I have a lot of faith. But am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything…the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. (Anne Lamott)
I have been waiting for certainty. I have been waiting for certainty for many things, but most recently on a decision as to whether or not go back to school (again) to get a PhD in Environmental History. But the more I pick apart the choice, worry over the details, seek advice from others, and let it all stew in my mind, the more I realize certainty is never coming … “certainty is missing the point entirely.”
I am writing part of this post weeks before I will post it, weeks before I have the deadline to commit or decline my offer to attend a University in Scotland (of all places) for my PhD. I am telling myself right now that I haven’t decided, and a small part of me believes that is true. But the truth is, I know I have already decided. I don’t know how to describe it, but there is this feeling I get when choices are confusing, and I can’t see the answer in the fog – there is just this feeling at the center of my stomach somewhere, or perhaps lassoed to and pulling on the center of my spine, that just knows the answer already. Like a thread so tautly tied to the choice, that any movement in life pulls me in orbit around that option. Although I’m trying to deny this, saying “yes” feels like the only choice somehow, it feels impossible to choose anything else.
It would be sensible not to go. (But) to be sensible is to be commonplace. To be commonplace is unpardonable (Margaret Gehrke)
I have been finding myself feeling embarrassed by this future plan. Because it strikes me as being entirely too childish. In fact, it is somewhat childish because “getting a PhD in the UK” is my childhood dream. Yes, while some other little girls were thinking about having a pony or a new car (not bad desires, just not my own), I was pining to live in dusty archives somewhere Across the Pond. But, then you grow old and you put childish dreams away, right? Aren’t I too old to be making anything but sensible decisions? What is the line between sensible and safe? Between sensible and not really living?
Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? (Mary Oliver)
Most of me is so wired to be practical, comfortable, and “sure”…but there is one wire in me that is quite the opposite of that. Just one thread in all that make me up, and it doesn’t come out all too often. It came out once when bought a ticket that was too expensive to mention for a single week in Patagonia (a place you can’t even get a whiff of in that time). It came out when I decided to cut all my hair off the first time. But now it has come out in the most expensive and fairly time consuming way possible (3 year program). What on earth am I doing?
Isn’t everything worthwhile a gamble? (Donna Tartt)
I feel this is a huge gamble, and a risk that I wouldn’t so much mind taking, if I had all my finances sorted out. If I didn’t have to rely on my parents again to help me out. If I didn’t have to sacrifice my pride to ask for help in this arena. And this, this not trusting in provision, not wanting to ask for any help, has been keeping me from grasping at this chance. I say I want to “trust in the Lord with all my heart, and lean not on my own understand,” but do I really?
In all honesty, I don’t feel it fair. My whole life I’ve had all this support from my family with whatever it is I am doing, including finances. And, well, that has allowed me to explore things that others could never consider, because they would have had to have all the money in advance, because they did not have parents to help them out, they did not have someone to give them “interest-free loans” or just to just pay for portions of things as a gift. I have fights with my parents which involve me arguing I need to pay for myself and them arguing that they want to pay with no debt owed. This is not the typical child-parent situation. I’ve tried to console myself with the thought of “well, I’m not thinking I’ll ever marry, so maybe the money I know they’ve been saving for that wedding can go to my tuition!” A marriage to words and wilderness doesn’t sound half bad…
But, still, just because I have this financial safety net, and parents willing to help me pay for things, does this mean I should exploit that option? That I should take advantage of that when most others I know can’t?
Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might…try to be alive. you will be dead soon enough. (Ernest Hemingway)
As I’ve looked back at old blog posts, journal entries, and quotes scribbled down in page margins I can see how much of my past has been leading me to this moment. Not that making this choice is “the” moment of my life, but at this point…it is one of the more fork-in-the-road ones. My topic of research will marry together my passion for literature, my affection for history (American and European), my aspirations to be a writer, and my need for wilderness. It collaborates with my pursuit of working with a Natural Resource / Outdoor agency but also my childhood dream of getting a PhD, to be published. It weaves all these things that are part of me together into one quilt I can wrap myself in for the next few years. And I keep thinking, I haven’t felt quite so alive as when I think of being able to combine all the things I love into one vision, to actually be pursuing all I’ve talked about pursuing instead of just talking about it. I want to give a go at feeling “wholly alive” and not be afraid to try.
…those that love their own chimney corner and dare not go far beyond their own towns’ end shall never have the honor to see the wonderful works of almighty God (Rev. Francis Higginson)
There is another deep-seeded fear that is part of this choice. I fear learning that I won’t like the whole research / writing gig, or that I won’t be able to do it. What if I hate it? What if I fail? And I’ll be so far from everyone and everything I know. What if that is too hard? I do love my “own chimney corner,” but so much of me in this season of my life feels I must learn to love it less, because it feels like some part of myself, some part of God’s work for for my life, is waiting for discovery beyond my “own town’s end.”
I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. (You’ve Got Mail)
A lot of the final choosing came down to pondering over the worst case scenarios on both ends. If I do go, and learn it is not for me, then I will look at the 3 years and the large price tag of those 3 years and feel that it was probably not necessary for me to go. If I don’t go, then I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had. Which will be a heavier thing to live with? Shame from the first, but a stabbing sense of wondering regret in the second. I have lived a mostly sensible life, and I’m not saying that is wrong, but lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve been doing it “because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave.” So, I’m trying to be brave.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. (Benjamin Franklin)
I’ll end with this (and thanks for reading through all my verbose processing if you made it this far) – I feel like God calls me (at least now) to this uncomfortable place of risking to be unsensible. That I have to choose to trust without certainty, choose to do something that I feel far too risky for comfort, far too childish for my pride, just because I feel the Spirit pulling me there, for reasons I cannot explain now. But, I hope every step along the way points back to and reflects God.
I think it true that I am called to “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing” – and, by saying “yes” to this whole PhD scheme & dream, I hope to do both.