Saturday, May 12, 2007

Taking Stock at the End of the Semester

My semester is almost over. Finals week has just concluded. While some faculty have finished their grading already, it has taken me all week just to get to a place where I finally have time to finish my grading! Such has been my life. Once I finish my grading, things will finally start to lighten up a bit for me.

I almost listed all of the things that have made my life so busy this semester, but then I realized that this would be deadly boring.

My loyal readers (well, the two who are left) probably do want to hear from me, but what do they really want to know? What would they really like me to write about?

All I can summon at the moment are a few odds and ends thoughts:

1. As I look back on my whirlwind semester and take stock, what am I most proud of? While there is a way that I feel good at having handled difficult and complex situations well, and this has led to a growth in my confidence, the truth is that what I thereby accomplished was almost always nothing more than what is simply expected in my job. To have failed would have been notable (in a highly negative way), but to have succeeded gets almost no notice at all because it is simply expected. But it's not the issue of getting noticed for all my hard work or not that matters to me the most: the question that matters more to me is whether this is really what I want my life to be like. Doing these kind of things well certainly does matter (whether anyone notices or not) -- but is this kind of work what I really feel called to do? The answer is that the busy demands of this semester have squeezed out time to attend to what I really feel called to do. The one big project that was an "optional" extra is the one that, ironically, has been most expressive of what I feel my unique contribution to the world is all about. I'm glad I didn't drop this.

2. Yet, I don't regret this semester. It pushed me to my limits and I found that I did not break. I faced the pressure, for the most part, with grace and steadfastness. Clarity and strength came at the right moments. And so the net effect has been a gain in my confidence. This is important. I feel that I understand and hence can trust the world a little better. I trust myself better. And I trust God better.

3. Related, I learned some things about myself. I learned more clearly than ever before what I'm good at and what I'm not so good at. I didn't beat myself up about what I'm not good at. Instead, it was a relief to just say, "Ok, I've pushed that for all it is worth and this is all I can come up with, so why not just say in the future when people ask me to do this sort of thing, 'I'm sorry, I'm actually not good at that -- you'd be better off asking someone else.'" Admitting that I'm not good at some things opens up welcome space to attend more to the kinds of things I am good at.

4. What I'm most proud of that I'm good at: I'm good at connecting with people I don't always see eye-to-eye to, and trying to understand their point of view. I've discovered that people love being able to talk to those who disagree with them if those who disagree with them will really listen. In fact, people are starved for this kind of attention. It is easy to get the sympathy of people who already agree with you. And it's frustrating beyond belief to feel "written off" by those who disagree with you. But finding someone who disagrees with you but who really listens: that's rare. And that's an amazingly satisfying experience. While I've mostly been giving this kind of attention, I had the opportunity to receive it as well, and I was astounded at the effect it had on me. I think I'll write more about this in a future posting.

5. What I'm not so good at, and how I feel about this: I think I've probably written to some extent about this already, but the most important thing I learned that I'm not good at is motivating others to action. I'm not even very good at getting them to follow through on what they've promised to do! I have mixed feelings about this. It would be nice to be able to do this, because then I could take on complex projects that involve the work of lots of people with less stress. I could even assume leadership positions within these complex projects. And collectively, well-organized, well-functioning groups can accomplish a lot more than individuals can. But on the other hand, realizing that I'd rather work on more individual projects (like writing books) is a bit of a relief. Had I found myself good at leadership, it would have created a real dilemma about what kind of work I'm really called to do.

6. What has most surprised me: I've learned that I can make decisions that affect others' lives, that others are not always happy about, and still feel that it's the right decision. I can stand strong in the face of their disappointment, feel bad for them, and let them be disappointed and even angry with me, and still myself continue to feel that it is the right decision for all concerned. (This doesn't mean I've become rigid and inflexible. It's just to say that those times when I am clear that I must stand strong, I can.) It's tremendously liberating for me no longer to feel personally devastated whenever anyone is unhappy with decisions I make. And it's empowering to realize that I am capable of making hard decisions like that. But I still don't like having to play this role. This is another aspect of leadership that does not fit my personality very well. Still, it's amazing for me to realize that a person can learn such a skill that is not already inherent in their personality, and feel liberated and empowered by having learned it.

This last point gets at something so important I have to say more about it.

I think this above all else signals a profound change in my soul. I think I have come to a new acceptance that life just is difficult, for everyone. It's not my job to solve the Problem of Suffering. I cannot solve it for others. I can learn from it in my own life, but I can't eradicate it there either. But I also realize that it is not the end of the world. Suffering just is built in to life. For the most part, it is not lethal. We don't really have to be as afraid of it as we tend to be. We can develop strategies for dealing with it. My job on this planet is not to make everyone happy, so I can let go of being all depressed about my continuing failure in this. It's now officially off my "to do" list!

So, what then is my job?

I feel like I am opening up in a whole new way to this question.


  1. CS,

    It struck me as I was thinking about how to respond that I don't even know if you have an active Monthly Meeting where you live. I had assumed so but then upon reflection I never recally your writing about how they might help you in your discernment process.

    For that is what you are involved in now--a discernment process. You committed yourself to quite a lot of new responsibility. In the process of taking this on you learned things about yourself. Now it is time to take stock and figure out where to do next.

    Other people will put pressure on you to take on new projects but now that you have learned more you can decide what to take on. Remember that to say "yes" to one project is necessarily to say "no" to another one. Don't let the less important crowd out the more important.

  2. CS: I'm happy to call myself your other loyal reader. ;)

    (Humor aside, I'm sure there's more than two of us!!!)

    I'd be interested to hear more about what specific tasks you were called on to do. You've kept things very general in your posts this semester, so I'm just curious, or call it nosy.

    I'd also love to hear more about the listening you describe in #4.

    -- Chris M.

  3. Thanks for your responses -- glad you're both still checking in on me!

    I'm finished my grading at last, and so I should be doing more writing again soon!

  4. Just for the record, what I want to hear from you at any given time is pretty well whatever you want to say!