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Honorable mention — Persons of color essay contest: Kenneth Gonzalez Santibanez

The discipline plan

By Kenneth Gonzalez Santibanez

 I’ve been told conflicting messages about my ability to carve my own future. I was told that I could achieve my goal of escaping generational poverty in America if I worked hard enough and instilled self-discipline. Yet, at the same time, I was told that my life’s path was paved by God before I was even conceived. But what if God planned for me to live in poverty, regardless of the effort I put in? My doubts were amplified when I noticed that whenever I’d reach my goals, all of the credit and responsibility for my accomplishments would invariably be diverted away from me and shifted toward God. “Thank God for getting you into Princeton” is a phrase I’ve heard uttered countless times.

In reality, however, abandoning my faith is what truly allowed me to enter the Ivy League and reach heights far beyond what statistics and societal norms have in place for people of color. Under the religious worldview, I have a personally curated life trajectory to follow, regardless of my actions. God has already done the heavy lifting for me. For many, this provides solace when experiencing failure, allowing them to move forward with their lives. However, even though it may seem innocuous on the surface, underneath lies the pernicious reality that comes with the Divine Plan.

If you cannot take full ownership over your failures in life, you cannot take any ownership over the successes. In fact, accepting responsibility for one’s failures is often the necessary step in achieving success. Your actions have consequences. Only after taking responsibility for your actions and taking ownership of its consequences will you be able recognize the faults that prevented you from accomplishing the mission. Once those faults are identified, they can be neutralized through discipline and resilience, resulting in an exponential positive feedback loop. However, religion often prevents its practitioners from taking ownership, for their faith tells them that life’s events are God’s doing, not their own.

The Divine Plan is an excuse that allows individuals to ignore responsibility, preventing them from learning and growing. If you failed to reach a goal because of laziness, religion gives you the

option to wear introspective blinders. When I confronted my diabetic father about his gluttonous eating, he responded by saying, “if God has it planned for me to meet him soon, I’ll gladly accept his invitation.” This defeatist attitude inevitably leads to mediocrity and complacency. Whenever I’d encounter a setback, my parents would offer comfort by reminding me that this failure was all part of the Divine Plan and that I shouldn’t think about it. If I had accepted that premise, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That premise logically implies that I have no responsibility for anything that happens in my life. It’s passing the buck of responsibility to a deity, regardless if the outcome was an obvious product of my own doing.

Living life with no responsibilities is often viewed as liberating. In reality, the opposite is true. If you give your responsibilities to someone else, you lose command over your own life. Your fate is based on factors outside of your control. This reality is awfully familiar to me as person of color, living in an ethnic community where generational poverty is the norm. There’s a connection between religion and complacency that prevents adherents,

Kenneth Gonzalez Santibanez

particularly from the Hispanic community, from taking ownership of their own decisions and from climbing the social ladder. The Divine Plan and the American Dream are mutually exclusive ideas.

I am an atheist because I now follow the Discipline Plan. I am the author of this story. There is no divine plan. You have control over your life, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Take responsibility for your actions and lead. In the works of the ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, I say to all people of color who feel like they’re trapped: Get After It.

Kenneth, 18, attends Princeton University with plans to major in history. He is a researcher and correspondent for Policy Punchline, and hopes to aid in the effort to expand discussion in a wide array of different ideas and policy issues. He’s currently a volunteer for El Centro, an organization that offers free English tutoring to disadvantaged community members in Trenton, N.J.