On Purpose

The night before my first day at Yale last fall, I couldn’t sleep. I called Jack slightly after midnight, teary eyed, What am I doing here? I whispered, and the tears began to run more quickly down my face. Jack tried to remind me of all the reasons I’d thought studying religion and going to graduate school would be a good idea. It is just nerves, he said. He was sure I’d regain the clarity I’d so proudly proclaimed in my application.

The academic year at Yale came to a close last week. The spring moved swiftly, taken up with a strange mix of civil rights history, southern epistemologies, Christian mysticism, biblical criticism, incarnational theology, and Buddhist philosophy.  Divinity school has taken things from me, in unexpected ways. It has ripped from my hands my comfort, my worldview, my beliefs, and my understanding of grace. I think about death, what one professor calls, living in contingency, more than ever before. I am more sensitive to the suffering of human beings, suffering which is now framed by the harsh, unanswerable question: why is there so much pain, so much injustice, if God is really good, if even something like God exists? 

Spring rushed through, and now, on the other side of my first year of graduate school, I am left breathless. I look out on the landscape of my life, with both wonder and fatigue, thinking, how did I get here? I look down at the living things of this field in which I find myself planted with both curiosity and determination. This last year has been a string of many different types of days. What can I take from all of this?

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I declared my major: English and American Literatures. I found an advisor who was the right mix of worldly and scholarly intelligence and who made a compelling case for why I should study for a time in Oxford. However, when I began to share that I had chosen English, other faculty members and mentors seemed concerned. During one conference call, a “mentor” of mine – who shall remain nameless – said, “Sarah, why on earth would you choose to study literature?? That will not set you up to do any of the things we’ve discussed. All you’ll be able to do with that degree is write grants from the basement of a major NGO. I would highly recommend reconsidering that decision.”

I was stunned and struggled to find the words to respond. “Okay, thank you for your input. I appreciate it,” were the words that seemed generally the least offensive. I did not appreciate his advice, which I found to be antithetical to the integrity and dignity of a liberal arts education, but sometimes this man’s words echo in my head. Why on earth did I choose to study literature.

After college, I did not end up writing grants in the basement of a non-profit, but I did not find truly fulfilling work. I applied to graduate school, then decided to work, then applied to graduate school again, then decided to study the humanities again. When I am feeling adrift, these decisions, made at the time out of joy and love, seem completely insane. I think, yes, I should have studied public health or political science or economics. I should have tried to work for the UN as planned, or I should have become a teacher. Purpose, however, is not found in the weeds of shoulds.

I used to be obsessive about this question: what should I do with my life. Well, more obsessive. In college, I would spend hours on the creaky wood floor of my dorm room sketching out how my life might unfold: the graduate programs I’d attend, the fellowships I’d apply for, how I’d move to Boston post-grad. Some things unfolded and others didn’t. I found a job in New York, working for an organization I had never heard of before the previous spring. I ended up applying to Divinity School, a fact at which my 20-year old self would have scoffed. I wanted so badly to think my way to joy and fulfillment in a matter of hours, which now years later seems naive and proved, in many ways, to be fruitless.

And yet, I cannot write that I have overcome this struggle or the endless loop of regret and hope or the frequent list making within this last year. I still often believe I can think my way to my purpose. I am surrounded by people who have made commitments. Some are pursuing doctoral studies. Others feel called lead parishes. I am lost in it all, caught between doubt and faith in muddied indecision.

My friends and Jack’s friends and my parents friends have asked the same ordinary, grating question, “How’s it going??” with expectant, cheerful eyes. I want to say, “Oh, it’s been great. I’ve found my true calling. I have never been happier.” Truthfully, most days I question what I’m even doing studying religion and what, if any, purpose that will have in my greater life. I have not found my true calling (instead it feels like I’ve layered complicated epistemologies over my desires and searching questions). And it has not been great. It has been good and not good, competitive and pastoral, rigorous and yet easier than undergrad, totally different than I expected and yet familiar, vibrant and yet lonely. I cannot articulate exactly what this past year has been for me because it has been too oppositional divergent things, often all at once.

I sense there is richness underneath the soil beneath my feet, within my experience here at this point at my life. I feel on the cusp of joy and yet looking over my shoulder. What I have begun to understand, perhaps for the first time truly, is that our choices are what build our lives and determine who we become. The resulting struggle or happiness cannot be predicted, but shapes us. I want to know that I was built for something, that I was made for a purpose. That purpose does not have to be static, but I want it to be felt and real. I want it to exist and flourish.

Jack and I sketch plans to move to Southern California over coffee every weekend. I feel pulled by the thought of more sunshine, ocean air, and living closer to my brother. I know where I want to be, at least in the short term. I believe I know how I want to be, the kind of woman who can hold and give love strongly, who has enough time in her life to be conscious in her actions and words. I know I want to live a life carefully considered, but what do I want to do with my time, my education, my intellect, my heart? I don’t know.

The theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I like this definition of vocation as the intersection of joy and worldly need, for it speaks to my own confused experience with purpose. The world’s needs and the soul’s needs must be reconciled – or reckoned with – together. We all have dual commitments, a responsibility to ourselves and a responsibility to our suffering, messy world. Good work is only sustainable when both responsibilities are fully considered.

I do not hear God’s voice, the way many of my colleagues report they do. I catch myself making dinner or writing an exegesis paper or reading about the famine in Yemen, and I think, we get so little from the other side of the veil. If even such a veil exists. Such is the nature of life itself. It is unknowable,  mysterious, grating, mundane, beautiful, and cruel all at once. Nothing is obvious, neither purpose nor God. Perhaps calling is not conveyed in voices or words, though. Perhaps calling is conveyed through heartstrings, and if anything has been clear this year, it has been the pulling and stretching, tiring and growing, of my heartstrings. I do not have answers, but I have maintained the integrity of my heart.

This summer, I will sit in this spiritual field, a wild mix of regret, should haves and shoulds, and I will dwell with the same questions that have floated through my life for over a decade with the hope that something new and surprising will begin to grow and thrive.