By Ellen Doster
"I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing with my life next year," I told my Wednesday night small group two Novembers ago. Many of my friends were applying for internships, jobs, and grad school. I felt like I was behind, like I'd been lazy in not having life after college figured out.
I knew I wasn't ready for grad school. I had been mulling over the idea that I was maybe being called to pursue discernment for ordination, but despite four years in a college that was a stone's throw from an Episcopal seminary, I had no idea where to begin. I was scared I was going to get stuck.
"Have you heard of the Episcopal Service Corps?" one of the group, a seminarian, asked. "I have a friend who'll be here at the seminary next year, and she went through the ESC program in Chicago."
Again, despite four years at an Episcopal Church-owned university, I'd never heard of it.
After doing a little research, it felt right. The service, the intentional community, the discernment - here was an environment where I would have the resources I needed. I applied, and by February I found myself committed to the Servant Year program in Philadelphia. So many doors and opportunities had opened up, and I felt great affirmation in my decision to pursue this course and wherever it would lead. But as exciting and daunting as the prospect of moving to a completely new place where I knew absolutely no one was, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I'd gotten the next year planned out, so I could just relax and finish my senior year without too much worry.
And that was frustrating, because I didn't want to be worried about the future, uncertain as it was. I wanted to be able to tell people, "I'm not sure what's next, but I'm excited," without being overwhelmed by the fear of being left out and left behind. I balked at the thought of feeling like I was just doing what I needed to do to get through to the next stage of my life, whatever that's supposed to be. I wanted this to have purpose. It's not that I was doing anything for the wrong reasons, it was just that so many years in a system that makes no time or room for anyone who can't keep up the pace had conditioned me into that feeling of relief. It's a vicious cycle of anxiety, building tension, a decision, and then sweet relief.
Society rarely gives us the time we need. At the age of eighteen, we have to have a plan, a road map to the future. We have to get our degrees, our certifications, and just pray that we made the right choice before we've gotten any meaningful experience under our belts. We might take a little time off from "the plan" to do a bit of soul-searching, but the pressure to get back on track inevitably and all too soon falls back into place.
I've been in the Servant Year program for about six months now, and my time here in Philadelphia has so far been wonderful, rewarding, and at times frustrating. I've been given time and space to just be present in my service and not worry about where I'm going to be in two years. But it's that time of year again when we start to freak out.
Why haven't I heard back from those grad programs?
Will I get any job interviews?
I still have no idea what to do next. Will I be able to get by until I do?
It's a time of anxiety and pressure. I've made the decision to accept a second-year offer from Servant Year, and I'm really excited about the new opportunities next year will bring. But that hasn't fully assuaged my fears. Is my discernment on track as it should be? Am I rushing, or am I falling behind? The truth is, I can't skip the uncertain times of my life, the times when I'm "in transition." And if I want to be really honest, life is by nature transitory, and I shouldn't want certainty at the price of stagnation.
If this year has taught me anything, it's that if I treat this or any time in my life as just a transition, I won't learn anything. I won't grow. I won't reap any meaning from these experiences. I don't see my work or my community as just a stop on the road to my "real" life. I feel just as called to be here in this place at this time just as strongly as I feel any other call.
Last summer just a couple of weeks before I moved to Philadelphia, I met that friend of a friend who had worked in the ESC, just as she was moving to Sewanee to begin her time in seminary. I couldn't help but wonder if I would be in that same position in a few years. We were both at the threshold of a new journey.
"I hope this is okay, but I wrote this note for you," she said, giving me a hug and presenting me with a little envelope.
I keep this note with me, pulling it out and reading it from time to time when I feel myself growing anxious or fearful. I find this prayer especially timely during this season of Lent, and it reminds me be present in my work and my community as it is now.
A prayer for a major life transition:
Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you the stirrings inside me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and to follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door. Amen.- Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, page 552
Ellen Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark's Church.