Rick Olson stood with his son Patrick on a hill overlooking a panoramic view of downtown Pittsburgh with its three rivers and tall buildings. As they gazed over the railing on the Mt. Washington observation deck, a favorite place of Julie and I’s, young Patrick pointed to the barges floating up and down the three rivers, the yellow bridges and a host of other scenes there laid out in front of them, all the while asking questions— “What kind of boat is that? How do they get the coal out of the railcars and into the barges? Which river goes south to north? Is it that one or that one?”
Rick had been living in Pittsburgh for 22 years and had never paid attention enough to answer these questions, which meant Rick could only say, “Hmmmm. That’s a good question.” Then Patrick asked his dad to point out the building where he had been working every day for five years as a corporate lawyer who worked on merges and acquisitions. Finally able to answer one of his son’s questions, Rick pointed out the downtown tower where he was known as “The Mechanic” for his ability to close the deal. But when Patrick asked his next question, “What’s the building next to it?” Rick was once again stumped, even though he had walked past that building every day for five years. He wondered, “how could I not know?”
When they returned home, Rick made his son dinner, played with him, read him a story, put him in bed and kissed him goodnight. But when Rick was done putting his son to bed, and plopped down on the couch, he had an epiphany. One thought kept gnawing at him: “I’ve been here 22 years and never noticed all those things. What else have I been missing?”
Rick realized he was unhappy as a corporate lawyer. He had been passed over for partner and wasn’t making much money. His whole life was scheduled around work, and it began to overwhelm him. He remembered the time his wife—now his ex-wife—was scheduled for gallbladder surgery and on the way to the hospital one of the partners strongly suggested he make calls to clients while in the waiting room. Or the time that his son Patrick had to sit in his office, alone, for an entire evening, while he met with clients. He was multi-tasking his life and still not making it.
The epiphany moment concluded when Rick realized it was time for a change, but even with that realization, Rick admits he was only 80 percent sure he wanted to quit, and he needed to find the other 20 percent to be sure. That 20 percent came in the form of a serious leg injury he sustained playing recreational hockey.
When Rick woke up in the hospital and was told by the doctor that his foot and leg were broken in at least 11 places, Rick’s response was to laugh, saying, “You just unlocked the gate. This is my chance to walk away.” To which the doctor replied, “You won’t be walking anywhere for quite a while.” “Oh, but I will be.” said Rick. And in the midst of his 10-month rehabilitation, Rick found the courage to move on with his life. For 20 years he had said that when work got frustrating he would “rather drive a truck.”
So that’s what he did. Rick now drives an over-the-road tanker truck, working 10 days on the road and then getting at least four uninterrupted days to spend with Patrick. “I needed to do something different,” he explains. “But I didn’t anticipate that I’d fall in love with the job.”
Rick is just one of the people profiled in Po Bronson’s book “What Should I Do With My Life? The People Who Answered the Ultimate Question” a book that explores a question asked by millions across generations, including Micah and those he spoke to on behalf of God.
“What Should I Do With My Life?” It was in the asking of himself this question that Bronson decided to write his book and address the question that nearly all of us wrestle with at some point in our lives, if not at multiple points in our lives. But rather than write another “how-to” book or a thesis on finding your purpose, Bronson simply spent time with people, listening to their stories, watching their transformation, seeing them “facing up to their own identity and filtering out the chatter that tells us to be someone we’re not.”
It’s not a philosophical book. Instead, it’s a look at the “hard-earned record of those who actually took action, changed their lives, and enjoyed or suffered the consequences.” Bronson gathers together stories of transformation from pointlessness to purpose, from success to significance, including:
A mother torn between an Olympic career and her adolescent daughter.
The Cuban immigrant who overcame the strong disapproval of her parents and quit her lucrative career to go into social work.
The OB/GYN physician who walked away from her lifelong “destiny” of being a doctor and was trying to make sense of it all.
A high-powered IT saleswoman who gave up the certainty of salary to be a massage therapist because she missed a close connection with people.
The more you read Bronson’s book, the more you begin to understand that there are millions of people out there desperately seeking the answer to The Ultimate Question—what should I do with my life? This question is being asked by young and older, but the answers don’t often come easy.
Usually there’s some pain, some risk, some adversity, some struggle involved — and often the vision for the future only comes to us through the lens of hindsight. But the struggle with this question is faithful for it can be a guide to the life we are meant to live. Which is to say, the struggle is worth it.
The prophet Micah is a kindred spirit to those pursuing the Ultimate Question. As he wrote about the people of Israel in crisis, Micah’s aim was to simplify— remind the people of their purpose, and live forth from that purpose.
Like an executive on a corporate “treadmill” that goes nowhere, or a doctor who’s given all she had to give, the people of Israel had been relying on their busyness, their ritual, their status as chosen people to make meaning of their lives. Their offerings to God, however, were simply the fruits of their frantic labor, much like those of us who believe that if we can just: do enough, give enough, work enough… then our boss, our families, our friends, even our God will finally be pleased with us.
But Micah breaks it down. The answer to the Ultimate Question is really quite simple. Our
purpose is found in the larger purposes of God. “What does the Lord require of you?” asks the prophet. He is asking: What really matters? What is God’s purpose for us? Is it to achieve money, title, and status? Is it to meet an expectation given to us by a parent, spouse, or boss? No, of course not. It’s not even about spending more time with the kids, or finding fulfillment in driving a truck across America’s fruited plains— although time with children and driving a truck could be a part of the answer.
Like the people in Bronson’s book, the people of God would find that what really matters is relationship— relationship with God and with each other, relationships not quantified by dollars or organization charts, by ritual or good deeds. What really matters, says the prophet, is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” because at the end of the day, we’re not judged on what we accomplish in a career or even a religion, but on how much we have loved. Have we simply loved people enough to act justly, to be kind, and to give ourselves over to walking humbly with God and following God’s lead in our lives? Have we?
Remember that question we all start getting asked when we’re about 5 years old — “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a great question, but sooner or later we begin to turn “be” into “do” and get stuck cranking out life instead of creatively living into it. But as I have heard Pastor and writer Rob Bell say on numerous occasions, “We are human beings, not human ‘doings’”.
We are human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, and because we are, we already matter. Our lives matter because we matter to God. Not because of what we can or cannot do, but because God simply loves us. Therefore, if we love God in the same way, we can’t help but find real meaning and a new way of looking at life through the lens of relationship. And when we do, Micah’s words can remind us that life can be simple if we will choose to love God and others; if we chose to fully and completely give up our incessant need to always be doing something the world says will make us complete; and instead do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Rick Olson now spends a lot of time in his truck, a cooler of sandwiches and milk in the seat beside him, his guitar in the back where there is a small cozy sleeper cab for his long days on the road. The miles melt behind him as he drives, but always on his mind is a relationship. Everything Rick sees he wants to show to Patrick, and then answer the questions his son has with real responses. He doesn’t miss working in the office and has no regrets. And what others might see as a failed career, Rick sees as salvation. Because what really matters to Rick is not what the world says he should do, but what God has created him to be—and among that “be-ing” is being a father to Patrick.
Says the lawyer, become driver, become dad, again, “He asks more interesting questions than anybody I’ve ever worked with. And I love to find the answers with him.” It’s his son that brings Rick happily home, and being that boy’s father is among the answers to his Ultimate Question.
So may we ask this ultimate question of ourselves, while being open…not to how the world would have us answer, but to how God leads us to answer and live. For in doing so, our answer to the Ultimate Question: What should I do with my life, will be: I will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Amen.