Humility as the Scent to Track

Lately I’ve felt bombarded from within and from without with the awareness of many options, all of them a lot of work to cultivate. And I’m heavily aware, with the particular ferocity that arrives in middle age, that “things could be better” — that things are not promising and hopeful as they were in one’s younger years.

There are so many voices, each of them with a compelling witness in their own way. Think of the classic Benedictine commitment to stability of place. This suggests an attitude of always making do with our present circumstances. Yet think also of how Jesus is always calling us beyond our comfort zones — even to leaving behind all that’s defined us, in order to respond to a call to discipleship that promises even more than it asks.

It’s easy to follow a path which always feels growth-filled, isn’t it? Many humanities professors miss their own undergraduate and graduate school years, when they could focus on learning and not on having to grade or teach — a golden age (full of plenty of stress and uncertainty still), when we had time to read and write. There’s a much more purgatorial kind of growth that comes with becoming a teacher.

Visiting Chicago for a meeting this past weekend, I found myself once more missing living there. And I think of how my old roommate is in the last year of her post-doctoral program in Baltimore, and said if she doesn’t get a tenure-track job rather than only adjunct opportunities, she’ll change her career direction and stay in Baltimore, a city she likes. She has her dream job now, in her post-doc, and is glad that she could have it at least once in her life.

But it’s hard to seriously contemplate uprooting oneself and/or one’s family when one has a job, and no deep conviction that a job in one’s field elsewhere — even if it could be found — would actually be significantly better.

And then there are those evaluative voices, coming from opposite sides of the spectrum–encouraging either presumption or despair: “It’s too bad you’re not fulfilling your potential in your career.” “Who are you to think you deserve any better than what you have?” “Why don’t you work even more hours in the day, so you have time for the deeper kinds of work you want to do, and give up the few hours you take for pointless recreation or rest?” “Why can’t you really relax when you put down your work, instead of worrying about how much you’re failing in your responsibilities?”

It’s easy to start to watch the stream of these inner evaluations, of oneself or of another human life. It’s amazing how quickly we can turn from serenity to cacophony once more — or from serenity to a depressed feeling about our lives. We can be perceptive, and yet suddenly find ourselves lost in a wilderness once more.

No doubt I could be making some sort of  better choice about how to nurture my particular senses of vocation; I know only that I’m happier when I can do so, but that the constraints of my current life just don’t permit it. And like a friend of mine who just couldn’t quite bring himself to apply for another job, despite feeling like his current one has various levels of frustration, I too can not be convinced that a change in job would be anything other than exhausting, uprooting, and requiring rebuilding friendships and social capital.

Every place has the holy (not only another, better place), and a sense of direction as well. The only clarity I have thus far this Lent is the old familiar teaching that we move in no direction whatsoever without beginning in humility. And sometimes that humility takes simply the form of letting oneself remember that one is not the center of the universe — that a desire for status and prestige are never the right bearings to go by, however much they may accompany our genuine callings.

We can begin again and again with this humility — with all the ways we realize we are separating ourselves from others in the name of our own dreams and ambitions.

Do you usually feel at home in your surroundings, at ease with your own interface with the world around you? Why do some find this a challenge, while others do not? Humility, groundedness, can accompany both sorts of people or experiences, no doubt — leading those at home with themselves to be touched by the experiences of those who are not, and those who feel not fully at home to remember that they are not truly separated out.

Humility draws us away from both presumption and despair, reminding us — like the Buddha facing his own temptation to despairingly believe he didn’t belong — to touch the earth and say: “I belong here!” And so do you.

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