I had big plans for last week.
Jim and I were finally done moving, so I planned to get most of the remaining boxes sorted through and organized.
Universities have started posting ads for academic jobs, so I was going to work on drafts of my cover letter, teaching statement, and other application materials.
I’d gotten feedback from my advisor about an article I had written. I hoped to start making revisions, so I could send a new draft to her and a couple other colleagues in the next week.
Yes, I had big plans… but then I caught a cold.
Colds may be the most annoying sort of illness. You’re not sick enough to feel socially justified in taking the day off to sleep, yet you’re not well enough to accomplish anything when you do attempt to work. Basically, you’re just left with a guilt-laden crapshoot. Or “cough shoot.” You know you should keep going and save the time off for when you’re actually “properly” sick. But as your brain turns to some form of oatmeal-eqsue mush, and you know deep down that your efforts aren’t going to get you anywhere, and you would have been better off staying in bed with Nalgene full of water and a box of off-brand Kleenex, thank you very much.
Needless to say, my week of “grand plans” was all for naught. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday and Wednesday into Thursday with no relief in sight, I accepted the fact that my dreams and schemes would have to wait until Monday. Friday ended up being a runny-nosed wash, as I zombied my way through previous commitments to collapse at the weekend’s finish line.
My goals had been big, but not overly ambitious. In a week of normal health and productivity, I could have easily accomplished them. Yet for one cosmic—or microbial—reason or another, this was not a normal sort of week.
In between naps and doses of Nyquil, I have caught myself coming back to this question: what, if anything, can I actually control? I’d set goals and created a schedule to meet them, only to have a cold “knock me out cold.” Terrible pun intended.
Sure, we can optimize our circumstances all we want, making sure that we take enough vitamins, get enough rest, and do enough exercise. But all that preparation can’t guarantee that we won’t get sick. We can take perfect care of ourselves, and a renegade germ will still get the best of us.
This fact doesn’t just apply to colds; the limitations of our control affect every area of our lives. Say, for instance, that you’re a parent. You take care of your kids, you try to raise them “right,” and you remind them often that you love them. Still, there’s no guarantee they will ultimately love you back. Or say that you’re single, and you hope to get married one day. You can put yourself in all the “right” places, try out all the dating apps, join a church with lots of eligible singles, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet your soulmate.
Or here’s an example from my life right now: I can get a PhD—the highest possible degree—from a top-ranked university, I can (maybe) even get accolades on my dissertation, and (if I’m lucky) publish an article or two. I can do all the “right” things like teach classes and receive research fellowships and serve on university committees to demonstrate my commitment to the historical profession. Yet there’s no guarantee I’ll become a professor at my dream school—or any school, in fact. Statistically speaking, there’s a high probability that I won’t. Because even if I had the “perfect” application, the most stellar teaching record, and the most outstanding research, dozens of other factors come into play. Department politics, needing to hire a more diverse candidate, or the idea that my research doesn’t quite “fit” are just a few possible examples of the infinite things that might get in the way. As an applicant, I have no idea about these extra factors and, even if I were aware, I wouldn’t be able to change them.
This begs the question: what can we do when we are ultimately in control of so little? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question during the last couple years not just while applying for jobs. I’ve encountered health challenges (not limited to the common cold), I suffered an unexpected heartbreak last winter, and I’ve watched family and friends struggle with illness, loss, and change. So many parts of our lives are so out of our control. How can we respond authentically to the unknown, admitting that it feels difficult or scary, while also having hope?
I think this is where faith comes in. Not the trite or cheesy “pretend your problems aren’t that bad so you can smile and say that ‘God is good’” kind of faith. I mean the faith that accepts that our challenges are real and that our feelings are legitimate, and then chooses with the help of God Himself to move forward all the same. Oswald Chambers captured this kind of faith well when he wrote that “faith is unutterable trust in God, trust which never dreams He will not stand by us.” The book of Hebrews gives a similar definition, saying that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But one of my favorite descriptions of this kind of trust from a novel by Maria Semple. Describing faith as riding a bus to an unknown destination, she writes, “If you truly believed you had a benevolent bus driver, and you were certain he was taking you somewhere good, you could just settle in and appreciate the ride.”
That, my friends, is what I am praying for the grace to do: trust that God really is the “benevolent bus driver” of my life and that He is taking me somewhere good, so I can settle in and appreciate the ride. I have some room on the plastic seat next to me. Will you join me?