On the cusp of the new year, I’ve had several friends, on various social media, invite a one-word description of 2011.
I tried: not happening.
There just isn’t any one, single word that resonates with my experience of a year in which: I finished my dissertation, planned for December graduation but blew the deadline to register, rented out my condo in Chicago and established myself more firmly in De Pere, Wisconsin (necessitating a second move here), and continued my pursuit of a full-time academic appointment. Lots of ups and downs, affirmation and deflation, late nights studying/writing/preparing for class, a sense of suspension between the present and what-may-come, but no one word to describe it overall. [Blur—one friend’s offering—might be the closest approximation. Exhaustion also comes to mind…]
Pondering how I might describe the year that is now passing, I did arrive at one conclusion that surprises me, although perhaps it shouldn’t: the job search as a kind of formation process, at least as I’m experiencing it, one that is as difficult as that designation properly implies.
First and foremost, given the present job market, my search is forcing me to think and rethink the distinctions among my sense of vocation, what gives me pleasure, what I find most satisfying/stimulating/fruitful, and what will support my basic needs (soon to include student loan payments). I can’t speak intimately to how the process is affecting my many, many friends and colleagues who are also in the thick of it, but for me, this thinking and rethinking is both daunting and—for the moment, in any case—fruitful, albeit difficult. I sense my activities shifting into alignment with my priorities. I sense an emerging balance between my openness to change and adventure and my desire for some basic level of familiarity and continuity. [To wit: I will happily teach almost anywhere and am readily and happily able to relocate, but I have ruled out moving any great distance for part-time work of uncertain duration, and I passed on applying for a job in Turkey that looked very intriguing, but also potentially isolating.] Questions of the most productive, pleasant, and likely loci for continuing to teach and to pursue my research—both of which are deeply important to me—are coming into clearer focus, although acting on the answers to those questions likely will require both creativity and flexibility in great measure.
The best news, for me, out of all of this reflection, is that despite the unanticipated (at least in terms of degree) high level of uncertainty, I find myself with no regret about pursuing a PhD in theology or about the emphasis I’ve placed on teaching. I am doing what I’m doing—and trying hard to find ways to keep doing it—because I can’t imagine not doing so. The study of religion, and in particular the doing of theology, while not the only way, is for me the best way to make sense of myself, my experience, and the world around me. I love, really love, to teach. My continued work in constructive theology and my teaching in the humanities (usually through a lens that is crafted from religious studies, literature, and popular culture) are thus great joys to me. I would not describe my present state as a happy one, and at present (in way that has not often been the case), I’m almost constantly warding off some level of anxiety about the future. On the other hand, however, I am often happy, even content, and increasingly I can see myself being happy and content in a much wider range of contexts than I would have imagined at one time. It is no small thing to be doing what one loves, to be bringing to bear one’s greatest passions and interests on matters one considers of great moment. It is, in fact, a rare gift, if at present a very, very stressful one to receive and hold dear.