I’ve been thinking about the off-hand comment you made in our seminar last week – when you exclaimed (I think, in frustration with how personally challenging you’re finding the material we were discussing) that your beloved subject matter has become far more complex and nuanced than you ever imagined. And then you said what I think is a key thing: “I feel like my whole world is tilting off balance!”
I want to assure you that you’re not alone in those feelings! I continue to have them myself! You, like many postgrads, begin your course of study with one view, whether that’s of the world or yourself or your subject matter or of how your degree is going to fit into your career plans. And then, at some point in your studies, it feels like you enter a fog, a mental or emotional phase of uncertainty, a realm of mind and/or heart where all there seems to be is questions (and, hence, my theme in these “letters” this year). Yes, you start to feel like your questions are starting to question you – and maybe you don’t feel like you have an answer. If you’ve never been in a state like this before, it can feel deeply unsettling on many levels!
J. Robert Clinton, who teaches Christian leadership at Fuller Seminary in California, writes about episodes like these as “boundary periods.” These are the experiences of uncertainty between periods of clarity and they are naturally occurring in the developmental stages of human life. He encourages us to patiently use these times of disorientation to reflect back on what has brought us to the present and to discern how we might be being invited into a newly unfolding phase of life or work or our self-awareness.
Others before and since have tried to put a developmental theory framework around these times in the fog, in uncertainty, in questions. The developmental psychologist James Fowler wrote a whole book on the “Stages of Faith” and how we progress as we age from primal, to conventional, to reflective, and ultimately to conjunctive (or universalizing) forms of faith.
At the Center for Action and Contemplation in the USA, both the Roman Catholic Richard Rohr and the protestant Brian McLaren have written books on the two stages of life and faith and the stages of faith development McLaren calls simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony.
What all these theorists suggest is that your experience of “the fog” can be very normal and natural. The experience of being a postgrad: of pursuing an interest, a research question, an area of study which then plunges you (maybe even quite unexpectedly and profoundly) into deep doubt and uncertainty isn’t automatically a sign that you’re going to fail or that you’ve lost your faith in the process. In fact, this might be a time of intense growth and development for you – in mind, heart, and faith!
So, what do we do when these seasons of “fog” roll in or you’re gripped by questions and uncertainties about your faith or your future while studying? How does one continue moving forward in faith and in scholarship when you’re grabbed and questioned by questions? I would like to encourage you in three areas:
- Take a break and return to gratitude. Sometimes we’re simply exhausted from the mental work and it’s taking a toll on our body. Can you make a cup of tea and look out the window for five minutes or go for a fifteen-minute walk each day? Do you need to call up a friend for dinner this week? Do you need a realweekend? What can you do to take a break? And whatever amount of time your break is, how can you return to a posture of thanksgiving for the good things and opportunities that are already in your life? It’s easy to always be working in the present as a strategy to set yourself up for the future. But then the good things in the present can be missed. What in your present life can you be thankful for?
- Be honest with yourself and one other trusted friend. Sometimes I’ve tried to manage my feeling of being overwhelmed by ignoring it, pretending it isn’t there, telling everyone that “I’m good” when I’m actually not. When you find yourself in the fog, it’s ok to admit that to yourself. It’s good to be honest about how you actually feel, whether that’s in your heart, your mind, or your body. Accept the present reality. Lean into feeling it as much and as long as you can tolerate. And then, if you have someone in your life whom you can trust, share a bit with them about this. Let the mask slip a bit. Allow someone else whom you feel safe with to also see you where and who you are.
- Take courage that the fog (or the darkness or the questions) doesn’t have the final say in your research, writing, life, or faith! Life and life with God are a process. Research and writing don’t all happen in one instantaneous flash. Day by day, step by step, stage to stage, or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18“glory to glory”, we make our journey coram deo (before the face of God). You can trust Philippians 1:6, that what God has begun in you, God will bring to completion (which isn’t necessarily the same as everything turning out as you would prefer). You can take up your work and your faith each day, sometimes with the joy of renewed perspective piercing through the fog, because God is at work in and through you, even in the fog.
All three of these suggestions are elaborations of what we typically call “prayer.” I thought it might be helpful to describe what I mean by “prayer” in a bit more detail because too often prayer becomes an escape rather than a deep acknowledgement and acceptance of what is, even when it’s not what we want. This is some of what prayer can look like when you’re being interrogated by questions: be grateful to God, allow God to hear your honesty, and receive from God the courage to get back up and continue to faithfully pursue your calling with refreshment, even if the clarity hasn’t fully returned yet.
I wish you all the best as you wrap up this academic year!