When I finished my GRE exam, I left the silent computer cubicle repeating the scores that had flashed on the screen, drilling them into my stupefied mind to scribble down when I reached my car and look up when I returned home. All the way home my numb brain asked the same question over and over — was I good enough? At home I compared the scores to percentile rankings and average scores for others admitted into my PhD program of preference. Were they good enough? Maybe. They sat right on the bottom edge of what I had hoped to score. I would have to wait another six months before results came in from my graduate school and funding applications. In the meantime I would keep playing the game. I would talk to potential advisors, clean up my resumé, sharpen the wording for my application, and repeat the story of my credentials, my experience, and my life a dozen more times, justifying my existence, attempting always to convince people that I mattered, that I was somebody.
Applying for graduate school feels like laying your life under the magnifying glass of an invisible courtroom of judges, and it is not the only time in life we experience that scrutiny. During the months I applied for graduate school I was also writing two book proposals and circulating those and several magazine articles to editors, a waiting game that felt like applying for a new job every day. On the same day I took the GRE, I visited our pastor’s home and sat at his piano answering his questions about my piano playing ability and nervously hammering out some chords. I had played for many churches, but somehow felt small here again, a stranger in a new church, a person whose gifts, however earnestly I desired to share them for God’s glory, still competed in a cutthroat competitive world.
I was new in town and eager to befriend neighbors. Two months into living there, though, I felt discouraged. Was it my imagination, or was I the only one making invitations, and were my phone calls too rarely returned? Everyone seemed busy with their own lives, their own established brigade of friends that met all their needs, leaving no need for little me. Each time I met someone I ran through introductory small talk, which in my case was no simple one-sentence naming of my job. Over the last ten years I had lived in four continents and over 17 homes, and my current “job” was a low-paying mix of freelance writing, answering emails, keeping track of family finances, and spending a lot of time with my two children. When I tried to explain this jumble of duties and experiences it produced anything from a sense of stand-offish awe to a conversation-stopping silent conclusion that “this person must be totally whacked out volunteer Christian freak — not my type.”
With today’s high unemployment rates, more and more of us have felt the scrutiny of invisible judges, the feeling that we had better measure up or give up. I have been told that pressure to perform doesn’t end when you’re admitted to graduate school; it only takes new forms with every passing year. Pass this exam, publish more, research more, study more, apply for jobs, apply again to better jobs to keep your salary growing and your resume broadening steadily year after year.
Over and over, every month if not every day, many of us feel surrounded by the drilling of questions, by examinations spoken or unspoken, asking, “Who are you, and what right do you have to say your skill is worth anything here? You see, we are a people of excellent standards and you — you are not the type to measure up here. This isn’t some small pond. We are a big pond here, and you, dearie, had better be a lot bigger fish than you look like.”
In O Pioneers!, a book written nearly a century ago by Willa Cather, I stumbled on a hauntingly accurate depiction of the same feelings many of us experience today in the huge world of options where we are one of a thousand nameless faces. Here a young man offers his poetically poignant description of leaving the countryside to find work in an American city:
Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere…. Off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.
We fill out applications, we work as hard as we can as if to prove something, and nothing ever seems to be proven, no one ever seems to love us more or even give a rip. We look around and feel ever smaller in the seas of other nameless faces in the webtastic world. We wonder if anyone really cares whether we live or die.
Another author who stood face to face with our apparent meaninglessness recorded his experiences in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author King Solomon mourns, “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” But at the end of his reflections he closes, “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) When the pressures of the world threaten to decimate all our self-confidence, we have this to depend on: our ultimate worth does not depend on whether we measure up to the many human judges around us. We are working for God, not man. Our duty is simple: just to fear God and obey him. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to work with excellence and diligence, though. As Paul says, we should run as if to win the prize. The prize Paul was talking about wasn’t some human award like admission to graduate school, a successful new job, or research published in a highly regarded journal. He aimed to win God’s prize, to hear our Maker say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). As Paul advised, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for me, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:23–24).
Not only do we have the comfort of knowing that God is the one who ultimately decides what work we must do and what value our work has, we have the added bonus that God himself is the one enabling us to do the work that matters, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
To God we are far more than “a frock coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by.” God knows our name, gave us a purpose, cared to give us life, and continues to give it abundantly. For God there is no unemployment — each of us has a purpose, even when it isn’t what the world regards highly. And our identity is not in what we do, but in the simple unchanging fact that we are loved by God.