Mind Games

My main occupation (unfortunately the one I’m not paid for…) is the “figuring life out”-part of the day. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Who is God? I think that covers the main questions…

Over time, different aspects of that are more or less important, while I slowly understand myself and my life and my faith better (I hope). It’s continuous progress, by grace and by effort… It’s part of my personality that I find stagnation in this progress depressing – I need to feel that I’m moving forward, both in my understanding of things and in making practical changes in how I live that reflect where I’ve arrived at in my mind. Hence, I struggle quite a bit with how long it takes me to discern my vocation, for example. Currently, I feel rather stuck in-between “yes, I do have a calling to a contemplative life in Community (of some sort)” on the one hand, and the open question of how I will live out this calling in the “practicalities” of life on the other hand. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Before the summer I got really stressed out about it, pushing myself too hard, having some timeframe in my mind that these kind of processes of the heart and mind just aren’t interested in… I want clarity. I want to settle into a stable life, and work. The work that is given me. And I may well be doing it already while I’m impatiently running around in circles without feeling like I’m getting anywhere, it’s possible. I do know though that in the long run, I’m not in the right place or job yet, and I very much want to get there… If it’s all about the “journey”, then I feel like I haven’t even left the platform yet! And that is not actually true. But it feels like it.

I think I learn a great deal all the time. And I have a sense that there is some direction to this learning. Health and wholeness, for one. God, which is the same thing.

The most recent thought I had, possibly some small truth dawning on me, was that both the work in a caring profession and the urgency with which I delve into my faith life may well stem from the values I learned from my family. These are the things that make you “Good”, capital G. Other things that are part of me, intellectual hunger and love of art and poetry, were not valued then – so I struggle to give them space now. Unconsciously (well, less so now), I still follow the pattern of pleasing my parents, of trying to be who they want me to be or need me to be!

Caring for others is no bad idea, I know that. But continuing an unhealthy pattern I learned at home, that’s a bad idea. I was my mother’s emotional carer, and neglected my own feelings and needs because of it. I think I’m still doing that too much for others now.

The same with faith – yes, it is good to be dedicated to nourishing one’s spiritual life. But the why matters too. I’m still unlearning the God I believed in, the God made in my parents’ image… I’m still surprised and relieved every time God reminds me that I’m okay, that it matters who I am and what I want. This is a long process, and while God is gentle, I’m very often not. I was taught a very intense commitment to church as a child, to prayer, to faith – often in ways that had more to do with surface than depth, more with fear than love, but I took it all in. 

God still loves me if I don’t go to church. 

God still loves me if I don’t become a Sister – because if that’s just a different version of being who I was taught I should be, then it’s not a calling. It’s just psychology, and not the healthy kind, I’d think. And it would be better for me to figure this out before I give up my job to join an order; because by then,  my discernment affects quite a few more people than just me.

All this thinking came about because a few days ago, we had some “team time” away from the office, and we ended it by telling each other what we’re grateful for. A lot of people said to me that they are grateful for my intellectual contributions and challenges in conversations. 

“Hm”, I thought. “Do they actually mean that? Are they grateful for being challenged? Am I being annoying?” One wonders. I wondered.

And I thought too that “I never wanted my intelligence to be what people notice about me, I’d much rather be known  for being kind, and caring”.

But over the next few days, this is what I realised – I feel as if people saying, “you challenged us to widen our perspective, to think about problems from a new angle”, is not a compliment. I think that because, in my experience, this is not something people actually appreciate. It is not a good thing, where I come from, to be an academic, an “intellectual” (you hear the tone…?).

In my family, I’m the only academic and there’s been no end to the jokes about students, about the pointlessness of studying humanities. They all made sure to take me down a notch so I didn’t run the risk of thinking I was “someone better” than them, superior, arrogant. As I mentioned in another post, I was frequently called “stupid” or treated as if I was stupid – because I didn’t act the way I was expected to behave, because I questioned the status quo, the “given wisdom” of the way of life I was born into. So I must be wrong. I must be stupid. A Master’s degree doesn’t mean anything to any of them. It’s useless. It’s not leading to a “real” job, there are no “real” skills involved, it’s a waste of time. “And why are you studying that?” and “What are you going to do with that when you’re done?”

I remember one moment when my mother actually showed pride in my work, my first academic paper that had received some wonderful comments from the teacher. My mother showed this to my granddad in the presence of my sister. And my sister couldn’t stand it; I still remember the contemptuous “pshaw”…. It rather spoiled the rare moment of someone appreciating what I did at university for me. But this had a lot do to also with my siblings perceiving me as the spoiled youngest child – which I never felt I was. Praise was rare for all of us.

Back to the question at hand – to be complimented and thanked for my intellectual contributions in my team, that’s a new experience to me. And now I can appreciate what I was told by my colleagues. Yes, this is one of my gifts. And it makes me happy to use it – I loved being at university, I’ve never been more satisfied working than when I was doing research or participating in some academic discussion. I loved being there. And there are people around me now who value this in me. And apart from me being grateful to them for telling me that, it really helps me to realise that other people have different values than the ones I grew up with. It’s good to be reminded that there’s more to life than my parents’ worldview.

I would very much like to do my PhD. And felt myself holding back until now by the feeling that it’s a selfish thing to do.

No, it’s not.

Working with my intellect, finding new perspectives, coming up with new ideas, thinking about the writing and the lives of others, any work I contribute in that direction is of value. To know that in my heart as well as in my head, that’s a gift to me.

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