Three years ago, I sent my oldest son off to college. Saying goodbye
to him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I was so choked
up, I couldn’t even talk.
I knew that college would be for him, in some ways, one of the happiest times of his life. He’d have plenty of things to learn, the opportunity to try different kinds of sports, eat different kinds of foods, hear speakers on all sorts of different topics, and meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
But I knew also that he was going to face something absolutely dreadful at college. History professors? No. Something far worse than that…and far more frightening.
When students leave for college, they are free in a way that they've never been before and probably will never be again. No one tells them they have to go to class. No one tells them how to spend their time. No one tells them exactly what subjects to take, or what to major in. They are basically free to run their own lives.
Now being free should be a wonderful thing. But freedom isn't any good if you don't know what to do with it. The Israelites longed to go back to Egypt. Even many freed slaves wanted to go back to the old plantations. One of French novelist Andre Gide's characters says, "This useless freedom tortures me."
And the freedom students have at college may be, in some ways, a torture.
Partly, this is because it's sometimes difficult for them to do what you they know they should do. It's hard to force themselves to get up for classes when nobody’s making them do it. It's hard to force themselves to study when there's a card game going on.
But even when they make all the right choices, freedom is hard--because even the right choices don't always seem to pay off as they should.
Take, for example, my undergraduate friends at Stanford. Bright kids. Talented kids. What they all had in common was an extraordinarily high degree of self-discipline, the ability to force themselves to do whatever was necessary to reach their goals. But despite all they achieved, few of my Stanford friends were happy.
Why? Because even when one makes the right choices, when one avoids drugs and alcohol, when one studies hard and chooses a major that leads to a good job, there's still a kind of emptiness, a feeling that, no matter what one does, there’s no point in it.
Just about every college student goes through a time when this emptiness hits. And they think it's homesickness, which, in part, it may be. But it is also something more: a deep uncertainty about the future and what they should do with their lives, the empty feeling of realizing that one has no idea at all what life is all about.
Well, believe it or not, this emptiness might be the best part of the college experience--if a student deals with it in the right way.
Many students don't. Some turn to drugs, some to alcohol. Some just give up and go home.
So what's the right way of dealing with that emptiness? The only advice I have is the advice I gave my son three years ago.
I told Robert that, when that homesick, empty feeling hit, the best thing to do was to hit his knees and to open the Bible. I told him that, when he was lonely, he should call home…but that also he should call to his true home.
And it seems to me that this is the best way to deal with all the empty, lonely times in life. To learn to break through the emptiness and to truly hear from God is the most important of all life’s lessons—and the path to the happiness that otherwise eludes even the best of students.