Monday, October 02, 2006

Another Sabbath Report

Yesterday I woke up all in a panic about all that I had to do. I had been out of sorts for several days and hadn’t been working very efficiently on things, and now it was all catching up to me. Grimly I took heart from what several people had said in comments to my recent postings and said, “ok, I’m not going to let this ritual of Sabbath dominate me – I have to work today!”

I leaped out of bed and did some of the not-really-work-as-such household chores that I allow myself to do, and by then had … well, I’d like to say “had come to my senses,” but it’s not a noble story I have to tell. By then the energy briefly inspired by anxiety had degenerated back to a kind of depressive apathy.

But I realized I was seriously in a bad way and needed somehow to face what was really going on. Was it just that after all the excitement of doing the fun things one does to start off the school year (planning courses and such), now I was facing all the scary tasks all at once? Or was there something else going on?

So I took all of this with me to Meeting. And slowly then and afterwards, new realizations began to crystallize.

At the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year, I had carefully set up several projects that I thought represented what I felt called to do, and I took my first steps with these cheerfully enough. But what is getting hard is that I am entering a phase where the success of these projects depends upon my ability to mobilize and inspire others to help out. I don’t have a lot of experience with this. In Meeting, memories floated forth of times when I was totally ineffective at this (i.e., most times I’ve tried!) Everyone is so busy and overwhelmed with their own lives that it is really hard to persuade people to do much of anything beyond their usual routines.

So, have I bitten off more than I can chew? Am I scared because this is new? Or am I resistant because this really isn’t my calling—I should be dedicating my time and effort to my book projects?! That was what I had to discern!

I wanted all the more to run away rather than face that question.

Then I noticed that God was sitting right beside me.

So, I wondered, “what does God think? What a hopeless mess I am! Probably God is all sad about how much I’ve caged myself in with fears again and how much I’m tying myself into a tight knot and pulling far away.”

I glanced over. God didn’t seem sad. Instead, there was a look of calm patience. Not unhappy with me at all.

But how can God not be unhappy with me! What a state I’m in! I glanced over again.

No. No trace of unhappiness.

So I wondered: how can God be so confident when I’m not?! What does God know that I don’t know? Maybe God realizes that something spectacular is going to happen to help me on my way!

Um, no, that didn’t seem right.

What then?

Maybe the course of my days and the coming events (and deadlines) that I dread will themselves lift me back out of my angst and carry me into a better state of being, and God knows that, even if I can’t believe it at the moment.

So, I began to think of a coming important meeting, and realized that I just needed to use that opportunity to ask my friends for help. I need to tell them, “Look, I’m not sure that I can do this on my own. I have something of a vision, but it’s not all up to me! I need for others to help out!” They probably will respond well to that! Can’t I trust them? They are my friends, and they care too about the success of what we are trying to do.

I spent the rest of the day continuing to gently encourage myself to keep facing my fears and working through them. I haven’t yet reached clarity about whether I’ve taken on something I shouldn’t have taken on, but I did become resigned (in a good way) to continuing to try my best since I have said I’d do this.

And so this morning I got up and set straight to work on a number of scary things, and made real progress, and had class, and did more scary things, and am just astounded.

So I am re-committed to the value of honoring the Sabbath. If I had just worked yesterday, I would have worked from anxiety instead of from the more positive hopefulness I experienced today.

It was not through my own virtue that I kept to my resolve, though. I have to admit that.

It was grace.


  1. All of this sounds more familiar to me than you probably realize. I don't know what point you are at in your career but I vividly remember our mutual friend Anxiety during my run towards tenure. The local rule of thumb: "Get at least one article published in a decent journal per year or perish!" It was in this period that I decided to shut it all down one day a week and keep the Sabbath. In keeping Sabbath I found myself better able to get in touch with God's sense of values which differ from my own and from the world's. God sympathizes when BIG JOURNAl rejects the paper you are so proud of, he doesn't really think it is as important as the twenty minutes you spent in your office helping a student straighten out her thoughts and feelings.

    Now for a little practical advice. If you are feeling driven about publishing and tenure (you haven't explicitly said you are but that's what I'm guessing), look around for a mentor in your department. Such a person can be of much help. Of course I might be totally wrong. You might have tenure already and just feel driven just because of a Type A personality. If I'm guessing wrong here, I apologize in advance.

  2. Thank you Richard for your sympathy and good advice. I do have tenure (just starting my second post-tenure year), and it is sadly true that my anxiety was much worse back when I was coming up for tenure! Oh the stories I could tell about that year!

    The anxiety I face now has to do with my taking on projects that I thought I was led to take on, but represent some new directions for me. Now I'm trying to discern if I was rash in taking them on, or if the spells of anxiety I have are to be expected, given that I am facing some new challenges.

    Also, I don't like the evaluative tasks I am required to do: evaluation of students; coming up with an assessment plan for our department; reading and responding to activity reports of my colleagues in my department (because I am department chair). The role I much prefer is being supportive, encouraging, inspiring. So I do try to frame my evaluate role in these ways (being supportive of people's aspirations to excellence), but it only partially works.

    And so these were all the anxiety-provoking events bearing down on me at the same time...

    I do appreciate your sympathy! And I think I can take your advice in a closely-related way -- I think I'll find another department chair to be a mentor for me!

  3. So you got tenure then went on sabbatical and have now come back. I'd say that the anxiety is partly aftershock then. If you were very worried about tenure and then went off to do research you are now just feeling some anxiety because you had gotten used to being stressed out during your tenure run and now you feel the added pressure of living up to the expectations you've placed on yourself. You will feel really guilty if you don't have something concrete to show for the sabbatical year. This is all perfectly normal and natural. You are quite aware of the need to stay centered, as much as humanly possible, and to rely on good people around you for support and ultimately to rely on the Inner Guide and Teacher for strength and support.

    You say you like to be supportive and encouraging. I don't have to tell you that most philosophers aren't like that--they are hypercritical. I hope the other folks in your department appreciate having a chair who actually wants to be supportive. They probably don't know how good they've got it. When it comes to evaluating people's work just remember the truth testimony. We are called upon to be a witness to truth in the world. That doesn't mean you have to be harsh or to focus entirely on the negative. I know you won't do that. But it does mean that you do have to honestly point out shortcomings when that is how you see them. It is possible to speak truth gently and that's what you will have to do sometimes.

    Are you planning on remaining chair indefinitely? I think it is better for people and for departments to have people rotate in and out of that job every few years. There is danger in doing that job too long.

  4. Yes, good point about the aftershock as well as the habit of anxiety and the high expectations I place on myself! Compounded by my not being the usual hypercritical sort of philosopher... No wonder!

    I don't plan on remaining chair indefinitely, but ours is a small department and, well, it's a long story. The short version is that it's highly likely that I'll begin a second four year term as chair starting next year. And I'm okay with this, but I'll also be glad when the day comes that I can let go of it! We've had a lot of staffing changes and it's been good to have someone (i.e., me) offering some continuity. Most aspects of being chair I don't mind -- some of it (like curriculum planning) is even creative and fun!

  5. Ours is a large and fractious department so we all try to avoid departmental business as much as possible to avoid getting into fights. Curriculum planning is one of those things we have had fights about in the past but I can see how it would be a good experience if people could be constructive and avoid turf wars. Also in a big university the bureaucracy above the departmental level is much larger and more remote. Trying to communicate with it has really driven our chair, who has done the job about 20 years now, frantic most of the time. Watching him cope with the job has made me cringe at the thought of trying to do it that long. I'm glad to hear it's not so troublesome for you.

    As for setting high expectations remember God doesn't demand that we succeed in any worldly sense but only that we be faithful. Success is not any of our business.

  6. Richard,

    Yes, we are blessed where I am with a thoughtful administration. And at a small liberal arts college, people get to know each other pretty well. I very much like these aspects of my life and work.

    Thank you for the reminder that God cares about faithfulness, not success. I definitely needed to hear this now!