Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Complexity of Call

A new crisis appeared last week in my ever exciting life as Department Chair. When I received notice of this, I was strongly "tempted to despair" (to quote George Fox). But then, miraculously, I rose to the challenge and I think things are going to be all right.

Dealing with this crisis totally sabotaged my efforts to catch up on grading last week. So instead of having this week (Thanksgiving Break) as a chance to work on research, I have felt under pressure to catch up on grading. I have made pretty good progress. I did take one day as a research day, and that was really good for my soul.

But, back to last week: towards the end of the week, my one other department colleague who is eligible to become chair, and who I was hoping would take over being chair next year, came in to talk to me about how this might not be possible for at least two more years. I could not help but think that this colleague, who was witness to last week's crisis, was getting cold feet upon realizing some of what being departmental chair entails.

I was so upset that I knew it was better for me not to respond at all yet. I knew that I needed time to process this before it would be fair for me to respond.

Fortunately, I had a counseling session that very afternoon. After I updated my counselor on all that has been happening, he surprised me by being totally outraged. He understands why everyone around me has responded to these events the ways they have, and knows that no one is out to get me. The "problem" is that I deal with all of these kinds of things too well. Nothing is going to change while I continue to handle everything responsibly.

And he doesn't want to discourage me from handling things responsibly -- he knows that my sense of responsibility is grounded in genuine caring, and he also realizes that this is a case where even if I could let go of my sense of responsibility, the bad effects of my doing so would ricochet right back to me. If I am the main one holding my little department together, and I let go of this responsibility, my own departmental home would collapse around me. How is that helpful to me or anyone else?

He said he is really worried about me though, because it is hard to see how it is possible for me to gain any relief from all of the pressures I am under.

So, if gaining relief from the pressures is not possible (at least not in the near future), maybe I need to change my question: How can I deal well with the pressures that I find in my life right now?

Back when I started this blog, I gave it the title "Embracing Complexity" under the optimistic theory that if I try to step fully into this complex life I find myself in, I can learn to cope with it well. I was hopeful that in the midst of complexity and sometimes a sense of chaos are the seeds of the kind of creativity that might have the power to change the world. I needed to stop shrinking away from this challenge; but also, I needed to stop wasting effort by attempting to solve the wrong problem: trying to tame, organize, or control the complexity. Can I learn instead to live in and with the complexity, with a trust that transcends the messiness of the day-to-day? With a faith that transcends the unpredictable emotional trajectory of exhilaration, anxiety, outrage, hope, peace, satisfaction, weariness, etc.?

Looking back, I see two patterns.

The subjective picture is that I've had momentary success "embracing complexity," and at those moments I have been hopeful that I could grow into accepting the kind of life I seem to have acquired. Yet, over time I have felt increasingly worn down, until a pattern of bona fide depressive symptoms became dominant enough that I've sought help. After my initial optimism that "help" could bring "cure," that I could make a few key decisions to change my life and then finally I would start to be able to feel that I was able to use my life to bring about positive change at some level (instead of just feeling in battle against being overwhelmed with my life), now I feel on the verge of some sobering new realization about how these things work. I'm starting to doubt that my life will ever feel like that.

This brings me to the second pattern. The objective picture looks very different. In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself saying, "Someday I'll fix my life. I am working on it." And this friend looked at me with what seemed to be genuine surprise and said, "From the outside, it doesn't look like your life needs fixing. You seem to be doing very well!" When I then watched myself deal with the crisis I had to deal with last week, I realized that this person may have a point. Despite all of my recent words on this blog about my not really being leadership material (really just because it continues to feel hard to me), in fact this may not be true at all. The me who dealt with last week's crisis was calm, efficient, creative, and reassuring to all involved, and had a solution in place in less than a week. This was not just a "let's desperately patch things together!" solution, but a good solution. Luck played a big hand in this (and for that I was immensely grateful), but my own role was not insignificant. I had to nurture things along, and my ability to stay positive, treat everyone with unfailing respect despite all of the background stress, and mediate two conflicting points of view (both of which I had sympathy for) were decisive factors in bringing about the successful solution.

People do see this about me and are amazed. This is why they keep trying to push me towards new leadership opportunities when they open up. It is really hard to find people who are capable of grace under pressure.

It's difficult for me to confess this positive quality I have, because I am ambivalent about it! While I want to be a strong and good person like this, precisely because these qualities can be so effective in bringing about positive transformation, as indeed I witnessed last week, I am also daunted by the responsibility this brings. "Your problem is that you handle things too well." In this, I become a magnet for unusual and difficult problems.

I am almost ready to accept that this just is the way life is. I'm almost ready to accept: (a) life doesn't always have to feel good to be doing good; (b) out of a sense of chaos, world-transforming innovation can arise; (c) the world leans heavily on those who prove themselves responsible and capable, and such people largely lose the ability to choose which problems to take on: instead, problems will choose them.

Right now it is especially the last one, c, that I do not like at all. I hope it is not really true. I want to get to a place where I have real choice again. That is what seems most hopeless to me, and is at the root of my current depression. Lately I have not been liking the problems that choose me (except in retrospect, if I feel they were successfully resolved -- then I don't mind so much).

But what if I could get to such strong faith that I really could accept c fully? What if I could regard each new problem with cheerful interest, trusting that meeting its challenges would bring gifts not only to everyone else involved, but also to me?

What makes this hard for me to accept is that I also wrestle with another sense of call that finds little room for expression in my life when my life is like this. The day-to-day crises that emerge keep pushing it out. Living in the tension of this paradox is what I have found most hard. How do I honor this sense of call when it feels so consistently frustrated?

The real complexity is in my own soul: my sense of responsibility feels like one important part of my call, and it manifests itself as a "problem magnet" in my life. But my being a contemplative scholar is another important part of my call. It is this part of me that feels closest to the core of my identity, and yet is what is most challenged and pushed aside in my busy life.

I realize that I've thought that the two were incompatible, and seeing one sacrificed in favor of the other, I've wanted to find a way to trade the sacrifices! But now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I must accept both as two aspects of my call, and so my real challenge is to find the right balance. Is this really possible?


  1. I want to try to get you to think a little more deeply about your c)the world leans heavily on those who prove themselves responsible and capable and such people largely lose the ability to choose which problems to take on: instead problems choose them.

    Yes and no. Yes, if you do a hard job right people will look to you when the next hard job comes around. This is as predictable as day following night.

    But no. (or I should say NOOOOOOOO!!!!!) you do not lose the ability to choose which problems to take on. Sartre would say that such a comment betrays bad faith. You are pretending to yourself that you are not free and that events are "forcing" you to do things. They are not. You are still free. And that includes the freedom to say no.

    However, ultimately we should not be choosing to do what other people ask us to do or choosing to do what we want to do. We should be listening to the Spirit to figure out what we ought to be doing. This will sometimes mean saying "no" to a human who is really putting pressure on us (including such guilt-inducers as "There's no one else who can..." or "I've asked everyone else...")

    I think you really need to practice saying no to people.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I was hoping someone would notice that sentence and call me on it! Thanks!

    You make many good points, and I very much agree with your saying that, rather than thinking in terms of "choosing," it is better to think in terms of "listening to the Spirit."

    I am always doing this. As life unfolds in the unpredictable ways it unfolds, I am always trying to listen for deeper meanings, and am well aware that sometimes my own response needs to be more creative than simple obedience to what people overtly ask me to do.

    I do say "no" quite a lot more than may be obvious from my blog. But when one says yes to something like being chair, there is a lot that that requires that really are not optional. Or, yes, everything still is optional, but certain "no's" within the context of being chair would produce very undesirable consequences (such as if I stopped conducting searches when positions in my department opened up).

    While I would like to say the big "no" to even being chair, if I did this when the only other eligible member of our department were also unavailable, there would also be grave consequences not only for my department, but for my own life within the department. Would I really want someone from a different department to do our position searches, plan my course schedule, and determine my departmental subcommittee assignments, for example?

    I could also choose to leave my current institution for one whose philosophy department might do a better job of taking care of me, giving me more time for research. But there are lots of reasons why I am reluctant to leave where I am. There is a lot I really like about what is happening here.

    So, I still have choices, but circumstance has narrowed them in a particularly challenging way. I am struggling to find a creative response that frees my time for more research without bringing other consequences that undermine this goal in other ways.

  3. Another thought: I should write more about the complexity of choice. I think we cannot construct our lives atomistically. We cannot list the elements we want in our life and choose and assemble them individually. Instead, our choices come in more complex patterns and sets.

    For example, if I want a life in which it is part of my job to do philosophical writing, choosing the life of a professor is a good way to be able to do this. But choosing that life is also to choose a life of teaching and advising and serving on university committees. Having chosen the life of a professor, I choose the whole package and cannot really cut out the pieces I do not like. If I tried to do so, I would risk losing my job, and hence also would lose what I had tried to find by accepting this position.

    It is in this way that it really is not so obvious how to make good choices. The dimensions of our lives are so complexly interrelated that choices we make in one dimension can have effects in other dimensions. Sometimes those effects are predictable; other times not.

    It is in this sense that my life is feeling a bit out of control at the moment. I have been more creative and assertive in "playing with the controls" lately -- playing with what control I do have -- and I am finding the effects a bit bewildering.

    At a party last night, I watched a toddler jump over and over again. He often would fling himself forward onto the floor. Sometimes he twisted while he jumped. I think he was just experimenting with life: figuring out gravity and his own muscles and the hardness of the (carpeted) floor. He didn't hurt himself. He didn't cry. He was clearly engaged in just figuring out how this all works.

    That is how I feel about my life right now. What can I push and challenge and rearrange, and how will that effect everything else? Mostly, lately, I keep finding myself getting thrown to the floor. I am surprised at how often this happens. But slowly I am learning how to live in a gravitational field (a field of strong but subtle forces). Slowly, I am learning the direction and strength of these forces, as I engage certain structures in new ways. This stage is messy and uncomfortable. But I think it is necessary.