What Are You Going to do with the Rest of Your Life?

The day Frederick Buechner graduated from Princeton he and his classmates were lining up to march to their commencement seats when a fellow-graduate moseyed down the column asking each person, “What are you going to do now?”

A few had a job lined up. A good number were headed to graduate school. But for some it was an unnerving question because of the long-range implication—not what were they going to do right away, but what were they going to do with the rest of their lives? Most didn’t have the faintest idea.

More telling than how they commenced following their commencement was how they progressed; what, in fact, did they do with the rest of their lives? That Princeton class graduated in 1947—69 years ago at this writing. If we had a list of those graduates we might recognize a few names. I don’t have such a list, so the only name I know from that class is Frederick Buechner. What he’s done—and is still doing—with the rest of his life, as a teacher, preacher, and writer is impressive.

As for the others? No doubt most of them got married, had kids. Some of the marriages worked out, some didn’t. Some of the kids turned out well, some didn’t. I think we can be sure of that.

We assume that most of them landed a job. What we don’t know is if their heart was in it. Did the career they chose pay off for them? Did they make enough money to enjoy themselves while they were working, and sock away enough to enjoy themselves once they weren’t? Did they contribute to the good of others? Give encouragement to those who needed a leg up?

What do they have to show for those accrued years? Have they lived with integrity and courage? Have they done something with the rest of their lives that has made their corner of the world a little better? Have they lived in such a way as to cause people to cry when they die?

“What are you going to do now?” asked Buechner’s classmate. Unless we’ve lost all sensitivity, it’s still an unsettling question—and not one that we can answer for someone else; only for ourselves.

Nor is it just a question for the up-and-coming cap-and-gown crowd. It’s for every one of us, at whatever age. It doesn’t have anything to do with the past, for there’s nothing we can do about the past. The question is, “What are you going to do now?” With the rest of your life? As Yogi had it, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” If you’re still breathing, you still have a future.

It brings to mind a well-worn story …

When William Gladstone was prime minister of Great Britain, a young man approached him for advice. Gladstone asked him what his plans were.

“I’m going to complete my studies at Oxford,” he said.

“And then what?” asked the prime minister.

“I hope to study law and become a successful barrister.”

“And then what?”

“I plan to be elected to Parliament.”

“And then what?”

“I hope to be like you and become prime minister someday.”

“And then what?”

“I guess I will retire.”

“And then what?”

“Well, I suppose I will one day die.”

“That you will, young man, that you will. And then what?”

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