John Lennon, of Beatles fame, is quoted as saying “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” And that certainly does seem to be the case. My first year of teaching at my alma mater, my economics professor made a comment about me that I found interesting. I didn’t hear it personally—the words were relayed to me by one of my students who happened to be taking a class from him. The professor, Mr. Barney, was talking about the importance of setting goals and working unceasingly toward them. Then he used me as an example of such a person: one who had definite goals and then achieved them.
I was flabbergasted. I thought it peculiar that anyone could look at my life and think that. And yet, perhaps from the standpoint of an outside observer, my life to that point maybe did look that way. But it sure didn’t feel that way living it: at the time.
At the time Mr. Barney said those nice words about me, I was still in the middle of my graduate work at UCLA. And it hadn’t exactly been a lifetime goal of mine to garner a graduate degree in ancient Semitic languages from that university. In fact, I didn’t believe my goals had ever been especially clear. I just had significant interests, and those interests had driven me in the direction my life had gone.
At the age of four, I had thought I might want to become an astronomer. I also was good at art, and so a career as an artist also seemed like a definite possibility, too. So all through elementary, junior and senior high school, I remained very much interested in all things related to space. At the same time, I took all the art courses that were offered in junior high and high school and always did exceptionally well. My sophomore year my algebra teacher told me I should think about becoming a mathematician. Meanwhile, my world history teacher thought I was a whiz. And my English teacher thought I’d make a good writer.
Meanwhile I had toyed with taking only shop classes: wood working, metal shop, auto shop—and then upon graduation going to live in the woods somewhere, building a log cabin, and living the life of a hermit.
By my senior year, since I had taken all the required classes needed for graduation, I could enjoy myself by taking only classes I liked. So I took an art class, honors English, honors history, and a few other courses in literature and history. My honors English teacher gave me extra work to do, since neither he nor I thought the normal requirements were enough for me. So while the rest of the class had to read one of Ibsen’s plays, I had to read and report on all of them. The same with Shakespeare. In addition, I entered a speech contest and took third place and a statewide contest for designing a billboard where I got honorable mention. It was during my senior year that I finished writing my first novel—not a very good one, but then how many high school students write novels of any sort?
I chose the college I attended because it was the school that my friends in church were going to. Once I got to college, I wavered between becoming an English major or a history major, before settling on history. Since this was a small Christian college, we were supposed to have a Christian ministry, and so I began working with Jewish people—which led me to living on a kibbutz in Israel during the summer between my Freshmen and Sophomore years.
After a summer farming in Israel, I decided learning Hebrew might be fun. I ended up taking a full three years of the language and making a second summer trip to a kibbutz between my Sophomore and Junior years. By my senior year I had taken several advanced courses in Old Testament and New Testament. I found it all fascinating, so I decided I’d go on to graduate school. My advisor encouraged me to attend the University of Chicago to do graduate work in history. Instead, since I really liked Hebrew and the study of the Old Testament, I applied to the Semitic language program at UCLA—and was accepted.
Throughout my college years I had continued to write novels, penning two or three per year, none of which I now think are very good—but I was improving my craft. I also managed to get three magazine articles published during my years in college.
And so, it was this life that happened to me as I was muddling along, that from the standpoint of Mr. Barney seemed directed at a goal: there were two trips to Israel, three years of Hebrew as an undergraduate, an advanced degree in ancient Semitic languages from UCLA. How could all of that just happened?
I’m reminded of a couple of verses from the Bible, both from the book of Proverbs:
“In their hearts humans plan their course,
But the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 NIV)
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart;
And lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him,
And he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6 KJV)