What does it look like to follow your own path, especially when so much feels broken? Feelings aren’t facts, yes, but actually a lot IS broken, and fractured. It is very difficult for me to see myself having a future. I am a black, newly out as non-binary (oh, hey there!) human trying to pursue a career as ministry chaplain in a religious institution where people like me aren’t the norm. I’m an underrepresented, marginalized person in an institution that often implies and demonstrates that the lives of people like me are unintelligible but tolerable at best, and less human at worst.
There’s always gonna be that person who tells me “you’re the future of the Church” or “well, make your own path”, “start your own space”…. as if that solves the question. It’s well-intentioned and meant to be supportive and kind. But, it’s another form of bypassing. An avoidance of the process. Making your own path is still uncertain and it is still hard and scary. It doesn’t solve the problem of the reality that I am underrepresented and I am struggling to imagine a future for myself.
So again, I will ask: what does a future look like for me?
It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself ever since I moved here. I finished up my final exams last night, meaning a large expanse of free time has opened up before me. This is wonderful in a lot of ways, because now, I have time to do much of what feels aligned with my spirit. It is like a wide open valley where there is no end in sight. But, one that I could still get distracted and lost in. How do I spend this free time when, again, I don’t know what my future could be?
A flood of anxiety hit me as soon as I took off my headphones and shut the door post-finals. It’s the kind of anxiety where you have this vague sense that Something Bad Is Going to Happen. Where is the sense of doom coming from? Is it from the uncertainty of my financial situation? Do I have enough time to figure out what I need to? Will I have enough time to prepare for the next semester? It is the kind of anxiety I often find myself trying to avoid by scrolling endlessly through Instagram. Which, honestly, doesn’t help given that a website that shows everyone’s highlights can often be fuel for lighting the fire of comparison, envy and self-doubt.
In fact, I am writing this after noticing how I react internally when others seem to be succeeding in ways which I am unable to do right now. Someone else finishes their semester with straight As. All is well for them and they know it. It sends me into a panic. I struggle to hold their success with my failures.
Or, the other day, at the annex of the divinity school, I found myself being introduced by married women recounting how many hours they spent on a plane to their honeymoon, Minutes later, a married man popped out of nowhere and announce “my baby was born!” I abruptly told them it was nice to meet them and came up with the excuse that I had to go study, in hopes that the conversation wouldn’t have to turn to the subject of my own life and how I don’t really know what’s going on right now.
I’m not sure how much it is my personality type (#justINFJthings) or my anxiety… or how much I have the right to feel this way, but life seems to be moving for a lot of people in ways that it doesn’t seem to be doing for me. My experience arriving to Atlanta and starting seminary has felt tumultuous, from beginning to finish. I have failed so much: under-borrowing so much for school that I put myself in a financial crisis, getting my heartbroken twice by the same person, ending the semester with multiple Cs, and my car finally throwing in the towel. And yeah, you can count all of the good things that have happened in between: the new friends that I have made, the fact that I have even been able to make it to seminary, even when I didn’t think I would, and the reality that my old friends continue to show up for me despite the distance, in the small ways that they can. But overall, it’s been really hard.
So what of a future? A future of stability and purpose and warmth feels impossible to imagine right now.
The other day, I told a friend that I love Advent. That I’m a hoe for Advent. That I wish Advent was all of the time. Advent is a season where you don’t have to tell yourself that someone has it worse. You don’t have to usher gratitude out of nowhere. You don’t have to have your shit together. Actually, it seems like one of the few times of the year where you don’t have to have your shit together, and it becomes okay to not be okay. And on the third week, you get to have joy to mix it up a bit. Advent is not all doom and gloom and sadness and uncertainty. Advent makes space for both. And that is why I love it so much. I’m not sure what I will do when Advent is gone.
Will my failures be too burdensome for company to hear once Advent is over? How will my community respond to my life right now when I still don’t have the job or the car? When I still don’t have the relationship where I don’t have to play small? When I’m still estranged from a family who isn’t really interested in getting to know me? When I am expected to have to find some silver lining?
How do you make art, a path, a life when everything is broken? (Like, literally all your equipment is broken, so you have to go to the library to write this all on a computer that’s intact?) But that is the creative act, isn’t it? To make something out of what you already have, to make something out of nothing. Somewhere, I picked up this idea that creativity is for the rich, for those who can afford it. Those who can afford to buy paint, hire consultants, pay for spiritual directors, pay to make their life all beautiful and to make sense. Maybe I got it from Instagram, again. Or art school where there’s a heckin’ ton of money and privilege. Maybe a combination of both, where you don’t really see the messy process, all of the failures and heartbreak. You only “hear” about all of the sweat and tears… but we are still deceived, only to look at the happy ending.
If I ever become a chaplain, and if I am ever in a Warm-and-Loving-Home-Relationship-Where-I-Don’t-Have-to-Play-Small (TM), I hope never to do the disservice of erasing the process or acting as if I was entitled to this. Not everyone is trustworthy enough to see my process, especially the painful parts. My path includes a lot of hardship: a lot of fractured relationships and fear. Bad intentions assumed of me. Mistakes that have set me back. A childhood that set me up to fail relationally.
But so many of us have been able to make something out of what is in front of us. And, who I am to look at what I have and say I cannot make anything when my Creator made a universe out of nothing?
My curiosity is one of my greatest gifts.
But my curiosity has also been the subject of ridicule by those who are afraid of its power.
My curiosity allows me to see below the surface of a matter. I have always been interested in knowing more and looking deeper.
Words absolutely matter to me. I have no shame in that. Explaining, exposing, revealing, creating understanding, communicating vision… these are things that words can do. And these are the things that we love about artists: they help us see things in new ways. They reveal hidden things to us that are difficult to articulate. The deep care that writers, musicians, poets, artists give to words… that is what we love about artists.
I notice that in conversation, my ask of “what do you mean?”can stack rather high in comparison to some of my peers. I don’t ask the question in judgement, but in curiosity. I do wish to know what it is that the person I am speaking with means.
“What do you mean?” I say. I am gauging how different and how same we are.
I always appreciate it when “what do you mean?” is asked back to me. I feel like the difference between our experience is recognized. I worry about being in a relationship for months and years without ever having someone ask me “what do you mean when you say that?” “how are you using that word?” “what does that sentence mean to you?” “why did you say that?”
Words are not just niceties and embellishments. Explaining is not always a weakness. It can be a sign of respect for difference of experience. (I realize however, that I learned to “over-explain” myself to people who did not share any curiosity about our difference, who only wanted to impose sameness. I do not find over-explaining to be empowering. I take it as a sign then that curiosity is not reciprocated in the relationship in the way that I had hoped. But, I digress.) Using words that no one understands without explaining them is pretentious.
Spoken language shape how we make sense of our lives in relationship to each other. We are social. The spoken matters us much as the unspoken languages and ways we send messages to each other, such as our body language.
When we speak, we often do so in order to be understood. Sometimes, the meanings of the words we use are agreed upon. On other occasions, we may have different meanings for the same words, or different. It is why we argue about words like “intersectional”, why we fight for the contexts, histories and stories to be recovered. It is why we have so many songs and books and art about “love”. It is why you can have the same author write vastly different love stories. Some words are more complex than others. Words like “love” are not self-evident. How we individually understand “love” is shaped by what we personally experience and the histories that shape that personal experience.
I think that at the root of some of our interpersonal conflict is the assumption that we enter the relationships we find ourselves in with the same meaning for the words we use. What do we mean when you say that you want a “break”? A person can have the word “break” introduced into the relationship. Their understanding of the word, the meaning attached to it, can induce a sense of panic and doom. Or, the word can bring a sense of relief and peace. (And then of course… a “break” from WHAT?) Why would one word, the same word provoke different reactions? Because they mean different things to different people. We bring our contexts into the words we use. Whether these relationships are with co-workers, friends, lovers… we often come with the assumption that we always see eye to eye when we use particular words.
As children, we come to learn what words mean by watching the connections between the actions of the people around us with the words that they use. My context informs what I think about when I hear the word “mother” or “love”. “Mother” might bring me feelings of sadness, while “mother” may bring feelings of warmth to someone else. I have had to create new and life-giving meanings for words that felt painful and confusing.
We must seek to understand and stay curious. It is not always easy to be curious, but it can help us love ourselves and others better. Curiosity can be vulnerable. We have to have empathy when we speak and words are not immediately understood. We need the humility to remember that we do not always know, but we can continue to be curious. We cannot simply dismiss those who desire to understand by saying that words matter more to someone else than others. It matters to all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. We all have stakes involved in matters that involve words, language, speaking. Some of us are simply more aware of the stakes, and the possibility of misunderstanding, even in the use of similar words.
Let’s be curious about what others mean, how they are using words, what they are envisioning, imagining… what they could possibility be re-living. Let us find the humility to hear the other; to find the difference when we are prone to assume the same, and to find the similarities when it is harder for us to imagine that someone else could share anything with us.