How students should leave their mark
Notre Dame students are known for our propensity to develop ambitions to make a lasting contribution to society. When Campus Dining surveyed students for their “Feeding the Future” Campaign with the question, “How do you plan to change the world?”, Notre Dame students demonstrated their ambitions with high-minded goals. They gave responses such as: “By starting a nonprofit to bring clean drinking water to those in need,” “By implementing practical economic policies both internationally and domestically,” and “By using social enterprise and design to solve the world’s toughest problems.”
These ambitions are not unexpected or unanticipated because, by its very mission, Notre Dame intends to “bring knowledge into service of justice.” This indicates that the university seeks to form individuals who employ their education in the service of others and their communities, adhering to Father Sorin’s vision that “This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”
However, these lofty visions of transformative change are quite often individualistic ambitions that amount to elevated self-interest oriented to the pursuit of glory. They are frequently the result of a culture that advocates that one should achieve financial success in order to, along the way, generate impactful change. Making this dramatic impact is often viewed as integral to a person’s life mission, but is also seen as existing entirely for the purpose of “giving back.” And if this impactful change comes with the additional benefit of recognition and honor, it is all the more desirable.
We can find this idolization of creating an indelible change on society in an advertisement pamphlet for Notre Dame, which reads, “With robust expertise and a hunger for discovery, you will accomplish extraordinary things—while asserting individuality and leaving your mark on the world. . .We know our students have unique and concrete visions for changing the world. Our goal is to provide a holistic apparatus from which they can pursue these visions.”
But this viewpoint is foolish and problematic. A person should not launch into transforming the world for the sake of making their own personal impact. The world is not improved by drastic change innovated by individuals who desire to “leave their mark on the world.” Change can be dangerous and do more harm than good: we must exercise extreme caution when producing lasting transformations.
Before we develop ideas about drastic change we can personally bring to the world, we must transform ourselves into individuals of character who have a relationship with Jesus Christ in order that this transformation may be in accordance with the will of God and be the utmost way to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. Pope St. John XXIII explained this when he said, “In conducting their human affairs to the best of their ability, they must recognize that they are doing a service to humanity, in intimate union with God through Christ, and to God’s greater glory.” Through a life lived in relationship with Christ, we can prayerfully discern how we can most efficaciously and appropriately improve society. It is self-evident that we should pursue positive change because we have both a right and a duty to promote the common good. In addition, the Christian message of love is demonstrated through action in the cause of justice.
We can look to the lives of the saints in order to understand how we might properly change the world. The Blessed Mother is the preeminent example of making the Kingdom of God present on earth through her submission to the will of God: “May it be done to me according to thy word.” St. André Bessette understood that the one thing we can truly do to accomplish great deeds is to surrender to God. He said, “I am nothing… only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.” St. Joan of Arc abandoned herself wholly to the command of God to drive the English from France when she contributed significantly to France winning the Hundred Years’ War.
In addition, we must be cautious to orient our goals towards the glorification of God, instead of the glorification of ourselves. St. Paul said, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God.” It can be tempting to contribute positively to society with the dual intention of bringing honor to ourselves, but we must separate ourselves from the good that takes place through us and understand it is wrought in the power of Christ.
As students, our years at Notre Dame should be an era of our lives set aside for spiritual growth, discernment, and education. We should seek to form ourselves into individuals prepared to go out into the world in pursuit of the mission God intends for us, whether or not that mission has yet been fully revealed to us. The University has a responsibility to aid its undergraduates in this endeavour of developing character and growing spiritually. Instead of preaching to students that they can change the world, the University should focus on forming its undergraduates into individuals of character who can bring about the changes Christ desires.
Perhaps the students who supplied answers to the question “How do you plan to change the world?” with responses such as: “By improving energy access in developing countries,” “By advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants,” and “By working in third world countries to end illnesses” have prayerfully discerned their mission in life and are motivated to bring about these changes so that Christ can be made present. It is truly wonderful if students depart from their four years here with a definitive mission in hand. Most of us at Notre Dame, however, are in need of additional prayer and character development so the changes we bring to society can be the result of God’s call for our life to make the Kingdom of God present on earth, and not our own personal ambitions.
Ellie Gardey is a sophomore studying political science and philosophy. She dreams of northern Michigan where she can canoe through wild rivers and hike in uncharted woods.