Kelsie Harriman: “Hope: Not a Gift, but an Obligation”

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I am certain I am alone in admitting that high school was not a particularly happy time in my life. During that period, my inner life was something of a mess, yet all external measures of well-being indicated that I had everything together. On numerous occasions, I had peers inform me that my life was “perfect.” Although frequent repetition should have aided me in constructing a reasonable response to this accusation, I failed to ever generate a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I would laugh self-consciously. Sometimes I’d mumble and turn away. Usually, though, I was just silent. I always wanted to say something along the lines of “If you only knew.” If you only knew that I’m scared and insecure and plagued by feelings of inadequacy. If you only knew that I struggle with depression and anxiety and disordered eating, and I am pray to God to give me hope to get through the day. But people just don’t say those kinds of things, do they.

The Already

Theologian Gerhardus Vos proposed a theological concept in the early 1900s which argues that the life of a Christian is characterized by both the “already” and “not yet.” “The already,” is our temporary, earthly existence, and the “not yet,” is the glory that awaits in heaven.  A Christian, Vos claims, is called to live in the tension between the two worlds.

I very seldom experienced this tension in high school, as I believed myself to be doing fairly well fully immersed in the “already.”  I attended a public school whose limited size allowed me to succeed in most of my endeavors.  Obsessive training put me in top positions on my cross country team, long hours of practice gave me a spot in the All-State band, and fear of being outcompeted afforded impressive marks on my transcript.  On my own power, I was able to earn for myself accolades that others did not have. At the end of my four years of high school, I was notified that my “perfect life” had earned me a spot at the University of Chicago, where I enrolled as a student in the fall of 2014.

The Tension

It took only a few weeks at the University of Chicago to understand that my compulsive work-ethic and intelligence were no longer sufficient to differentiate me from my peers. I could study as many hours as I liked, but there was someone studying longer. I could wield all of the knowledge that I had, but someone else knew more. Fears of inadequacy, which up until then I had been able to stamp down by comparing myself exclusively to the small pool of people from my hometown, began to rise up. I was no longer able to outcompete, and unfortunately, I was in an environment in which this was paramount, surrounded by many similarly unhappy people who were laboring under the same burden.

The Not Yet

I write today with a feeling not of tension, but of peace. Not because I’ve become accustomed to my inadequacy, or because many hours of taking derivatives actually made me good at calculus, but because I’ve discovered an advantage I have that few others do. I have hope.

I’ve come to believe that my primary purpose as a university student, and as a human being in the world at large, is to hope.  I have encountered a large number of students in the last two years who have been disheartened by heavy demands and unrealistic standards, fighting valiantly, as I did in high school, to be successful. I’ve now withdrawn from the contest, however, not because I’ve given up, but because I’ve realized the competition is for a prize I do not want.

This is because I have an assurance of something much better. 1 Peter 3:15 appeals to Vos’ notion of the “not yet” by compelling Christians to “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I have hope in Christ Jesus and a world wherein there is no more dying, no more death and no more pain. There will come a day when earthly things will pass away, and the “contest” in which we are all engaged will be won by the people who the world now says are losing.

In my darker days, I would pray to God to give me hope as if it were a gift. I no longer believe hope is a gift, however, but an obligation. We need hope in order to live the life oriented toward the Better Tomorrow to which He has called us, and the world needs hope to keep it from falling apart. My primary purpose as a student at this university is not to receive an education, or discover myself, or get a good job. My primary purpose is to have hope, and to be prepared to explain this hope to anyone who asks.

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