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A Letter to a Former Student, on the Occasion of a Difficult Day

April 22nd, 2010 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Newer readers to Mere-O may not know that for two years I worked as an educator, and was blessed to have an incredible set of students.  This is a letter I wrote tonight to one of them.  I post it here because it is broadly applicable, and because it may give you a better understanding of who I am as a thinker, writer, and person.  The name, naturally, has been changed.


I can't thank you enough for your gracious and overly kind note. It is really a joy to hear from you, even though I can hear anguish and frustration in your voice. I am at a point in my life where I do not take for granted the former student who takes the time to let me know how they are, for good or bad. It happens rarely, and I find myself feeling exceedingly grateful for the opportunity I had to be involved in their lives every time it does. In a small, but important way, it reminds me of who I am and why I think God has placed me in this world. So, thank you.

If you don't mind, then, allow me to dispense some friendly encouragement to you during your difficult time.

You say that you don't know why you're at school anymore, and that you have "lost sight of the end." I am not surprised to hear this. It is always difficult amidst the books and papers and confusing relational lives to keep our eyes on the reasons why we have decided to undertake the endeavor of learning. The sophomore year is a particularly troublesome time in that regard: the thrill and novelty of the new way of doing things has worn off, and the fruit of your labor is not yet evident. It is often full of drudgery and pain.

It is easy to become discouraged during this season, and for that reason it is all the more important and helpful to surround yourself with a community who can encourage you. I suspect--though of course don't know for certain--that your situation is not as bleak as you suggest. Lapses in memory, reading the wrong book, not having anything to say in class--all those are par for the intellectual course. I have done them all (or as in the case of speaking, not done them!) many times. Perhaps a better witness is that of my more successful friends, who I am confident would attest to the same. Reading the right book for class is not itself the barometer of educational success--and the second we begin to take such measures as such is the second that we lose sight of what our education is for, which is to hone our vision and understanding of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and the world that he is Creator and Lord over.

So I hope you can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. That you are sensitive to this struggle indicates, as it always has to me, that you understand the real object of our education and its real peril. It is a cultivation of virtue for the sake of seeing the Good.

But the cultivation of the virtue takes work, and work sometimes feels like tedium. Playing scales when first learning to play piano is an extraordinary challenge that we make harder by our inability to delight in the menial tasks that living in a mundane world requires.

Yet when I tasted the goods that playing piano offered, scales ceased to be drudgery and instead become an oddly joyful expression of the preparation for other goods. They were never a means, but at some point the necessary steps take on a delight of their own. Usually, that is somewhere around the Junior year.

Second, you raise the specters of the money you are paying and the job market afterward. You are certainly right that in principle you could get an education without paying $30,000 a year. However, I am quite confident that you will not find a community of like-minded students or professors without paying that price. It's an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless. While you would, and will, discover the truth outside the university context, the education you are getting is distinct: when you leave, you will have an extraordinary understanding of the history of ideas in the West, which will give you a much more robust command on our current age and its troubles than many of your peers. That may not be transformed into monetary value. But it is preparation for a life of wisdom, which I take is the central need for people our age.

As to the matter of your laziness, that is a serious issue. If it is true that you have not "worked as unto the Lord," then it is an opportunity for confession and repentance. But the "unto the Lord" is the key point when it comes to our work. He has given you the teachers and the assignments and the peers. The educational setting that you are in is an extraordinary gift, one that most people do not get to have. And as such, your work needs to be a joyful response to the gift that has been given, a delightful cultivation of the garden (as it were) as a means of honoring Him who has given it to you. Keeping our work in that perspective is difficult when it is 3 AM and we've yet to begin our paper, but it is no more difficult for us than it is for those who must rise at 6 AM to join the world of plumbers, electricians, and office assistants.

But one thing I must challenge you on: your laziness is not reason for shame, which I take to be an experience that is grounded not in our recognition of our sin before God, but in our perception that we have not lived up to society's approval. If you are embarrassed about what I might think of you, there are no grounds to be. Allow me to elaborate.

I take it that there is an impression among some of my former students that my opinions of them are wrapped up in how well they do in school, or which program they get into, etc. While I understand how they got that impression, I am sorry for it, as it is absolutely not true. Whatever you do with your life, I will remain your friend. The remarkable thing about the Kingdom is that it levels the playing field to "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." Being a great student, doing great things--all that is secondary.

What's more, you and everyone else had only a limited understanding of my own strengths and failures. In one way, I got to do the easy part: persuade you that a life pursuing education was worth pursuing. None of you ever witnessed my struggles to read books, my propensity to watch movies, my tendency to live off the education I had gained in college rather than going "further up and further in." It was inevitable that you wouldn't see all this--most of it, only my wife sees on a regular basis. But it was there, and my emphasis on pursuing a life of learning was as much for me as it was for all of you--because as you are currently discovering, pursuing wisdom is much more difficult than convincing people to pursue it.

One example of my failure may be oddly encouraging for you. For the better part of my first two years at college, I was relatively lazy. As one professor put it, I got by "on my looks." Which given my looks, is a pretty damning expression. It wasn't until I turned my junior year to my studies with an intense seriousness that I became a student of any distinction. I am convinced, in this regard, that two years of focused study will do more for someone than four years of barely making the requirements, if at all.

In that sense, I have some sympathy and understanding for your frustrations at your failures. I tell you this not to legitimize your laziness, but to encourage you that even so, your education is by no means lost by it. If there is anything admirable in my life, it is only that which I have been given--by God, by my peers, and by my teachers and mentors. I am their debtor, and delighted to be so.

And so I would remind you to not be afraid. The promise of the Gospel is that all shall be well--that all shall *really* be well. You may not see fruit this semester, or next, or even in this life. But the struggle for faithfulness to our responsibilities and calling is a struggle that will pay eternal dividends. I remain convinced, as always, that your schooling now is schooling for heaven.

Because remember, the tree produces fruit in its season, which in the Kingdom is whenever Jesus wants it to.

I hope, more than anything, that I have encouraged you a little here. I am SO glad that you finally read my letter of recommendation, and want you to know that I would wholeheartedly write the same today. It is so easy to grow dull to the real importance of learning, and that you haven't simply confirms all that I put in there. Press on, and please don't hesitate to let me know if I can help in any way at all. I remain your ally and friend, and look forward to seeing you again soon.



Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.