In my early twenties, I found an old journal. Wanting to preserve my past, I sat down to type each entry into the computer. But I was jolted out of myself when the phone rang: my teenage brother was in the hospital with significant injuries.
By the time we got to the hospital, he was dead.
What was I doing? I wondered, astonished, Curating myself while loved ones live and die?
I dimly remember those teenage diaries, full of self-absorption and idealism, in which I processed all the voices in life: my father’s seminary textbooks which told me to seek simplicity and prayer, alongside mentors who advised me to invest in myself: volunteer, study, take career tests, plan for college. Church girls who tried to teach me makeup and flirting, and career books which told me to find my calling by studying my own personality and desires.
I was fifteen. I had no idea what calling I should have in life.
So I pushed back. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” I wrote, puzzled. “So why is everyone telling me to focus on developing myself? Won’t that just make me all focused on me?”
To be fair, I pushed back at everything as a teenager. I didn’t buy that driving-a-car thing, or the merits of college. I was skeptical about jobs, and thought romantic relationships just served to perpetuate existing social hierarchies.
“You can’t be against everything,” my father finally said, over dinner one night at Applebees.
“What are you living for?”
I had no idea.
But I had a solution. I’d do more research, surveying everyone around me: What did they find meaningful in life? How did they choose a career? Why find a spouse? Did they believe in God? How could you know these things? I thought some more, and wrote some more.
Now, it feels like that self-investment has paid off, with a career I enjoy and the opportunity to travel. Yet taking time to reflect just materializes the texture of the world I live in… how we’re suspended between our carefully-curated professional selves (that thing you’ve invested in, that image you use to make it) and our relational selves.
I learned early what makes a career path: the right schools and employers, networking and high-profile projects, articles and presentations, strategizing and moving up.
But then there are the people I can invest in… the young librarian who needs help with a project; the nervous senior who wants to meet right now to study content analysis for her thesis. The freshman looking for catalogs of pottery shards; the professor who hopes to post her book online so colleagues in Mexico can read it. The grad student overwhelmed with 400 citations in his dissertation.
Meeting with these folks is one of the best parts of my job as an academic librarian. I enjoy connecting with people, and connecting them with resources and ideas.
But beneath it all, I still feel that tension every day–between success and service, between me and not-me.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Old-school psychologist Eric Erikson told us that this is the challenge of the middle years: to move from self-absorption to generativity, from giving to ourselves to giving to those who come after us. Through work, relationships, and community life, we engage in what David Whyte calls:
“a constant conversation… the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me… the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world.”
And over time, perhaps we build what Jennifer Fulwiler describes as other-focused lives. Using the Catholic idea of vocation (where you choose either a family, the priesthood, or monastic life), she suggest that our commitments structure who we invest in and how we can reach out to others. As Fulwiler writes,
What I found most interesting about this whole concept (and, frankly, shocking and slightly disconcerting at the time), is that your life’s vocation isn’t as much what you do as much as it is whom you serve. This worldview basically said that each of us is put on this earth to serve others, and your vocation is simply a matter of discerning whom you’ll serve and how you’ll serve them.
I think I have more questions than answers here. Where do you invest? Who do you serve? This doesn’t sound at all like what I’ve been sold as success.
And it reminds me keenly of my own place in society. As a well-off white person, I belong to the dominant culture in my country. That makes it easy to give myself away: I’m in a position of privilege. I’m not risking myself, really, if I invest in others. I still have all that cultural capital, that supportive family. My prior investments in education and career don’t really disappear.
But as a woman, it’s harder to serve. It feels like we’ll be taken advantage of. We’re pressured to give in ways that benefit the men and women in higher positions than us… and simultaneously told to push back at by investing more in our selves and professional success. I get so many mixed messages about serving as a woman. And as Nen commented on gender roles, it’s not that she doesn’t want to help others, it’s that she doesn’t want to be obligated to serve simply because of her gender or genitals.
So we’re back to these tensions:
Where is our treasure? Who do we invest in? What paths do we value? When do we develop ourselves, and when do we focus on others? And how do my choices affect those around me, people in my profession and my gender, divided and joined by our social status and race and location and time?
I haven’t got the answers. But as usual, here are the questions…