The semiannual edition of my high school alumni magazine showed up in my mailbox recently. I usually look forward to reading about the fascinating exploits of current students and the updates on the lives of my fellow graduates.
Perusing this issue felt different. The more I read, the more I felt sad about our world’s view of this life.
The magazine didn’t lack interesting stories or tidbits. I read reports about events in which alumni can get involved, recaps of the school’s sports teams, physical improvements to the buildings on campus, upcoming class reunions.
I also found plenty of that other staple of such publications: achievements.
I saw words of praise about college scholarships, award winners in science competitions and All-State soccer players. Regarding some of my fellow alums, I learned about a couple of guys writing new books, a 56-year-old woman adding a new academic credential to her resume, a man and his son opening a new business location.
I went poking around the internet to look at some other school alumni magazines and newsletters. I discovered much of the same. More people writing books. People running marathons. People taking year-long work sabbaticals by the ocean. People becoming doctors and lawyers and leaders in the business world. There even was a long report about a woman who didn’t let a cancer diagnosis keep her from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro 31 years after graduation.
That’s really impressive, but it struck me at that moment: We talk a lot — maybe too much — about the outwardly impressive mountains we climb.
Mind you, I would have been the first to want my high school achievements touted on every page of a magazine. And in the years after graduation, when I got to do some cool things in life and realize a few of my dreams, I would have hoped for some admiration if those things were listed among such reports.
I don’t know if it’s age or perspective — or both — but that kind of stuff simply doesn’t hold my attention the way it once did. Maybe it’s because I know that achievement doesn’t automatically bring with it happiness. Many doctors, lawyers and captains of industry might have healthy bank accounts; they also can battle relationship problems, addiction, disillusion. Many people gain athletic or business success yet suffer through the death of a child or spouse at young ages.
Those are the tales we might prefer reading. Alumni — people — are a school’s only true product. Their achievements don’t determine the quality of the product. People lead lives; lives are a journey, not merely a destination.
We can’t build a ladder of achievements to reach heaven.
Yes, there can be a pivotal moment that turns our hearts toward Jesus, fills us with the Holy Spirit and makes us yearn so profoundly to be in God’s presence that nothing else matters. Yes, as Catholics we believe we are given salvation by Jesus through His death and resurrection, by developing a faith relationship with Him that is evident through good works — some of those even considered human achievements.
But not in those stunning moments of work and glory do we show who we are, what products we have become of the schools we attended and the towns we have called home, how we reflect our families and friends and faith. Schools should express pride not only of the greatest achievers of their student body and alumni; truth is, they produce many more people closer to average, and the stories of those people have more meaning.
Those are the stories of life.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote: “We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been pour out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Let’s not boast about achievements, which might impress but have little relevance. Instead, let’s talk about the real mountains we have climbed daily.
Let’s stop fussing about what we do and what we have. Let’s instead focus on who we are. Those lessons will be more valuable that we ever learned in any school.
Eisenbath is parishioner at St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.