This post is a follow-up to one I wrote earlier about a transition during my early 30s—leaving my budding career as a college professor to work as a clinical psychologist in the Michigan prison system. I thought of this as a midlife transition. Was it, though? If so, it was part of the Second Journey, which can be distinguished between life’s other journeys as follows: “The first segment—the First Journey—occurs during childhood and youth, and includes seeking one’s place in the world and achieving a sense of identity. At the end of the first journey, the person has entered adulthood. The Second Journey entails a change of direction somewhere midway between young adulthood and elderhood. The person typically encounters some obstacle in the path—in the words of Richard Rohr, there is some sort of falling, some failure or disappointment. This may lead to a totally new direction, or to a different understanding of the path that one is on. The Third Journey occurs near the end of life—whether that end is sensed in youth or the fullness of years—and prepares the person for death.”
I thought that moving from teaching to clinical practice was part of the Second Journey—a change of direction between young adulthood and elderhood. At 32 years of age, I had seen myself as an adult at least since I had taken my first job, three years earlier, maybe even since I began my first internship at age 25. I changed jobs out of dissatisfaction with what I was doing before—or, more accurately, dissatisfaction with what I was not doing, namely clinical work. Doesn’t that amount to a midlife transition, a Second Journey?
I now think I was instead completing my First Journey, though that realization didn’t come to me until I wrote last month about what had happened. As described above, the First Journey consists of finding one’s place in the world and achieving a sense of identity. I may have been an adult at age 32, but I didn’t have a good sense of where I belonged and my identity had some holes in it. I knew where I came from and knew something of my personality, but probably depended too much on outside feedback for self-definition. As to my beliefs, I held them firmly—maybe too firmly. I’ve since decided that beliefs function best if they aren’t either rigid like an oak or unattached like a tumbleweed, but more like bamboo—rooted in place but flexible, able to bend in response to the winds of new information. The immature self demands certainty, but the mature self is comfortable with both knowing and not knowing.
My proto-identity as a college prof was, as I mentioned in the previous post, chosen at least in part out of social anxiety and an associated fear that I wouldn’t be accepted as a practicing psychologist. In other words, I was not very attentive to my calling but quite attentive to my fears. I probably would have been reasonably happy in academia and my identity would have eventually rounded out, but I never would have found the degree of fulfillment I get from helping clients through difficulties. In other words, I think I have found my vocation as Frederick Buechner describes it: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In this I completed the First Journey, finding myself and my place in the world. I subsequently acquired the suppleness of belief that I was lacking. In academia, everyone gives lip service to open-mindedness while in actuality defending their viewpoints as fiercely as a dog defends a bone. In contrast, the starting place in the clinic is openness to how the client has experienced life, and that leads to a greater openness in many respects, so that truth becomes not a dead butterfly to be pinned to a board but something fluttery and elusive: seen, not seen, then seen anew.
Here are a couple of other points about my leaving one career path for another. First, not allowing fear to influence this decision was a significant step forward for me. I’ve had fears every other time I’ve changed jobs, but, other than my first professional job, never allowed them to be the deciding factor. My first day working in the prison, I was given a tour that included climbing to the top of the cellblock containing the most dangerous prisoners besides those in lockdown. I was afraid on the walkway, with the meanest people I had ever seen strolling past, only a railing between me and a 40-foot drop to a cement floor. But I didn’t turn back, then or ever. Second, I don’t think that being a college professor was a mistake, even if I don’t like how I came to the decision. I have fond memories of my time at Spring Arbor. Perhaps it was exactly what I needed to do for a few years so that I could be prepared for the next step. Third, I was struck at the time, and am still struck, that at the prison no one had ever been hired as a part-time psychologist before me, but that a mere month or so before I applied a proposal to hire part-timers managed to survive the bureaucratic sausage-grinder. I concluded then, and still believe, that the way had been paved for me. I resonate with the sentiments that Wendell Berry gave to his character Jaber Crow (in the novel named for that character): “I can remember those early years when it seemed to be I was cut completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led.” Thus it is as I look back: I feel I’ve been led, and am thankful.