The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that if one does not know where he is coming from, he does not know where he is going. Now that I am in my early seventies, I have many opportunities to look back at the places I came from, and at the arguments that I have had with myself and other people. To me, an argument does not just mean a fight with raised voices. Instead, I think of arguing as persuasion—how did I convince myself to make certain choices? How did other people guide me to make certain decisions throughout my life?
In my mind, one of the rudest arguments I ever had was with my father when I flunked a high school geometry test. I always excelled at math and to be in high school and to flunk a math exam was shocking to me. I went to my father and told him that if we had left Yugoslavia when I was much younger, I would not have encountered these problems because I would have been fluent in English. I felt that my failure in math was his fault. My father patiently explained that there had been several attempts to leave before 1965, but both of my parents considered it too dangerous for our family to leave before then.
One moment that sticks with me is what I would call a young, poor immigrant’s fear of not having money. I was in Chicago, and a friend sent one of his friends to convince me to go to a meeting of young evangelicals. Going to this conference in Singapore would have meant that I would not be able to work for at least one out of the three summer months. I decided that I needed to work. I would later look at the names of all the people who went and read reports from the conference and regret that I did not go. The decision was made in view of how much money I would owe if I did not work the entire summer. While I did have money for the next semester, I missed a great opportunity that was a springboard for the careers of many prominent people in the American church.
Another major event in my life had to do with a leadership change in a Christian organization. The founder of the organization was not ready to leave his leadership position, but the board decided to hire new people to learn from the founder and make his departure easier. I remember two things from my first meeting with this wonderful man. He said, “We talked for the whole day, and you did not even raise your voice. I expected a different meeting!” He expected to be berated; instead, I praised him for his good leadership and the work he had done. The other thing that he said has stayed with me for all these years. He told me that they had done all of these things with scarce resources (and giving sacrificially), but they would see what I could accomplish with all the abundance that I had. He had confidence in our ability to do even greater things than he had done. Both comments were comments of formation for me. I went on to lead many reconciliation meetings because I found that I could work softly and gently to reconcile people. And at that organization, our new leadership was blessed by the Lord to take a volunteer staff and a budget of less than $50,000 and transform it into a paid staff of 16 with a budget approaching one million dollars.
My commitment to pursue a doctoral degree had lots of bumps along the way. It started with a disagreement with my wife about the proper time to start. For two years, it was delayed by the organization where I worked. I finally had to leave because they thought that my absences for research would not be beneficial to the organization. Instead of a typical 5-7 years, it took me 9 years to complete my degree. But in retrospect, getting the doctorate was a welcome addition to our budget and I have been teaching at the post-college level for 15 years now.
In each of those moments, I made decisions based on the advice of people I admired and my own conclusions. Today, I often find myself giving advice to my students, family members, or people in my congregation. When my students come to me to discuss pursuing additional degrees, I start by asking them what their families think. Are their spouses and children in agreement with this decision? Unilateral decisions should be an exception, because getting an additional degree affects the people around them and sometimes, instead of improving financial standing, it has the opposite effect.
If I do not know what you feel or think, I cannot give you good advice. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices and for reconciling what we chose with the other paths we did not take. Even when a person gets advice or counsel from many people, I always tell them that it is going to be their decision and they can never blame the advisors.