Last spring I stopped writing. There was both too much and too little to say in a season so rich with disappointment. Grant application after grant application was deemed “close, but no cigar.” Article after article – rejected or sent back ‘revise and resubmit,’ yet again. Relationships with colleagues I cherished were strained, distant, and uncomfortable. Only the fierce love of my husband, children, and close friends felt sustaining. And there was nothing worth saying or writing, just choices to make about how to move forward. Today, as I look out the window at a beautiful tree in the last days of its autumn glory, of course I feel differently…filled with Thanksgiving. Because, guess what, fortunes reverse. Grants have come through, articles are being accepted, and damaged relationships are healing. But it is not only because things are going well that I am thankful. It is because of what I learned and/or was powerfully reminded of during that disappointing spring. But first, here’s what I didn’t learn.
I didn’t learn that work is unimportant and the only important things are my family and friends. I didn’t learn that I should stop and smell the roses and not work so hard because it’s all for naught. I didn’t learn that I should be more strategic in my work choices so that I can make sure to advance when I want to. All of those are, in my view, hackneyed responses to professional disappointment. I think I didn’t want to write because I didn’t want to write a cliché. Sometimes you just have to wait for something better to say.
Many years ago when I decided to become a social worker, my minister at the time wrote me a letter which I have always kept and can still recite almost by heart. In it, he wrote about the difficulty of any helping profession: the low pay, the close up experience of other peoples’ pain, and the long hours. He wrote that it helped to have a touchstone, a way of remembering why one made such “a seemingly foolish choice.” He then inserted a quote from Fredrick Buechner that has resurfaced on Facebook and elsewhere in the last few years. It was fresh then and goes like this:
Vocation: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Source: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner
And, in the end, this is what I learned. My work is mine because I was given it to do. I was called to it. I can’t escape it nor would I want to regardless of whether it takes six months to be successfully funded and published or six years, whether it is regularly affirmed by those around me or whether it’s not. I also learned that none of it means anything without people who love me fiercely, unconditionally, and demonstrate that clearly when the chips are down. I could not be more thankful to have people like that in my life. That kind of love is the best of all medicines. So now I will write again about all the work that is coming to fruition and about the great people I get to work with and learn from. And to those of you on similar journeys facing professional disappointments, remember that work you are called to is yours no matter how it is seen at a particular time. It will have its moment.