She parted my hair on the wrong side and, being the conflict avoider that I am, I said nothing. Usually when I leave the salon, I feel wonderful. I’ve had a few hours to myself and a lovely scalp massage, and I feel renewed. But not this time. This time my stylist inadvertently parted my hair on the other side and it was not okay. I quickly paid the bill and hurried into the nearest ladies room to fix the problem. Aaaah, much better. The hair was back where it belonged.
How strange that such a small change should feel so uncomfortable. How quickly I was able to feel at peace once it was back to my preferred side. A sense of well-being and rightness came on me as I drove home from the salon, and I was able to refocus my thoughts. On this late summer day, just before the start of the academic year, I was thinking about beginnings. September has always felt more like the start of a new year to me than January does. It is when I ask myself if I like how my life is going and if I need to make some changes. During summer, I slow down enough to take note of the ways my life has not “felt right” — almost as though I was wearing my part on the wrong side. Do I still like my job? How do I feel about the pace of my life? Is my spirit thriving? Are my relationships satisfying? Am I pleasing God with how I’m living?
Discerning when it is time to make changes and when it is time to persevere is an ongoing challenge for most of us. I am grateful for the times when change is not optional, when the forward movement of life forces me to confront an uncomfortable “part,” that is, when discomfort increases to a palpable level. In Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton encourages us to listen to “consolation” and “desolation” in the discernment process. What feels life giving? What feels life draining? It stands to reason that we should spend large amounts of our time doing what is life giving. The consequences of life constantly draining out of us, even if it is happening slowly, is just too dangerous.
The frustration for me is that most things in life — and particularly most jobs — involve a mix of both life giving and life draining components. Lecturing in front of a bright bunch of eager students is definitely life giving for me. Grading mounds of papers or sitting in a long inefficient meeting — I’ll let you guess.
For me, knowing what gives me life and drains it isn’t a matter of making a rational list of pros and cons (though I do use make use of this method for making decisions). Rather, I rely on my gut—my intuition. This has usually been an effective method of discernment — except when I have let too much life drain out of me. When I am in a place of desolation, I stop caring and stop feeling. At that point, others who know me well need to speak into my life and express their concern at what they see, or their dismay at where I’m headed. Thankfully that hasn’t been the case too often.
In her book Preaching That Speaks to Women, Alice Mathews sheds light on why some of us end up stuck in that desolate place. She notes that studies have shown that men are more likely to deal with stress by modifying the situation that causes the stress (e.g., quitting the job), while women try to manage their emotions about the situation (e.g., working to get a more positive attitude about the job). I read this and immediately recognized my own pattern of trying (rather unsuccessfully) to manage my emotions. That approach typically results for me in a bout of depression. That insight has caused me to force myself to more strongly consider making a change to a situation, rather than assuming the problem always resides in me. Just as with the nagging discomfort of wearing the part on the wrong side which forced me to take action, perhaps God has given me strong emotions to help guide my next steps. It is good to make peace with how we are designed rather than to fight it.
As I begin to prepare to teach at the university this fall, I am once again doing a gut check on the juggle of two part-time jobs, a busy family life, and all that comes with a new year. I begin to feel excitement flow into me as I explore new readings, re-tool a learning experience and plan out lectures. Giving those lectures in front of a class is always a life giving event for me, leaving me energized and reassured that this is part of what God has made me to do. This summer I also re-visited my decision to stop my doctoral work. A lot has changed since I dropped out of the dissertation process. Perhaps it is time to jump into the world of research once more? I mentally try on what that feels like and feel the clench coming in my stomach. I throw in the fact that I am in a satisfying but busy stage of family life and I have my answer. No change needed. Yes to continuing the adjunct teaching, no to re-starting the doctoral process.
There are of course some renegade emotions challenging both of these decisions. The second guessing begins with a flood of thoughts; being tired of feeling like a second class member of the faculty with only an MA, wondering if I have lived up to that “most likely to succeed” label I got in high school, worry and guilt that by working so much I am going to shortchange my family, the realization that I will definitely have a messier house. It’s enough to make my hair frazzle and my head spin. It seems that Satan is shameless about taking advantage of my emotional wiring unless I banish him with the truth of God’s word.
Proverbs 3:5-6 has been a life verse for me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” The prayer and wise counsel that regularly undergirds and validates my life re-evaluations, along with my own overall sense of rightness in the decisions, comforts me and puts the anxieties to rest. That path for this year seems to point straight to the challenge of persevering at what I have already been doing. To underscore this, God graciously prompted a friend to call me recently and tell me that God had been bringing me to mind and seemed to be saying, “persevere.” As she passed this word of encouragement on to me, I began to smile. I am ready to face the new semester with joy and confidence — as well as a well-groomed head of hair.