Next Step

Nearing the end of graduate school, with only ten weeks of classes left, is bittersweet. On the one hand, the last two years have been a labor of the mind and heart, beautiful and challenging. I have stretched myself to contain more knowledge and wisdom about some of the most troubling and mysterious aspects of life. But on the other hand, despite having invested two years and significant resources in this program, I am not entirely sure where the resulting piece of paper that proves I’ve done the work and the word “Yale” beneath my name on my resume will lead me. This two-fold realization has inspired anxiety in me.

While friends tell me of their clear next steps – PhD applications, teaching, non-profit work, ministry – I stare at the calendar for this year, and from the banner “June” on, my days are free, unburdened by the constraints of class schedules, papers, and a long commute, but framed by the light of bigger questions: who do I want to be in the world, how do I want to spend my days, how can my values shape my life, which as I know more poignantly now having studied theology, is temporal, finite, and fleeting?

For the first time in my life, my next step is grounded by silence, and therefore, I must remember, possibility. The next job application, the next apartment, the next batch of work are not givens. I matriculated to divinity school, two years ago, not for concrete answers, not for a vocation, but for the space to explore fully what it means to be a human being, who must confront many forms of suffering and beauty. I wanted to read philosophy, literature, ethics, and social theory in a rigorous way, and as I reflect upon all the ways in which I have learned to speak and write differently, I see that I have had the time to dive into wells of the human spirit and complex epistemologies on the subjects of who we are together, in all the terrible and redemptive ways of which we know humanity is capable.

Our culture deems religion and, in truth, the humanities at large to be antiquated subjects, which make for poor career choices. I have defended my choice to go to divinity school countless times, arguing for its validity in a myriad of ways confusing to my conversation partners. No, I am not going to be a priest. No, I am not particularly “religious.” On the first day of my orientation, walking in the storied halls of Yale Divinity School, I thought to myself, in a moment of hesitation, “I am about to study something that most of my friends believe doesn’t exist.” But my justification for beginning and then staying remained very close to my heart. I allowed my angst and discoveries to grow interiorly, sharing very little of what I was feeling, learning, uncovering beyond a close circle of loved ones. Despite knowing this, despite my path’s obvious particularities, I have struggled with the persistent emptiness I have felt in response to other people’s predictable questions about “what I am planning to do with my life.” Perhaps I know and am afraid to share. Perhaps there are too many possibilities. Perhaps I am not sure how to move from A to B. No matter what, no matter the shape and character of my next step,  it will inevitably evolve.

Having chosen an unconventional, rarely charted path, I am in the midst of certain form of not knowing, its poignance marked by the mediation between myself and culture and the fraught process of discerning my true passion – what lies in the clear waters of my heart.

A mentor of mine once said to me, “Not knowing is like driving along a winding road through the countryside at night. You have headlights that shine five feet in front of you, so you can only just make out the next turn, but never see the full road ahead.”  At the time, I hated this answer to my searching question. I really wanted to say, “Actually, I’d just like to hit ‘not knowing’ upside the head and make a freaking decision.” But making a “freaking decision” for the sake of it, I have learned the hard way, leads to resentment, not joy. To rush toward concreteness is to rush past the richness of the wildlife that surrounds you and to arrive further along on the path unprepared and unhappy.

These days, I feel more like I am walking in the forest, the wilderness of unanswerable questions, with my skin exposed to the elements. Do I walk left or right? Do I climb something interesting or just rest? Walking alone in the woods, a forest guide will tell you, requires careful navigation, for without attention, you can easily become lost and disoriented and then panicked to sometimes a great detriment. For now, degree not yet in hand and searching for clarity, I am focusing on the immediate footpath ahead of me, staying as calm as possible, so I do not lose my way. The “not knowing” has never gone away, perhaps never will “go away,” but I am choosing, having accrued more theological insight, to walk toward the unknown with more grace. It is faith, in other words trust, that makes such a thing possible.