Yesterday I turned in my last ever law school assignment. Law school is finally over. There are more steps in the process, technically - I haven't received a grade yet (for any of my classes), my degree hasn't been conferred, I haven't received my diploma - but those are all out of my hands. The last shot has been fired; it just hasn't hit yet. I am now in the limbo at the end of the level, when at last you can lower the gun and wait for the scores to appear so you can check the one all-important measure of success.
That measure is, of course, accuracy. Never mind how many points you've garnered. Never mind how many times they hit you, how many quarters it took to get here. Did you make every shot count? That is the only true measure of success.
In life, of course, true measures of success are harder to come by. You can try to measure success procedurally; you can ask, "Did you do your best?" But the answer to that question is always no, and holding too tightly to it leaves one in a constant struggle to reframe the scope of the endeavor. Oh, there were those last glorious hours for this last assignment when I was up until 8:00 in the morning, writing calmly and steadily with [I hope] clarity and force for almost ten hours straight. But there were also the days before those hours, when I just didn't care, or it was all too much. And maybe it was too much; maybe it really was beyond my ability in those moments that stretched into hours. But at the very least, I could have tried harder.
And that's the thing - even when the task is impossible, even when you're going to get hit no matter how fast you are on the trigger, you can always try harder, think faster, plan farther ahead. And that makes "doing your best" a rather amorphous measure of success. So you can look at what you've done, what you've accomplished. But that seems rather hollow. For one thing, accomplishments come easier for some than for others - but there is value in effort; there has to be. You can't ignore the milestones, of course, and I don't. My "accomplishments" bring me pleasure and a deep rooted sense of satisfaction with the world. They bring me joy; I feel the joy of the Lord in this limbo at the end of the level. But the accomplishments aren't success. At the end of the day, whether the milestones come easily or hard, you do your thing and sometimes people throw awards at you.
There is one other measure of success I can think of. When the credits roll and you step out of the booth or put the gun back in the holster, nobody asks you what your accuracy rating was. They ask if you finished the game. In one sense accuracy is all that matters, and that is a true sense. But in another sense what matters is that you got from level to level, and that is perhaps the truer sense. In a game, of course, the levels are linear and there are no wrong choices; they all lead to the last climactic shootout. But life's levels are not linear, and there are wrong choices. I've made more than my fair share of them, as we all have. And those choices, the level choices, are perhaps what really matter. In life, I submit, perhaps the question is not how well you did but what game you were playing.
At the end of law school people seem fond of telling you that, for all the jokes people make about lawyers, you've made a good choice by choosing to be a lawyer. It's a good profession. An honorable profession. The profession to which America has always looked for its greatest leaders; a profession with its own unique niche in the world from which to make a difference, and all that is true, but it doesn't mean we've all made good choices by choosing to be lawyers. We've made good choices to be lawyers, if indeed they are good choices, because that's what God made us to do and we're doing it. The grades in the computers, the piece of paper on the wall, are not given significance by the effort that went into them (and I worked for this piece of paper, I really did). The effort itself is not given significance by the fact that it led to a good and honorable profession, or even simply by the fact that it was effort. The effort has significance, if it has significance at all, because the effort was to do what God made me to do, what he's told me to do, what I must do. The grades and the pieces of paper have significance, if they have significance at all, because they're milestones on the right road - not that it has to be a straight and narrow road (and mine isn't), but the right road. A road that I chose but didn't design.
I think it's the right road. It's not just joy I feel, alone in the dark at the kitchen table with the buzzing of the refridgerator and the remains of a home-cooked meal. It's peace. All is right with the world. I missed quite a few shots in the last level. More than ever before, I think. And it will only get harder from here. There is the bar to study for, and take, a wedding to plan, and after that the hurry-up-and-wait routine of a transactional lawyer. A house to keep. An engagement to live, and to grow in. Friendships to maintain, and in some cases reclaim. There will be dark times, when the nights are late and the games are few and snatching even a few hours with my beloved will take all the strength we have left, I am sure.
I can sit here alone in a darkened apartment and see all of that coming. But my heart is not troubled. It is a path I have chosen, but not designed. The last shot has been fired. For a few moments I can lower the gun and dwell on what is to come, and it makes my heart swell. Because the level may be harder than any that have come before. But it's the right one. I know it is.