Wesley Hill: Enemies of closure

We Christians have spiritual and theological reasons to celebrate finitude, our limited time and space, our inability to be and do everything we’d like to be and do.

With my birthday less than a month away, my friends have been asking me how it feels to approach 30. Trying to form an answer, I’ve found myself returning to a passage from Robert Nozick’s “Philosophical Explanations”:

The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be—the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.

At age 30, I’m still young by modern Western standards and so feel the wistfulness Nozick puts his finger on here. A card-carrying (or, more accurately, iPod-carrying) member of the “net-gen,” I’m like the students written about awhile back in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” by UVA English professor Mark Edmundson: “They want to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they’ve ever known.” He goes on: “They live to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.”

I recognize myself in that description -- which is why growing older carries with it a kind of regretful longing. Ten years ago it felt as if I really would do and be everything I dreamed. I can now see more clearly that choosing one road necessarily means passing by others; selecting one path entails, if only tacitly, rejecting other worthy options.

But that’s also why turning 30 has its benefits. It’s a reminder of the sad, beautiful fact that I’m going to miss almost everything -- yes -- but it’s also a mile marker on a journey, underscoring the goodness of this particular path, this road taken, no matter what delights and adventures (not to mention disappointments and heartaches) the others may have held.

We Christians have spiritual and theological reasons to celebrate this finitude, our limited time and space, our inability to be and do everything we’d like to be and do. Because God made us, we’re finite, bounded, dependent. We can welcome our limitations not as marks of our imperfection or brokenness but simply as part of what it means to be creatures. We flourish when we accept those constraints as a gift, learning to live within, rather than constantly trying to overcome, them.

That’s as true for those of us saying goodbye to our 20s (or our 30s, 50s, 70s…) as it is for the churches and institutions we want to see flourish. Like aging persons, institutions travel down a bounded, particular path. Could it be that the brightness of their future depends on discovering what unique opportunities that path, and not another, opens up? Might institutions, like their leaders, realize the benefits of growing older?

There is poignancy -- as well as opportunity -- in roads not taken.