It seems appropriate that I’m turning thirty this year. I have to smirk as I write that, as if I had a say in the matter. What I mean is since my last birthday I’ve found myself in the midst of one major life event after another. Since turning 29 a year ago Kathy and I got married, we moved from Florida to Colorado, I started a new full-time job with The Navigators, and somewhere in there I launched my own small business. Going from one decade to the next? Yeah, that seems par for the course right now.
With all those recent changes you would think watching the odometer turn over wouldn’t feel all that momentous. Not so. In fact, I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around this new number. It’s like each January when you have to start writing the new year on everything. It just looks funny at first.
Usually in my annual birthday essay I try to reflect thoughtfully on the big themes of my life from the previous year, but this time I’ve decided to reflect on my twenties as a whole.
Years ago one of the men who discipled me in college told me that your twenties are for figuring out what you’re good at, to see what makes you come alive. I tend to agree. I found my twenties to be a decade characterized by impatient self-discovery. I just wanted answers; I didn’t want the process. But he told me one other thing, something that really stuck. During your twenties, as you’re trying to sort everything out, it’s okay to fail.
No one had ever told me something like that before. It’s okay to fail. Now, he didn’t mean to act recklessly and throw all caution to the wind. He was trying to impress upon me that I didn’t have to get it right the first time. He didn’t want me to live in fear, to choose not to act, waiting for all the planets had aligned and a can’t-miss opportunity. Those situations just don’t come around, not on your first trip out, at least not for most of us.
I took his advice as best I could through my early and mid twenties. Of course, I came to find out that just because it’s okay to fail doesn’t mean it feels okay to fail. By far, the hardest part of my twenties was each time I had to decide it was worth risking heartbreak all over again.
One of the elders at my church in Tallahassee had a particularly strong influence on me during my mid-to-late twenties, a very difficult time in my life. To keep things brief, let’s just say that by then I had grown sick of failing. Having permission to do so had become a moot point. This man read me like a book and cut right through my cynicism. He had a lot of poignant and challenging things to say to me through the years but one stands out in my mind. Over and over he urged me to live my life with curiosity and compassion, to engage with my own heart and the hearts of others. By the same token, he would nearly always pair that advice with Proverbs 4:23, to guard my heart above all else.
I look back now and realize my error. While I strove to find my future I was careless with my heart in the present and, as a result, I became paralyzed by my past failures and disappointments.
I’m happy to tell you that things took a turn for the better as I closed out my twenties. First, I had to become reacquainted with the Gospel. Fear and shame were speaking a lot louder than grace. It was a process to believe—really and truly believe—what I claimed to be true. From there I started paying better attention. This same elder counseled me to be the expert of myself and to stop trying to be the expert of everyone else. In other words, quit reading between the lines and figure out your own heart. I was surprised just how difficult it was to do this in real time.
It just so happened that I was learning these truths about the heart and putting them into practice right about the time I started dating Kathy. Funny how that worked out. God is good.
I listed earlier all the new beginnings that have entered my life in the past year. Each is a tremendous blessing and I’m incredibly thankful. But the start of my thirties brings something else too: new blind spots. I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m a total novice at how to do this next season well. It’s intimidating to say the least. I have to remind myself that I have a faithful God, a supportive wife, and a host of family and friends who want the best for me. Come what may, I already have what matters the most.