as they crashed to the floor. It’s easy to question your worth, the Lord’s desire to use you, and your general sense of competency. It’s easy to compare and to feel behind. These are the places that either become debilitating moments of paralyzing inadequacy or springboards for humility. Because when we ask the Lord to make us more humble, for “His power to be made perfect in our weakness,” that means we have to step into those places of weakness. Where we can’t do it, where we face rejection, inability, and inadequacy. In these places, we have to choose whether to make it about us or dwell in the grace He lavishes on us and rest in the trustworthiness of His glory.

3. Lean into the discomfort of identity (re)formation.

Not knowing who you are, where you’re going, or what you have to offer is a terrible feeling. When you’re stripped of all confidence and the things that used to make you “you,” it’s easy to feel like all the lights have been turned off. It can feel like you’re groping around in the dark for what once felt secure regarding your sense of identity. In my experience, transition seems to catapult this experience faster than most other things; once minute, you feel confident, comfortable, secure, and rooted, and the next you’ve been put in the middle of something unfamiliar and unstable. Who you are feels different because the setting is different; more than that, who you’ll be at the end of an experience will be different too, if you allow yourself to engage in the often uncomfortable process of growth. It’s important to establish a sense of core identity – who you are at the foundation of your being. The sort of things that are true even when you look back on home videos from your childhood; the pieces of your heart, personality, and strengths that go with you in every situation and relationship. And then with the rest of it? Be okay watching it shift and change in often uncomfortable ways. It’s like when a kid gets braces put on – it’s the gradual and often painful mechanism that is shifting the position of the teeth. We have the constant potential to change and shift, even more so when we put ourselves in new situations and relationships, putting on a new pair of metaphorical braces, and allowing it all to change us.

4. Don’t be afraid to let your worldview, ideologies, and opinions change.

If there’s one thing that’s changed in the past four years it is my views on things. I think that’s how it should be when you are encountering new people, settings, and experiences that should put your previous opinions in disequilibrium. My view on things surrounding sexuality, LGBTQ+, and gender have changed as I became friends with new people, wrestled with people through their questions, and engaged in Biblical exegesis from a different lens. I have different opinions on how we should respond to the refugee crisis and immigration because of my work with a resettlement agency, interactions with Muslims, and our local Islamic center. I don’t read the Bible the same way I did four years ago. My thoughts about abortion, alcohol, and “calling” are more nuanced and complex than they were in 2013. I don’t view ministry, economics, or people who live in suburbia the same way. My views on feminism, gender roles, race, cultural appropriation, and the history of the church is different than it was back when I graduated highschool. For as many questions as the past four years have answered, I’ve asked a million more. There’s a humility involved in acknowledging that you may have it wrong. But that’s the tension we’re called to walk – holding positions with conviction and being able to argue for them with sound reasoning, good Biblical exegesis, and deep roots of wisdom, but also, holding them loosely. That’s not to say that we’re relativists or don’t stand on truth – it means that we know what is absolutely core and we’re able to dialogue with humility, civility and open-mindedness about everything else. There are things that four years ago that I would have stood by as unshakeable truth but I’m so glad there was a level at which I was willing (or, if not willing, able) to engage with an open mind. New perspectives, experiences, and relationships have shaped me and my worldview for the better and into a more holistic (albeit still flawed) picture of the Kingdom of God.

5. Comparison really is the thief of joy (and comparison gets a lot easier when you’re around a bunch of really talented, beautiful, spiritual people who have things that you’re a little jealous of).

People gave me advice before I came to Wheaton, cautioning me to be aware of the particular tendencies towards comparison at a Christian institution. Everyone was valedictorian of their graduating class, everyone has a heart for the marginalized, everyone runs marathons on the weekends. Everyone is the best, the smartest, the prettiest, the most athletic, and the most passionate. Everyone is also “the most spiritual.” When your identity formation becomes a measurement against the people around you, you’re wading into dangerous waters. The problem is this often happens subconsciously. Half of the time, you don’t even realize you’re waist deep in the waters of comparison because it’s so subtle – it’s the passing thoughts about someone else’s looks, the quick jab in your mind about their intelligent answer, or the eye roll when you find out so-and-so is in a relationship. Then when you find yourself drowning in questions of what makes you worth loving, special, and valuable, it’s harder to fight for truth because the lies have snuck their way into daily thought patterns. It’s hard to fight for joy when you’re feeling less than everyone else. Not as caring, pretty, intelligent, attentive, deep, or funny. . .which is probably why you don’t have the job, the boyfriend/girlfriend, bank account, relationship with God, or instagram-worthy life. Those are the kind of thoughts that take up heart space and kill confidence, joy, and any sort of real movement forward in what the Lord is doing in your life.

Also, if I’m being honest, a corollary to this would be that overthinking is often a nicer word used to justify comparison. Just saying.

6. Prioritize well.

Sort out what your priorities are before everything starts competing to be one. Writing out priorities at every level of life – overall life priorities, priorities in this season, priority of relationships – can be helpful in offering a continual litmus test for where your time, attention, and heart space is oriented towards. We talk about this all the time in teaching ESL: every course, unit, and individual lesson needs objectives and those objectives need to be measurable. Give yourself a list of goals, intentions, and priorities when you transition into something new. Vague priorities will be helpful in giving you a general sense of where the track is (i.e. saying that you’re prioritizing academics can mean any number of things but is clearly measurable if you’re failing classes). Specific priorities are helpful in giving you tangible markers and tasks that you’re committed to executing. Realistic goal setting. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to establish both. Asking myself what my objectives are, who do I want to be or have accomplished at the end of a season, gives me a better sense of specific things that I can prioritize, engage with, or pursue to achieve those specific ends. What are you doing, why are you doing it, and what are you ultimately oriented towards?

7. Loving well means being listening actively and attentively, asking hard questions, and caring without pretense.

I’ve spent four years in close, intense community. I’ve learned how to confront conflict, bring up minor grievances, and speak honestly about how I’m doing. As someone who used to tend towards passive aggressive confrontation, I’ve learned that loving doesn’t mean shying away from things that feel tense or difficult. Asking hard questions and not being afraid to challenge others, in ways that are humble and appropriate, is a profound way of expressing love. I’ve also learned that there’s nothing better than feeling known, especially when it’s in a context something like sitting around a table laughing uncontrollably. We’re called to care deeply for others and to engage in committed, intimate relationships where others feel known and loved. That doesn’t come from sweeping things under the rug or pretending that life is always rosy. Listening to others in a way that makes them feel heard doesn’t mean that you’re just a person with working ears; attentive listening means creating a space that allows people the time and safety involved in sharing what feels most helpful to them. It means valuing stories as the most precious thing we carry with us – things that are deeply personal and emotional. Knowing whether someone needs space to cry, verbally process, or just watch a movie in silence takes listening, discernment, and a selflessness that prefers someone else’s needs.

8. Caring for people doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t create emotional boundaries.

I used to think that caring for others meant that I needed to be fully emotionally available. That I could carry any and all problems that they would throw at me – feeling the full emotional weight of them in prayer, thought, and interactions. I assumed that having deeply empathetic sensitive meant that I was being called into emotional and empathetic engagement with everyone, at all times. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was emotionally exhausted and oftentimes feeling things at a level that the person themselves might not even be feeling. I assumed this meant that I was loving well, doing real and hard ministry; so much of it was just that I had refused to set up emotional boundaries and rhythms of personal soul care. Carrying things for people is important and heavy and a part of engaging in deep relationships with others, but it doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to put everything on you. There’s a difference between being the person that someone could call at 2am if they need you and being the person that someone is calling at 2am every night. Setting boundaries, in terms of personal time, physical space, and emotional weight, ultimately helps you better care for others and lead them into caring for themselves.

At the end of the day, all of life, including transitions, are about being near to the Lord and knowing Him. If I’m not learning how to love Him more, receive His love for me, and love others better, then what am I doing? As I face the impending transition into my future, I’m taking these lessons with me. I’m not who I was four years ago – praise the Lord. There’s been a lot of life lived within the 60187 zip code and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my faithful, gracious Savior who has moved, loved, and sustained me in this place.

Maddie MacMath

Maddie is a 20-something lover of Jesus, journaling, nicknames, coffee, chocolate, listening, roses, and hugs. Journeying towards less Maddie and more Jesus, her life is really a big mess covered by infinitely more grace. She writes more about the wisdom and beauty of the ordinary over at Sweet Tea and Me.

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