Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rooting Around for my Calling, part I

I've not been writing much here lately. In fact, I don't write much at all these days. After completing my doctorate in December, I've found that I feel lost and angry. In fact, I am embarassed by my degree and discouraged by it as well. I'm teaching four classes now, twice as many as I normally teach and have even been given the long-coveted women's history class. Next semester, they plan to let me teach the African American history class. No one has taught black history in this college for several years and no one has ever been allowed to teach women's history. I should be thrilled. Except I'm not. Not even close. In fact, I'm considering quitting my job despite the fact that to do so would be financial and academic suicide.

Several people in my family, uncles, aunts, and my own father, are college professors. Others work in related fields as administrators and educators. The idea that I would have achieved this educational level without a desire to teach is inconceivable. As my mother drove me in to work today, I mentioned to her that I hated this job. I wanted to feel her out. I told her I was unhappy in what I hoped was a kind of jovial if I only half-meant it. I wanted to feel her out to see if she was ready to hear me this time. I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe I hoped she would stop the car and hold my hand and say, "Honey, you deserve to be happy. Your father and I will support any decison you make. Follow your dreams."

Maybe I just wanted someone else to know that I am unhappy in this work. I feel that I am betraying my calling and that somewhere along the line, I have forgotten that my obligations to the Spirit that called me is deeper than my obligations to pocketbook and family expectation. But she could not hear it. None of them can hear it. Such statements are juvenile, selfish, tempermental, and wrong-headed. How can I hate a job that pays so well for so few hours? How can I hate a job that allows me, as my mother pointed out, to have access to a captive audience? And she's right and my husband' right. Where else can I find a job in which I can work for only a few hours to make as much as my husband does in a day? Where else could I find work that allows me to spend as much time at home with the children?

But I don't want this job. I despise it. Not sure why. I enjoy teaching. I love the animated, enthusiastic exchange of ideas in the classroom. I love watching a kid who never thought he or she could do well in academics discover their passion for learning. Teaching is performance art and I love that too. But then I finish the class and find there is nothing left in me for the rest of the day. As an essentially introverted person, I am emptied rather than filled by these performances. I don't think any of my students would suspect that following a class I suffer from headaches, anxiety and depression. What they see is me hopping around the room, bubbling with enthusiasm, apparently full to brimming with energy. I am fearless. I have developed a reputation as the history prof. who pushes the boundaries. I call myself the "lunatic leftist" and enjoy playing that role.

But I'm terrified. Sometimes, it has stopped me in the midst of teaching. I stand there for a few seconds facing my urge to run out of the room. Now I'm not in the least afraid of public speaking or of my students as a body. I fear other human beings and their violent unpredictability. I find them incomprehensible and dangerous. I avoid malls and shopping centers, large crowds of any kind because I am terrified of that potential for violence. Thankfully, this fear did not stop me from teaching because I have found that while it is emotionally draining, public performance does not scare me as much as merging into a crowd of shoppers. When I'm in front of people, I feel that I command the situation. I feel safe when I am performing.

So I was getting used to the idea of teaching despite my frustrations with administration and grading and the injustices and indignities of adjunct labor... then there was Virginia Tech and now there has been U. of Illinois. My aunt works at the University of Illinois. One of her students was killed this month. My fear of public shootings predates both of these events (my father was working in a hospital when a man came in and opened fire on nurses and my mother worked for an agency where a man walked in and opened fire on social workers), but recent events intensify my fears. No one has any control over such crimes. There is nothing I can do to predict or prevent them. I don't fear public speaking or teaching because I can affect my own success. No amount of research, cleverness, or enthusiastic teaching can protect me from violence.

And I keep asking myself, "Is this it? Is this why I worked my ass off for four years of undergraduate school and then almost twelve years of graduate school? So I can be exhausted and demoralized and angry and depressed and frightened all the time?"

I'm wasting my time. And I want to be left alone. I want to quit. But I can't. Because we need the money. And my parents would be disappointed. And no one would understand. And to quit would be selfish, and juvenile, and incomprehensible.

So I'm stuck.


Liz Opp said...

Hi there--

I'm taking some time to look through a few of your older posts, and this one caught my eye.

I majored in Spanish when I was an undergrad, and when it came time to answer questions about how I'd use that degree, I immediately proceeded to cross off all of my options:

No, I didn't want to go into spoken translation--there'd be too much risk involved in mistranslating something at just the wrong moment.

No, I didn't want to go into written translation--I'm such a weak reader in English, why would I want to pursue being a weak reader in more than one language?!

No, I didn't want to teach English as a second language or Spanish as a second language--I just didn't feel called there.

For years my mother was on my case for "not contributing to the world" and not holding a real job.

But underneath it all, I held onto something I read somewhere, a long time ago that turned my world upside down:

God does not command us to be unhappy.

I don't know what your life is like now, a month or so after you wrote this post, but I thought I'd write you anyway. I think it's important to name the truth of our experience--you haven't been happy or fulfilled with this work and you want something more that you haven't yet defined (as of when you originally wrote this, anyway).

At the same time, taking time to articulate what it is we DO want is a different sort of risk, since it likely means unforeseen change when we do indeed start to get what we asked for.

But paying attention--to how we feel now and what we hope for later--is always a helpful place to start.

I hope you find allies and compassionate hearts elsewhere in your life if you cannot find it from your family. We all need to be "listened into the Truth."

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

HysteryWitch said...

My family would support whatever I decided to do. They have so far. Weird diets, weird spiritualities, weird lifestyle choices, weird academic programs at weird colleges...These are the benefits of being the child of Baby Boomer liberals. They and my husband have been faithful and generous companions at times sacrificing their convenience and resources to support my dreams.

Maybe my own sense of guilt about that is at play here. Am I projecting my own disappointment with my performance onto my mother?

I've been so uncompromising regarding work but then so have my family on my behalf.
We were always hopeful that by faithfully following my bliss, I would run into an income at some point.

So now that I am finally making a little bit of money (and I mean a very little bit given the disgraceful way adjuncts are paid), I imagine my parents would like to protect me from further economic hardship.

The job I now have is a prince among compromises inasmuch as it involves me doing something I truly enjoy doing for more money an hour than I could earn at any other job.

But, the fit isn't right. It just isn't right. I know the pitch of my calling and this ain't it.

So...I'm still working on it. I'm not sure about God's intent regarding suffering. I do believe we, like the seed, are called to incubate in the dark. I believe we are sometimes called to swim upstream.

But then again, there's swimming upstream and there's pushing the river. It pays to know the difference.

HysteryWitch said...

A follow-up to a rambling postscript to my post inspired by Liz's thoughtful comment.

Liz, also wanted to thank you. Such compassionate response helps the seed germinate. I can already feel your comments tickling those frigid edges of my thinking.

Liz Opp said...

I'm glad you sense the compassion in my comment. And I appreciate the wisdom you lift up at the end of your initial reply:

...[There's] swimming upstream and there's pushing the river. It pays to know the difference.

It's been my experience that leaning intentionally into the discomfort usually sheds light on whether we're swimming upstream or we're pushing the river.

Regardless, I hope you'll continue to be gentle with yourself and trust your own timing. You'll know when and if it's time to make a change.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

I got caught in that
"disappointing your parents"
trap and rued my decisions ever since.

Your life is yours
and theirs is theirs.

You didn't put in
all those hours of
blood sweat and tears
just to give up
your right to
nake informed decisions,
nor is it written in stone
that a doctorate was
meant to be a
"license to teach".

You worked hard and
long to earn a degree
which would open new
horizons, so exercise
some enlightened self-interest.

You earned the right to do so!

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