I’ll never forget the euphoria of my first several academic conferences. I marked those long days in dozens — attending dozens of papers, meeting dozens of scholars, and buying dozens of books — until my brain was as distended as my suitcase. Walking between sessions, my eyes flitted from face to name tag and back again, registering surprise as bibliography entries took on flesh and passed me in the halls. In those years I “collected” sightings and handshakes, listing them in my journal on the way home. I was conscious of the danger of idolatry, but it was hard not to be giddy. The stories I brought home made me feel important-by-association.
Things are different now, but equally dangerous. I know these scholars well enough now to see them as human. The seduction of the personality cult has been eclipsed by another phenomenon: they know me. Now the temptation is to “collect” stories of those who called out to say hello, sought me out during a reception, complimented my paper. In the early years it was a big deal to see Dr. So-and-So give a paper, and a bigger deal to ask a question afterward. Now Dr. So-and-So is taking me out to breakfast, asking about my work, and recommending me for committees and other projects.
I just attended my ninth academic conference. I have a job now, a book for sale in the exhibit hall, and another one released last month. Instead of being interviewed for teaching positions, I am the interviewer. Instead of seeking out publishers, they are seeking me. This brings a great deal of satisfaction because the need to “prove myself” is no longer acute. I feel comfortable in my own skin.
Now the urgent need is to turn outward. A typical conference day offers endless opportunities to toot my own horn, to tell my own stories, to imagine that my journey is the most interesting of all. But this is the day to sow into others: How can I honor the journeys of my friends? How can I lend courage? What can I celebrate with them? How can I love them well? These famous-people-who-have-become-human have needs and struggles, too. And I’m surrounded by graduate students who are just starting out and could use encouragement. As fellow academics, we offer each other something that’s often not available in our churches and neighborhoods.
Lord, keep me grounded in these heady days. May I be so confident in who you say that I am that I no longer clamor for others’ approval. May I seek excellence so that your name will be honored, not my own. Help me to guard my heart so that I may cultivate faithfulness. Root out all forms of idolatry. Give me eyes to see how to care well for those around me. Lend me mental and physical strength to learn well and love well. In the name of my great teacher, Jesus, Amen.