what to do when I grow up

The Dilemma of My Generation: When “You Can Do Anything!” Means, “You’d Better Make it Good!”

Not many people know this, but for the past several months I have been diligently pursuing applying to PhD programs in cultural anthropology.  Travel, different cultures, and many of the issues of applied anthropology have continued to fascinate me and as I’ve thought about what to do in life I’ve started to lean more towards further study of anthropology. I was thinking of pursuing the PhD because I wasn’t aware of much that could be done with just the master’s and because I thought having the PhD would give me the option of working in the non-profit sector or teaching in a university. I’m all set to take the GRE on Tuesday and over the past few weeks I have started contacting programs and asking more specific questions. Most programs require you to go into them with a very specific research question in mind and many recommend that you’ve already dialogued with a professor who would be willing to serve as your advisor. It’s a lot more work than simply filling out an application.

As I’ve started to get responses from people I’ve contacted I’ve become more and more discouraged. Not only has no one so much as said, “thanks for looking at our program” but they have by and large responded with an attitude like, “Why do you want to this? “ or “Why are you bothering me?” Yesterday I got in touch with a Wheaton grad who recently earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He basically told me that if I get a PhD I will lose my faith, change all of my political views, and be completely unemployable because I’ll be overqualified to work with non-profits and I will be in a very, very competitive pool for the few available university positions that don’t even pay enough to support a family on.

I’ve become overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I am not pursuing this because it’s really the passion of my life and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather that I’m pursuing it because I am so tired of not having goals or something to pursue and if I got into a PhD program that would give me something to spend the next 6-7 years working towards. Which probably is not a good enough reason.

I have a theory about people in my generation. Particularly people who have been blessed with a lot of opportunities. People who have good, supportive families and went to schools like Wheaton and have been told all of their lives that they are exceptional. The theory is this: being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life. Believing that I am extremely gifted and talented and that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I have been given privileges in order to do something amazing makes every ordinary, mundane day seem like a failure. I feel like I am not living up to my potential or to the expectations of all of these people who believe in me. I can see and agree that I have been given opportunities that not everyone gets and despite pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life, I can’t help feeling that I’m squandering the gift of those opportunities. I feel that I have to (and want to) do something cool and significant and amazing with my life, but I have no earthly idea what it is and the feeling is beyond frustrating. Sometimes I feel like God is teasing me. Like he is saying, “I gave you all of these opportunities for a reason, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. But if you don’t figure it out on your own, you will be held accountable.” I know God’s not really like that, but sometimes it definitely feels that way.

It is the moral gem we learned from Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I genuinely feel that if I don’t do something amazing with my life, I will have wasted it. Thank you, John Piper. And so today, as I sit in my cube and design flyers to sell properties and maintain databases, I feel that I am indeed wasting my precious life. Watching it slip past me day after day and week after week as I plod along doing the same thing with very few highs or lows to break the monotony.  I am striving to make the most of my days. To be a good friend, employee, co-worker, and wife. But mostly, this doesn’t feel like enough. Beyond the expectations of others, I’m disappointed in myself. And I am so afraid of life always being this way.  I am afraid I will finish life having seen and done so little. This is not at all a critique of those who do feel fulfilled by staying in one place or working a corporate job or just raising a family. But it is true that I have an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I literally stay awake at night longing to see the canals in Venice and the Greek islands and the Great Barrier Reef and being afraid that I never will. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s true.

Every so often I strike out and choose a course of action from my list of possibilities (writing, non-profit work, academia, kindergarten teacher, pastry chef) and every time I am advised, “You shouldn’t pursue this unless you are 100% certain that this all you want to do in life ever, ever, ever.” And  between the “you can’t” s and the “you shouldn’t” s I’m advised to “wait” until I know. And I feel like I’m never going to just “know.” It’s completely unhelpful and infuriating, particularly when so many of my friends are in grad school or are already teachers or nurses or photographers, pursuing their chosen profession. Meanwhile I actually feel  hindered by all of my options. When you are led to believe that you can be anything you want and do anything you want and you are already an indecisive person (me!), it is a tremendous burden rather than a freedom to be asked to decide or to discern. Ultimately, all I want is to honor God with my life. To do what he has gifted me and called me to do. But I am so tired and so discouraged by doing nothing while I wait for him to tell me. And I’m tired of him not telling me. And I’m tired of feeling that any direction I try to move in is blocked.

This isn’t uplifting, but this is true. I know God has a purpose for my life, but I sure wish he’d share that information. And I know I’m not the only one.

Advertisements