I recently published an article entitled “Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers.” The article drew from my dissertation research and examined the ways in which first year teachers taught and lived in harmony with their reasons for becoming educators. Little did I know how soon after publishing that article that I’d be called upon to live out its central message.
Great writers and speakers urge you to follow your heart regardless of the cost. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer (2000) describes his journey to founding the Center for Courage and Renewal. On that path he followed byways and detours that led him, circuitously, to realizing his purpose.
Cheryl Strayed (2011) conjures the “fathomless bird of truth” who sings to you, and flutters violently if you step off your path. She says, “it is our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.”
I can think of countless others who encourage us to “follow our heart” and “fulfill our purpose.” I think I even saw these words on a tea bag recently.
However, these great, wise, compassionate poets (and well-meaning tea bags) seem to have one thing in common: they’re telling us to follow our hearts from the safe bank on the other side of a teeming river. They describe, in retrospect, the fear and courage it takes to “make a structure composed of our own moral code, “ and to live a life in harmony with their purpose and deepest desires. But the message is muffled somehow, wreathed in the certainty of a happy ending. We know it worked out for them. We can relax in the message, understanding that it took them somewhere alive and transcendent and fully their own.
I am writing to you from the first few steps into the river, the other bank all but invisible, and I can tell you it is a raw place of fear and courage. I think this, a message from the midst of transition, is an important perspective and one we rarely bring forth. This is the defatalized success story, poised in that moment of uncertainty where I’ve left the safe space of the known and look ahead to a yawning unknown, trusting fully to myself to find the right path.
What happened (is happening) is this: a change in leadership at my work caused my role to shift into something that looks, feels, and tastes anathema to my reasons for stepping into education. While listening to the new leadership outlining their vision and the part they need me to play in that vision, and I felt a tug at my insides. I dismissed it at first but it grew more insistent. My bird of truth was awake, agitated, and letting me know it.
My first thought was, “maybe I can just grind this out for another year while I find something else.” My next thought was, “maybe I can find something else sooner so I’ll have an excuse to leave.” This seemed reasonable, so I looked around at other institutions, other “safe” jobs that I could jump to, that I thought of as a, “just for now” option, a stepping stone to solid ground.
But I’m done with stepping stones, I realized. I don’t want another “sort of” fit. I am unwilling to compromise on this, the way I choose to be in the world. I would read job descriptions and think, “I could maybe do that. It’s got to be better than the role they have for me here.” But the whole time I knew that “better than what I have now” is a far, far cry from the joy, expansion, meaningful challenges, and aliveness that accompanies following my heart. I also knew that I knew that, and in knowing I couldn’t pretend otherwise. According to Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), someone acting in bad faith is either denying her true nature or deceiving herself about her true nature. If I stayed put or traded out for some tepid version of my intentions, I’d be doing both of those things he warns against.
So I leapt. In a wildly irresponsible or courageous (depending on your stance) move, I, with no backup plan, told the leadership that the impact I want to have on education is divergent from the role they’ve outlined for me. I would be resigning.
And so I write to you now from that first, headlong splash into the river. I’d like to tell you that I stand steadfast and resolute, striding with purpose and fearlessness in the direction of my dreams, but the truth is I spend some days caroming from crippling anxiety to heady exhilaration, from calm, serene stillness to feverish busyness. I didn’t jump in knowing I had the strength to get to the other side; I jumped in hoping I’d develop the strength as I went.
The move, however (perhaps because of its invitation to court fear), has been extremely generative. I want to share some of the textures and realizations that have surfaced so far for me:
An Act of Creation
I’ve found that, far from being an act of willfulness or destruction, the decision to leave my job has played out as an act of creation.
In defining that which is not right for me, I came hard up against the question, “what is right for me?” Where, in the words of Frederick Buechner (1973), is the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? In answering that question I have begun to build a vision for my life that responds, honestly, gently, and without judgment, to both my strengths and my limitations. In so doing I’ve learned more about who I am at my core, which has been invaluable at guiding me in all other aspects of my life. Answering the question “what is right for me” is a lifelong process that cannot and should not be rushed. I know that whatever is next may be another step in the evolution of my identity, but with equal certainty I know there will be no final arrival.
This understanding has helped me cultivate more comfort with ambiguity and a delight in the process of becoming. I realize also, in a flash of paradox so confusing it can only be truth, that who I am now is as fully whole and unbroken as the me who will exist in ten years, and the me who existed ten years ago. I am not some unfinished product on my way toward completion, but a whole person in the process of deepening my own self-awareness and acceptance.
Barriers are Straw Men
I recently engaged in a meditation practice that, for two weeks, asked me to become aware of self-defeating thought patterns. These would sound like, “I could never do that because…” or, “I’ll never be ____ enough for…” I was shocked at the number of times per day that thoughts like this would pop up in my head. I was even more shocked to realize how these thoughts drove my daily existence until I was living by dictums of fear, constraint, and a perception of safety.
These defeating thoughts will work differently on every person, but for me, when weighed against a life of empowerment, fulfillment, and joy, they began falling like so many straw men. I worried about practical things- money, health insurance, retirement, if I was doing right by my cat. I even fretted about losing my phone plan (this last fuselage was, perhaps, the most desperate effort of my subconscious to gain back control of my brain). But, while recognizing the importance of these needs (phone plan notwithstanding) I trusted that if I stepped toward my purpose the logistics would be easier to work out than my ingrained thought patterns wanted me to believe. So far, they have been. Shockingly so.
I have not been idle, but I have also been fighting the urge to immerse myself in logistics, details, job applications, and following every possibility that makes itself known to me. I know that, in my fear, I am in danger of scrabbling around in “worst case scenario” logistics to the point where I lose sight of why I got myself into this glorious mess in the first place. I didn’t launch myself here to end up right back where I was, and I am coming to understand the importance of setting aside swaths of time to reflect, read, write, contemplate, process, and simply be.
In these quiet moments I’m discovering that the world will powerfully reflect my path if I let it. The threads I’ve followed that would have been disastrous petered out and never gained traction in my life. Instead of railing against this, I’ve counseled myself to relinquish attachment to any one thing and listen for what is surfacing. These are sometimes subtle, sometimes unrecognizable, and if I wasn’t sitting in stillness and openness I would miss their signs. I believe this practice of stillness will be important, not just for this transition but for the rest of my life. If I believe that I am always in the process of becoming, then these invitations will be continual and lifelong.
Making Art of Your Life
When working with teachers I ask, “are you creating a space that is fully unique? Are you doing that which only you could do?” This, I believe, is what elevates teaching to art.
Recently I’ve been asking myself these same questions. Each time I make a decision from the deepest part of me I can see myself reflected in the world. In learning to recognize my own unique voice I suddenly become more visible to myself beyond the world of right and wrong and the flimsy, constructed identities I’ve lived by. In taking this leap toward fulfillment and purpose, I am allowing myself to emerge and slowly, through patience, love, stillness, and time, I am resolving into myself.