Lately, I have been contemplating my next steps, post-graduate school. Or, in other words, I have been struggling with not knowing what to do next, the. manifestations of which have ranged from low-level concealed anxiety to outright panic. I can now count on one hand the number of days I have left at Yale. The near ending sheds new light on my consideration.
Both my therapist and my husband have suggested that there is no “right” decision, that I cannot “think my way” to the answer, and that some space in between graduate school and the next thing might be what’s best for me. Their suggestions make sense, and it has not escaped me that their advice aligns so cleanly. Nevertheless, the confusion and the searching persist. Trying to find life-giving work in a world that is not life-giving is challenging, an immense privilege to have the time for existential angst and the gift of choice.
To have insight about the complexities of service gives one needed pause. To have an impractical theological education adds additional complexity to unanswerable ethical questions. I want my work to come from a place of joy and service, rather than guilt and despair. I sense that the roots of the latter do not grow sustainable or solid commitment.
What constitutes an ethical life? What constitutes a fulfilling life, to me? Is working for a foundation ethical? Or borne of white saviorism? What would it be like to be a therapist and sit with others’ trauma everyday? What about being a teacher? Can I truly do good work in a community which I am not from? What if it is not enough?
“Good work” is subjective, but there are also myriads of well-intentioned efforts that in fact cause harm. Development efforts, for example, can be hugely destructive to communities. Knowledge of the material and epistemological complexities of the concept of “service” is weighty, but worthy I think.
In religious communities, this process is called “discernment.” To discern is to sift through the matter of one’s life to determine what is worthy of attention and what can simply fall away through the sieve. Discernment is therefore as much about what resonates with one’s own heart as it is about the needs of the world. Theologian Frederick Beuchner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” This is the both/and of ethical searching: your deep gladness AND the world’s hunger.
The fray of discernment, however, does not feel nearly as poetic or as seamless for me, in part because I lack patience and also because discernment is much harder work, work that is often counter-cultural. It would have been easier, in many ways, to choose a path that was widely recognized as sensible and as bearing status. I could have gone to law school. I had the grades and recommendations to have done that. But something within me resisted the conventional structures of thought of the subjects that do have the most clout. I wanted to go above and below and through these discourses.
The gulf between what I have learned over the last two years and what the world says it wants is wide, not easily navigated. In the dark, perhaps time will help, but it is nevertheless hard to hold hope and trust that this work will lead to a meaningful, well-considered, and purposeful life.
What do I do in the meantime? Meditate? Apply for jobs? Spend a day in silence? Move cities? How can I be sure I am living my life along the way? Any suggestions are welcome. For now, all I know how to do is take out my sieve and sift. All I know I must do is breathe through the panic and the moments of inspiration.
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“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” – Rumi