How, Then, Shall We Live?

I went to a small liberal arts school in Indiana. Hanover College — alma mater of both Mike Pence and Woody Harrelson (go figure!?). For two years I served as a Student Adviser (SA). As an SA, I lived in a dorm room on a hall of 18 freshman boys. I was expected to cultivate community while also attending to individual needs. To carry this out, I provided care and counsel for everything from homesickness to broken romances, from test anxiety to drunken trips to the ER, from self-doubt to suicidal ideation. I was on the front lines of college crises.

Not only were Student Advisers on the front lines, we were essentially the entire army. At the time (1983–86), Hanover had precisely zero trained mental health counselors. While faculty, staff, and students cried out desperately for professional support, the college president vetoed the motion. When asked what students should do in moments of crisis, the president responded, “If a student has a problem, he can just talk to his coach.”

Few, if anyone, held this boldface ignorance, but we were nearly all complicit in perpetuating the myth that any student worth his/her salt could and should handle problems, perhaps “with a little help from friends.” Friends. Writing. Acting. Sports. Beer. Pot. Sex. Anything we could lose ourselves in, if only for the moment. Because the moment was all we thought we had.

So it wasn’t just that we weren’t provided professional help, but we largely felt we didn’t need it and would get by better without it. The isolated students who wrestled with significant mental health concerns — eating disorders, sexual identity issues, self-harming, were convinced they didn’t belong and kindly escorted off our campus.

But my, how the times have changed. I spoke with a chaplain now serving a small liberal arts college and he told me that many students seek out counseling services even as they are coming to a decision about enrolling. The college not only has a professional counselor, but an entire counseling department. The stigma of seeking help has greatly lessened over the past 30 years.

The issue for college students now is not so much “Can I admit my needs?:” but, given these needs, “What do I do now?” If we borrow the language of a 12-step program, many students take the first step of freely admitting their powerlessness, that their lives have become unmanageable, even that they are faced with insanity. But few take the next step, the faith step, believing that a Power greater than myself can restore my sanity.

This question, “What do I do now?” is largely value-driven. Theologian Francis Schaeffer put it this way, “How, then shall we live?” It is simply not possible to extend anything resembling gracious care without first accepting that we are created by love, with love, for love. And love is more than a concept. Love is a relationship. And this relationship is with Someone greater than ourselves, much more than just our ideal Self.

This is where philosophical apology abruptly ends and faith testimony begins. “How, then, shall you live?”