Monday, April 03, 2006

The Complexity of My Life

Being back continues to be a bit overwhelming, in large part because I must face the full complexity of my life again. Actually, I don’t really have to face the full complexity, because I am still on sabbatical until the Fall. But it’s still complex enough.

Towards the end of my month in England, I visited a long-time friend, and seeing her perspective on my life was just amazing to me. She told me that my life is too complicated, that I’m not happy, and that I’m headed for burnout if I don’t make some changes. “You drive yourself too hard. You are trying to do too much.” At first I was worried that she was criticizing my single-minded focus on how effectively to address the world’s problems, but with further conversation I realized that she was not criticizing my having such a lofty goal – she was criticizing the extraordinary complexity of my way of working towards that goal. She observed that my life of teaching is too much of an emotional toll on me. She told me that I need most of all to write – that I have a lot to say, and to an audience of more than just my preoccupied, distracted (even if well-meaning and somewhat appreciative) students. “So much of what you have to say is lost on them,” she went on. “They are just not at the right life-stage to be ready to grasp what you are really on about.”

On the train ride back to the Quaker study center where I was staying, I thought a lot about this. Her observations were converging with my own realizations about myself. And so her perceptions helped reinforce my own.

The best clue as to who you are and what you are called to do is to observe about your life: what is it that I can’t not do?

One of the things that amazed me about my time at the Quaker study center was how quickly and easily my life coalesced into what I experienced as a perfect rhythm of daily life. The elements that fell into place so naturally were: (1) framing the day in times of meditation or worship; (2) spending the bulk of my waking hours reading and writing; (3) practicing music every day; (4) going out for walks every day; (5) connecting with people over meals and tea.

This all tells me: I am a Quaker, a contemplative writer, and a musician, who values healthy connection with the natural world and with the people in her life.

Let’s look at how different my life is here, during term-time.

(1) I still can take my own quiet time at the beginning and end of each day, but to spend every morning and evening in Meeting for Worship with others? Impossible. Others don’t have time for this. Or, we could never agree on a time. Or, no one except me would want to do this more than once a week. Besides, we all live too far apart. Besides, many of my friends are not Quakers and think this would be very strange and an “unproductive” use of time!

(2) During term-time I can do a good amount of reading and writing, since class preparation does require reading and then I write my notes for class. But fitting in writing on more sustained projects that do not happen to correspond with my classes is much harder. And, anyway, huge portions of my day are occupied by reading and responding to student writing, meeting with students and advisees, going to committee meetings, and working on administrative responsibilities.

(3) I do nevertheless keep up with music practice. Being in a music ensemble necessitates this, and thus “gives me permission” to keep making time for this.

(4) Getting regular exercise unfortunately has been very hard for me to sustain in term-time. And this is not good. It shows that what I most tend to sacrifice under stress is taking care of myself physically.

(5) Almost everyone I know mostly eats hurriedly over the desk. Arranging for lunch or tea with friends is a mightily complex task, often requiring planning weeks ahead!

I know it looks like I’m just talking about myself in this posting, but I think what I’m saying here applies to others as well: we live complex and demanding lives in which we do have a hard time making space in our daily lives for what we really want our lives to be all about! And in the press of our busy lives, it can be hard to be in touch with who we really are.

Prior to sabbatical, I thought I had a good life and a good job. I thought I was lucky that my job allowed me to do so many of the things that I prize. Teaching is creative and satisfying. Even the administrative responsibilities are meaningful ways to sustain the academic mission of our college, and provide opportunities for meaningful connection with colleagues over our shared purpose here.

When you come up for tenure, you look long and hard at the question of whether this really is the life you want, long-term. My own answer was a clear and strong, “yes” at the time. But at the time I was in the thick of it all, getting something of a thrill out of handling all of the intensity reasonably well.

Now fast-forward again to the me on the train in England back to the Quaker study center where I was to spend my last few precious days before returning to my life here.

I watch the beautiful landscape roll past the windows. There are sheep and tiny little lambs, brand new to the world, curious and eager and vividly alive. The scale of life seems so much more manageable in England. Almost all of the houses are cute and charming, and not enormously big. The gardens are lovingly tended. People seem more real towards each other.

From the vantage point of this time in England, I found my sense of myself and my life to be totally different. I looked back on my tenure-track life as something now in the past. I found myself thinking, to my own surprise, “yes, there was something in all of that that I needed then. I’ve learned a lot. But could it be that, after all, that’s not the life I really want from now on?”

When you go on sabbatical, you promise that you will come back for at least a year after the sabbatical. Suddenly, I understood why they make you make that promise. If I didn’t have that promise hanging over me, I would at this point seriously consider not returning at all.

They hope that, when you do return for that obligatory year, you then do get used to that life again, and get seduced again by the kind of thrill it offers. Or they hope that you are able to re-make your academic identity in a way that is then sustainable for you.

When I made that promise, I was sincere. And I will go back. I will continue to try to do my work well. I will seriously search for a way to make it a sustainable life for me.

But now I’m open to radically re-thinking my life beyond that year. My life as it has been these past years is much too complex. I’ve been trying to embrace the complexity, but I’m starting to think that the complexity I’ve taken on is the wrong kind. I don’t want a life so complex I can barely manage it. I want a life simple and clear enough that I am freed to face more squarely the complexity of the world’s problems, and find a way to address that complexity with transformative power.

I do come back knowing much more clearly what I want my life to be like. The question is how to get there.

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