Two years ago, after 14 years as a college professor, I took some time to reflect on the highs and lows of my career thus far, and how to build on some hard learned lessons.
I took a sabbatical in 2014-15, committing myself to learning more about spiritual practices derived from Ignatian (or Jesuit) spirituality and from the Desert Fathers of the early church. I learned about “breathing in” God’s Word, meditating on one verse through the course of a day, and about “active indifference” as a way of discerning God’s will. I met regularly with a spiritual director and made it a priority to cultivate a deeper and more meaningful quiet time.
All of these noble endeavors, of course, had a context, and in my case, they related to my constant struggle to deal with the pathologies of my profession. My line of work combines a very stimulating life of the mind with opportunities to mentor students and impact their lives in meaningful ways.
All of these noble endeavors, of course, had a context, and in my case, they related to my constant struggle to deal with the pathologies of my profession.
On the flip side, college teaching, as with any other profession, has a dark side — one that is ego-driven and riddled with the trappings of people pleasing. It can also devolve into an endless project of what I like to call “kudo-manufacturing”. Most college professors don’t make mega bucks, and hence, are tempted to look for other kinds of returns — for instance, seeing one’s name in print, landing a big grant, receiving a favorable review of one’s book, and, of course, getting lots of love and kudos from the students, not to mention the dean or president.
When I was younger, I attended a church whose pastor used to constantly stress how we “shouldn’t get our value from what we do, but from who we are in Christ”. The church’s message of grace spoke directly to my second-generation Indian immigrant preoccupation with professional status, achievement, and performance-based self-esteem.
More recently, though, I’ve come to question whether we should be splitting things up like this. Should we really be separating the value we receive from God’s love from the value that we derive from our work?
Should we really be separating the value we receive from God’s love from the value that we derive from our work?
This seems too much like a false dualism — between a detached “spiritual” message that is supposed to make me feel good about myself and my relationships and involvements in this world. Increasingly, it seems more correct to view our salvation in Christ as a larger package — one that frees us here and now to go about our relationships and activities with the heart and mind of Christ. We do indeed derive a profound sense of value from our work, especially when we discover and perform those works that “God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV).
To put this in the language of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I believe God had called me to academia, but to go about it “by the Spirit” and not “the flesh” (Galatians 5:16-25 NIV). What is striking to me about the New Testament notion of “the flesh” (or sarx in Greek) is that it can apply to any “neutral” worldly activity. Riding a bike, playing tennis, watching football, teaching, or publishing can become occasions for the flesh or the Spirit: for egotistical drive, expressed in enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, or selfishness”; or for the more Spirit-led ways of “love, joy, peace, patience ... gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).
The renowned philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff once noted, “God loves adverbs.” God is concerned with how we go about things, for instance, meekly, obsessively, or charitably. The question for me was, “Do I want to become a self-absorbed, control-freakish professor who is constantly posturing for recognition? Or do I want to go about my work in pursuit of what Jesuits call the magis, the greater glory of God?” Even if I were to choose “Door B”, how exactly do I shift gears and embrace the ways of the Spirit?
God is concerned with how we go about things, for instance, meekly, obsessively, or charitably.
For me, shifting gears was no easy matter. I was experiencing a mid-life crisis of sorts, where I was seriously questioning whether or not my work had amounted to anything of value, and whether there was some pot of gold that I still needed to chase. My wife had to hear my angst routinely, like a broken record. Then one night, I believe the Lord spoke to me through a vivid dream.
I dreamt that I was walking around a huge building, one that was so high and wide that I couldn’t even see its outer perimeter. I kept walking and walking, hoping that I would reach the edge so that I could see where I was, but it never came. Finally, amid the panic of feeling completely lost, I inched across the edge of the structure. This would have been a joyous moment had it not been for the fact that the structure that God was now showing me was in fact the edifice of my false self, constructed over a lifetime in the flesh. In spite of being a Christian for nearly 30 years, this structure was still standing and affecting practically everything I did!
The structure that God was now showing me was in fact the edifice of my false self, constructed over a lifetime in the flesh.
Every device I had deployed to succeed, make it work, get it done, secure the offer, crank out the article, get the promotion, earn high evaluations, and appease professional audiences had cemented a huge structure that was no longer capable of delivering the goods.
Persistent feelings of emptiness and disenchantment with my life and work were telling me that this huge structure was beginning to topple. What then? If I didn’t go about my work in this old, ego-driven way, will I not enter a motivational vacuum, or end up becoming depressed and completely idle?
If I didn’t go about my work in this old, ego-driven way, will I not enter a motivational vacuum, or end up becoming depressed and completely idle?
This was a time when I simply had to believe that Christ had another path for me. What I needed were some tools to help me make the transition to a new M.O. (modus operandi), since I knew the old one was no longer sustainable.
The spiritual practice of a quiet time that I implemented during my sabbatical has proven to be a powerful tool of reorientation. In the past, my half-hearted commitment to a morning quiet time all too easily fizzled out. The moment the stress of my job crossed a certain threshold, utilitarian concerns quickly took center stage and “the quiet time thing” flew out the window. I would race to work to take on my task list in the only ways I knew how.
During my sabbatical, I decided to institute a quiet time with a specific goal: Disentangle myself from the old system of rewards that motivated practically everything I did. I began each day in complete silence, emptying my mind of all the internal chatter, and focusing on my breathing to facilitate that silence. I then read a passage of Scripture and meditated on it. I followed this with a mental exercise. Imagining that one part of my chest represented my old, ego-driven self who performs for others, I told myself to relocate to a different part, where God resided as my chief audience. The work I would do on any given day was for its own sake and for His greater glory, not for the old rewards, geared toward securing visibility or the approval of others.
No, I am not a Jedi yet! The old insecurities still pay their visits. But two glimmers of light extending from the corner of that building give me hope. First, as I repeated it day after day, the deep silence of that morning exercise began to ooze into other parts of my day. I feel like a broken limb that is finally placed in the right splint to make it grow straight again. I find myself becoming less obsessive and more at ease in taking on the demands of my academic calling. I find myself enjoying my work and appreciating my colleagues more as the old angst of stress rising from the need to prove myself loses ground.
I find myself becoming less obsessive and more at ease in taking on the demands of my academic calling.
If and when affirmation comes my way, it’s great, but it’s not the be-all and end-all that it once was. Neither is criticism the total sinker. There’s a greater sense of living in the present when the old agenda is not steering the ship. This, I hope, is making me more present with the people I love. When I returned to work the following year, for the first time ever, the practice of this morning silence before God remained intact, even during crunch time.
Second, I feel that my re-booted quiet time is yielding a new mindset that is more open to other possibilities. Stepping off the old treadmill is freeing me to consider different models of what being in academia can mean and different avenues of serving that don’t necessarily coat my curriculum vitae. I find myself becoming more aware of something I learned from the Ignatian tradition: In our discipleship, Christ may lead us, like Peter, to places where we do not want to go (John 21:18).
In our discipleship, Christ may lead us, like Peter, to places where we do not want to go.
The false structure that God exposed was one of self-absorption. Slowly, it’s giving way to a new curiosity about what God is doing and how to come alongside of it.