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No wrong roads

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness”

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In his latest book, Breaking Bread With the Dead, literature professor Alan Jacobs writes, “Some therapists who work with young people today say that the single greatest source of stress and anxiety for them is the sheer number of choices they have before them, which generates the fear that if they make the wrong choices they may not be able to overcome their own errors. And my long experience as a teacher confirms this interpretation.”

I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by choices as a young person. I was freewheeling to a fault. Beyond a vague intention to go to college and eventually get married (because all my friends did) I had no plans and was open to life as it came. Those vague intentions took shape faster than I expected, though: College did lead to marriage, and because of the marriage I never finished college.

Instead, we embarked on a series of moves and career changes in which my part as homemaker and mom was established within the first five years. I was generally happy with it until I got the itch to write a novel. Slices of fiction-writing had to be sandwiched in between meals and naps and (later) homeschool lessons and field trips. Early hopes stretched to a 20-year apprenticeship before I published anything. But along the way, I learned what it was like to agonize over choices.

Every individual life is a creative and collaborative effort between the one who lives it and the one who gives it.

Some novelists have the entire story plotted before they write a word (in my experience, interestingly, most of these are men). But others are like me: They begin with a setting and a handful of characters and some idea of where they want to end up. But how to get there? I felt a weighty responsibility toward my characters, especially once the central conflict arose and they had to act. So many options, so many directions—and the wrong choice could turn possible brilliance into mediocrity.

As at the beginning of a novel, the choices of youth seem almost limitless. Young adults in the real world have less control than a fiction writer, but they, too, are starting out with a setting and a handful of characters and (most of them) some idea of where they want to end up, whether vague or specific. But how to get there? Whom to get there with? And how to know for sure where “there” is? How does one measure success in life?

Today it seems the choices are more numerous, the pressure is greater, and the paths are less plainly marked than when I was passing the time with electives and course credits. Even the most wise and prudent 20-year-old can’t factor in the people, circumstances, and countless nudges that will make up the future. No wonder they are paralyzed with anxiety.

But every path to the future is paved with errors and mistakes, as much as productive choices and good judgment (and what some might call plain ol’ luck). Bad decisions can become worse ones, and really bad decisions can pile up years of consequences. Unknown paths lead past, or into, unexpected obstacles. But also scenic views that burst upon the senses: unexpected, serendipitous, frightening, gracious.

Should I have finished college? Should I have married someone else? My life would have diverged in other directions, but I can’t say they would have been better or worse. “Better” and “worse” have no objective meaning at the beginning, because so much depends on the person you’ll be at those turning points, and the person you’ll be after. There is only one Person who knows all that.

Every individual life is a creative, collaborative work between the one who lives it and the One who gives it. In that sense, it doesn’t matter where the path leads or what ground it covers or whether we travel at night or full daylight. What matters is His steadfast love and faithfulness.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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