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?
5 years ago