On Monday, a sunny, moderately hot New England spring day, I graduated with my Master of Arts in Religion from Yale. In some ways, it still feels surreal, for it seems so recently that I first wrote about my choosing divinity school. In that summer of hope and hesitation, nothing had been yet. Now, it has all ended: train rides, scrounging for protein bars at the bottom of my bag in unusually long delays, walking to class in New Haven on icy sidewalks, the sounds of minds at work in the library, the long classes on de-coloniality, the particular mix of beauty and difficulty, faith and doubt that have marked these two years of my life. Now, done.
The lines between the chapters of life are not stark, one bleeds into the next until it fades and dries. Despite the thin and permeable line between endings and beginnings, graduations, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, though unequivocally, strongly, and unapologetically celebratory, help us to look for meaning, to be proud of ourselves, to experience joy, to be more grateful in what is actually a messy interstitial space between this thing and the next. Unsurprisingly, the most-asked question on my graduation day was, “So, what next?” Instead of giving half-responses or feigned certainty, I responded, too many times to count, with “I don’t know yet.” The “yet” is an important addition.
The mix of emotions that accompanies significant life transitions weighed on me. I was both grateful and regretful at once. I was both proud of myself and extraordinarily tired. As I watched the ceremony, these emotions swelled and receded in me, as I asked myself the same hackneyed question, “What is next?” What did this time mean? Each day felt like an hour and a lifetime. Each essay was both just a task and a vital opportunity. Why do I have so few answers to so many of the same questions?
Barbara Brown Taylor, a fellow alumna of YDS, writes, “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” These words were echoing in my head on Monday like a refrain. Doubt said, “What ARE you going to do next, Sarah? You spent all this time, money, energy, on this experience. Now, what??” New life starts in the dark. “And what about moving? What if you hate California, with its earthquakes and snakes and unrelenting heat and sunshine?” New life starts in the dark.
Doubt is the noise, like the waves on the surface of the ocean, and sometimes doubt has things to teach us about practicality. It reminds us to consider the cost of things. In the absence of concreteness or certainty, doubt is convincing, and without the armor of wisdom, we can easily be lead astray, from calmness into chaos.
When I graduated from college, I had no time or patience for uncertainty. I was not going to wait to pick a city, or a graduate school, or a profession. I wanted answers, and I sure as hell was going to find them. I had defended my thesis on Victorian literature, earned the highest honors possible at the college, had been accepted to Columbia for a master’s program, and had a job offer on the table. At the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony, an acquaintance walked up to me and said, “Sarah, congratulations! It’s so refreshing to see someone who knows exactly where they’re headed and what they want to do.”
I was dumfounded. Beneath the surface of things, I had no freaking clue what I wanted to do. While I was very proud of myself for my academic achievement, I did not feel settled or sure of anything. I was facing a lot of options, but wanted few to none of them. It felt like a performance, not like a shining example of success. It was not until I was on a plane to England to visit Jack that I started to cry, that I knew I could not accept the place in the master’s program, and that I knew I just needed to rest and wipe the slate clean.
For most of my life, I have been intolerant of uncertainty and instead grasped for the nearest tangible option without any regard for my own happiness. I was concerned with appearances, a tendency which has played itself out, as it so often does in women’s lives, in a myriad of detrimental ways. The summer following my graduation was a fraught one. Cover letter after cover letter, I grasped toward concrete options without doing the necessary interior work to uncover what was beneath all the confusion and indecision.
To be impressive to everyone but yourself is too lonely and unsustainable. There are always other choices, in which joy matters more than representation. Beneath the surface of doubt and its barrage of questions lies something truer and more resonant. Beneath the surface of the upset, the water remains still.
Most people assume that because I am a sensitive introvert that I am soft and easy-going, but people who know me well know that I am a fairly rigid person. I have perfectionist tendencies and push myself toward certainty. Loving me includes helping me soften this harshness in myself. In my black graduation gown, cap, and master’s hood this weekend, little felt different. I looked into the crowd to find the same four people who supported me through the last big, post-graduate transition: my mom, my dad, my brother, and my partner. I am not alone, nor have I ever been alone, in the dark.
As more names were called and families cheered, I looked up as the wind rustled the trees. If I escape the sadness, the doubt, and the apprehension this time, and grasp toward the next thing, put down roots in a place I don’t actually want to live, I may never find the more settled truth of what I am meant to make of my life.
If you need to find me for the next few weeks, I’ll most likely be reading the lion’s share of Barbara Brown Taylor’s work. She is also the wise woman who says, “I have a number of different callings. And I think it’s possible to be called away from things I have ben called to in the past. There are goodbyes as well as hellos in our callings. Because a calling doesn’t have to be for a lifetime.”
Yale was never meant to be for a lifetime. It was a season. And in saying goodbye, I am being called toward something else, even though I do not know the shape, color, or requirements of that next thing. This time around, I am taking forced signpost of graduation as a gift. This time, I am going to dwell in the dark and wait patiently for life to turn over like the changing of the seasons.
For maybe, in the dark, where there is sadness, regret, uncertainty, and mystery, grace, hope, wisdom, and fulfillment might also be found.