What Kind of Test is Life?

So I’ve been thinking about taking tests, particularly the difference between multiple-choice and essay tests. I’ve been thinking about how they’re an interesting metaphor for two ways of looking at my life.

I think I have to give some background here. First off, I am an excellent test-taker. I was a straight-A student in school, and could easily ace both of these kinds of tests. I intuitively knew what my teachers wanted, and gave it to them. (That is, until I met one particular physics professor at college, but that’s a completely different story.)

Secondly, you probably need to know that I’ve recently been considering my relationships with authority figures throughout my life. I’ve discerned that I generally try to give them what they want. If I have a boss, or a mentor, or a yoga instructor, I try to discover what it is they’re looking for, and then provide that for them. Yoga, in fact, is driving me crazy lately, because both of the instructors of the classes I’ve attended have been saying things like “You are your own guru” and “You know best whether your body is able to do this.” No I don’t! That’s not why I’m here! And more to the point, how can I figure out how to impress you if there’s no clear goal? You don’t have to explain to me the point of yoga…I know that thoughts like this are missing the boat. But it’s where my mind goes. I want to impress authority figures. I want to do what they want. And I used to be so good at it, back when my authority figures were mostly teachers. Because I knew how to take the test. I knew how to ace it. And I always received their affirmation, in the form of a beautiful red A.

Third, I want to explain where the distinction between multiple-choice and essay questions comes from. I remember that when I was first hired as a Christian Education Director, and again when I was ordained a pastor, I asked several people for some advice. “How do I best do this job?” That kind of question. The answer I got both times from several people was this: “Be yourself.” Be myself?!? I never understood that advice at the time. It annoyed me. For one thing, who the hell am I? But for another, I have usually found that I get uncomfortable and anxious in new situations. That anxiety is not a good recipe for being myself. The last thing a congregation needs in a new pastor is a pile of anxiety. But I’ve discovered that over time I do follow that advice. Let me give an example. Funerals were one thing that provided me with a lot of anxiety when I was first ordained. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, whom I needed to contact, how to get everything done. So I set up checklists. I figured out a list of tasks that needed to be done for each funeral, and I followed these lists to a T. Over time, though, I found that I didn’t need those checklists anymore. I still have them, just as a quick check on the back end to make sure I didn’t forget to contact anybody. But I don’t need them to do it anymore. I just know how to do a funeral now. And I’ve gotten better at it. I can be myself in that ministry, and I’m pretty good at it. That’s something that’s come with time, experience, and some affirmation from others. And here’s the thing:

Planning and officiating a funeral service has moved from a multiple-choice test to an essay test. Where I used to do it by checking off every box, moving step by step through the tasks, now I can be myself. Now I can do it in my own order, trusting that I know what I’m doing, trusting that I know intuitively what’s important and what’s not.

I tend to do this: I treat new and unfamiliar things like multiple-choice tests. I try to figure out exactly what needs to be done, figure out how to break it into tasks, and get the right answer on everything. This leads to more anxiety, though, because new and unfamiliar things are exactly the things for which I don’t even know all the questions! I am so anxious in new circumstances, in new places, because I don’t know what’s expected of me. I don’t know the parameters. I don’t know how I’m going to be graded. But as I get more comfortable with something, it converts to an essay test. I am able to be myself, express myself in my own way, and find much more fulfillment in it.

There are (at least) two downfalls to this system I’ve developed:

First, the level of anxiety I have with new things is a discouragement from trying new things. I don’t like that feeling at all. I’d prefer to stick with things I know, because they are more comfortable. It takes a lot of force to get me to overcome that starting friction, and I tend to avoid new things.

Second, when something goes wrong, I tend to forget the kind of test it is. Let me explain. When I’m doing something I’m familiar with, and it goes wrong (the best example of this is when somebody at church is angry with me, something that always upsets me a lot), I immediately look back to see where I went wrong. What did I do? Where did I fail? What answer did I get wrong? Even though it was an essay test as I did it, something that is open-ended and flexible, which I figured out as I went along, trusting my instincts…even though all that is true, once my brain registers this as a FAILURE, I act as though it had been a multiple choice test. Instead of looking over my essay answer to explore where I might improve, I look over the choices I made, and look for where I WENT WRONG. And it makes me more and more anxious, because I can’t see the multiple choice questions. I can’t see where I went wrong, because I didn’t follow a script. I didn’t follow a pattern. And that adds to it all, by helping me believe that the reason it went wrong is because I just made it up as I went along, just did whatever felt good at the time, didn’t give it any thought. None of this is true, mind you! But it’s the place my mind goes.

I recently gave some advice to a friend that might be good advice for me as well through this. My friend is currently in something of an unfamiliar and new situation, and he is being pulled in different directions by different people. He is unsure whom to listen to, how to negotiate the questions, how to “play the game” of the new situation. It was making him rather anxious and distracted. I told him, “You know who you are, and who you are is more important than how things play out here. Just be who you are in every moment.” Well, I said something like that. And now I see that what I really told him was that old advice, “Be yourself.” I’m interpreting that right now as “everything’s an essay test.” There are no multiple-choice tests except the ones I invent. Everything’s an essay; everything’s a chance to be who I am, and let the chips fall where they may.

I’m not sure. What do you think? Leave a comment if you like, with your thoughts on this metaphor. Does it ring true in your life? Could you alter it to make it better?

9 thoughts on “What Kind of Test is Life?

  1. I am a list maker, at work and now that I’m retired . I have my monthly calendar and my weekly day by day to do list, and post it notes. That’s what works for me. That’s how I get things done and know what is next. Ok, now I can cross answering you off my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Myke

    So much good stuff in here, and some of it is stuff that I have struggled with recently. “Be yourself?” All of us are more, and less, and better, and worse, and simply other than, the roles that we choose and for which we are chosen, and all of that is limited to what the roles actually are and how see them, which is different from how others see them. As a psychologist, I am comfortable with some awful stuff, which I would have to be, if others would think of that, but when I say any of that awful stuff, regardless of the context, it shocks others and makes them uncomfortable and so I have learned to stop. There is also the larger issue of “code shifting” which is when we enter various roles depending on the circumstances, and a healthy and adaptive person can recognize which role is necessary for the time and place and be “me in role X.” Sometimes code shifting requires us to be more than what we are, like an introvert who must socialize extensively, and sometimes less, like when we curtail our assertiveness in the face of direction from a supervisor. Again, it’s not just what I think that I must be, in that I fail if I am not what the other person expects me to be – if the judgement of success or failure belongs to the other person. If the relationship is equal, which I suspect is rarely the case, then either of us can judge, and of course if I have control then I can be almost as much of me as I choose. I suspect that it is alone in the sanctity of our minds and in our relationship with God that we can be fully and only who we are.


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    1. Thanks so much for this, Brendan. You really put a lot of thought into your reply, and I appreciate it. I agree with you about our relationship with God. In fact, I just spent two days at a spiritual retreat, and I’ll have some things to say about that once I’ve processed it…


  3. I really love the way how you connected the academic testing with life testing. Like you mentioned, certainly life has testings for which one we dont know the answer for and the once we can prepare answers for.. and sometimes, the questions might repeat and we already know the answers. I think in the end it all comes to life test of “understanding” what life is. Like my aunt always say whenever i rant to her about something: this is life. Leave it. Haha, i its interesting. As a student myself, i love this article because i can relate to it very much.


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  4. Hi Myke

    There have been some interesting recent comments on this post and so I have read it a few more times, resulting in a few more ideas.

    1. You are absolutely right to try to be what your teacher/supervisor/person in charge wants you to be. That is how you remain where you want to be, how you survive. One of my favorite quotes is from the movie “Gladiator” when Maximus asks his servant how he gets by in life, being a slave. The slave’s answer? “Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to do.” Wow. That’s human freedom in a nutshell and does it make us all slaves? Maybe, especially because…
    2. I have found that there are two ways for me to get into trouble. One is when I do things “my way.” The other is when I do things someone else’s way. I have the vague sense that a synthesis is possible, that the right place for me is where my way is the other’s way and then I need not be anxious, because what comes naturally to me is seen as right by the person in charge. Is that a taste of the Kingdom? Could be. I think so. I think it’s being where God wants me to be, for my own benefit and for the benefit of those whom I serve in that place. Bad fits are the ones in which I am a pentagon in a square hole, or something like that, and so by force of will, which takes energy and which fades and fails, I manage to suppress my fifth side.
    3. If you read “The Survivor Personality” by Al Siebert, a book which came up yet again in one of my disaster trainings, as it really focuses on critical situations but then extrapolates to typical life, you will see that survival is more often associated with flexibility and adaptability than sheer force of will. If you are a Clint Eastwood fan, forget about Dirty Harry and instead look at Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in “Heartbreak Ridge.” His motto is, “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”
    4. Finally (for the moment), according to Bandura (1979), we are all learning from each other. We observe and we adapt and we pick up the all-important hidden curriculum, the subtle but crucial rules of how to be where we are. For example, you learn how hard your coworkers work, or what time the job actually starts, or what level of conflict is tolerated, and there are rules about these things not found in the employee handbook but at least as sure, at least as important, and as least as surely enforced. When I worked with intellectually disabled adults who would work in the community, we said that our clients didn’t fail the job, they failed lunch – the unstructured social time. A good example of being unable to learn the hidden curriculum is persons with Autism, who want to be liked, want to fit in, just like everyone, but they don’t know how because they don’t see the hidden curriculum, don’t learn how to fit in, get themselves into trouble.

    OK, gonna shut up now.


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