Shauna Chung is a graduate student at California State University (Long Beach) where she both studies and teaches rhetoric and composition. When she’s not reading or grading, she likes to play the piano and sing in the shower.

The Airplane Metaphor

My youngest brother is a freshman at a university in Boston. Being the older, “wiser” sibling, I occasionally offer him academic and life advice as if my five extra years of existence have made me an expert on such matters. Because he’s a gracious, considerate sibling, he both solicits and humors my thoughts and opinions. The other day, we had one such conversation regarding his career trajectory. Perhaps you, dear reader, can relate to his sentiments.


“I don’t know which major to choose. I’m taking a bunch of classes in completely different subject areas, and they’re all blowing my mind. Some days, I think I could go into American Studies while other days, I could see myself in medicine,” he explained.


“Don’t worry about it. Your first year of college is all about figuring things out, so don’t stress. Start panicking during the summer,” I replied, thinking that the wise-but-chill-big-sister persona was most appropriate for his anxiety-ridden situation.


“Yeah, but I’m going to be really busy this summer taking classes. Plus, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I still can’t find clarity.”


“Here’s what I think,” I said, gearing up to diagnose his dilemma with my germane words of wisdom. “You’re interested in too many things, and I’m sure you could make any of them viable careers since you have a good brain. But remember: just because you’re interested in or have an aptitude for something doesn’t mean you have to stake a career in it.” I rambled on for a bit, lobbing more sub-par axioms at him, then paused. “You know,” I started up again, “the more I talk to you, the more I think about airplanes.”


“Um. Ok?”


“Nic, what’s a commercial airplane’s purpose?”


“To transport people from one place to another,” he responded.


“Correct. Now, what if that airplane were under repair and started believing that its purpose was to be in the airplane shop all the time?”


“I think I see where you’re going with this. The plane wouldn’t be doing what it was made to do.”


“Right. But now consider this: can a broken plane fly?”


“No.”


“Exactly. Before doing what it was created to do, it first needs to be repaired. Seems like a lot of these mind-blowing classes are just helping you figure out who you are by piecing back the broken parts of your identity. They’re not dictating your life’s path; they’re simply aiding in your self-discovery so that you can better understand what you want to do with your life. So, maybe you need to figure out which classes are repairing identity and which classes could lead to a career.”


“Hmm. Maybe.”


“And maybe you’re actually a model plane, designed so that aerospace engineers and mechanics can practice their skills. Maybe you’re still a plane that’ll transport people from one place to another. Or maybe you’re a fighter jet. But, again, you won’t know any of that until some identity repairs are made first.”


“Good thoughts. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks for the advice,” he said.


When we hung up, I congratulated myself, lauding my airplane metaphor as airtight. It seemed to hold the answer to millennial life: in order to find purpose, one must first find/repair identity. From a Christian perspective, however, this metaphor lacked one crucial, foundational element: the means by which one finds/repairs identity.


In the book of John, we learn the identity of believers in Christ: “children of God” (1:12). Children of God have chosen to follow “the light of the world,” Jesus, and they “shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (8:12). Such life is not temporal but, as the oft-quoted verse says, “everlasting” (3:16). Thus, the updated “airplane” narrative should read as follows: humanity’s true identity is “children of God” who walk purposeful, fully lit paths to everlasting life with their heavenly Father.


Yet, back in chapter 1, we discover that “the True Light [Jesus] which gives light to every man [and woman] coming into the world,” who offers us identity and life itself, was not readily accepted. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (v. 11-12). Here, we see broken identity spelled out. Rejection of Jesus led to the splintering of an original identity.


In chapter 14, however, we learn of the fix: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,” explains Jesus in verse 6. In this passage, we learn that Christ, the giver of identity, also repairs fragmented identity. Interestingly, He doesn’t expect us to blindly accept this repair. He offers the miraculous works of His physical life on Earth—something akin to my brother’s “mind-blowing classes”—to prove Himself in order to piece us back together and help us figure out what we were created to do (see 5:36, 10:37-38, 14:11).


Operating under this premise, we have a completely different airplane metaphor: because we are children of God, our trajectory—our purpose—should ultimately lead us to our Father in heaven. Therefore, we choose the aircraft—our careers and other life decisions—that will best direct us (and our fellow humans) to the Author of our original identities.


So, dear reader, how will you choose your plane?