I remember my decision to leave physics. I used to think I left because I wasn't capable. This was a destructive childhood tape. (My father died in an automobile accident when I was 4 years old. I was told and expected to be the “man of the family” - a devastating thing to hear; an expectation no little child could ever fulfill.) The truth was, I had no energy for physics. It was tedious. I wanted out. Coupled with this push there was also a pull. I yearned to work with and for oppressed people. Both the push and the pull were vague feelings. I was discontented and antsy. I asked God for assurance. “Please show me some direction in this.” Nothing happened.
Finally, I decided I had to move into this scary transition. We had two little children, and Jean was not then employed outside the home. We were living on income from my post doctoral fellowship at UW, Madison. Then I received a call from John Mulholland, inviting me to attend his seminar for people making radical career transitions. Fortified by this training, I moved forward. When the physics professor for whom I worked discovered my intentions, he decided not to renew my fellowship. Our savings would support us for two months.
In spite of those potential stumbling blocks, I was energized. Secure in an idealistic belief or plain foolhardiness, I continued on. Just before my fellowship expired, a friend at the university employed me part time for three months. He said, “I'm not going to let you starve.”
For nearly two years, I interviewed four people a week in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. It was an incredible experience. I met dynamic folk and developed a network of contacts. I gained a new self-confidence and a clearer idea of what I was trying to accomplish.
I called this an existential leap of faith but didn't even know what that meant. I see now that faith is not a matter of belief but a matter of trust, tempered by a good dose of inspiration and determination. Finally, I was offered a job as the first full-time director of the newly founded Madison Urban Ministry (MUM). I had found a path consistent with my deepest self, and I began a career that was energizing and fulfilling.
I wish I could say that we lived happily ever after, but this was not the case. After twenty-five years, I burned out with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, resigned from MUM and went on disability. After a time of convalescence, I embarked on another “career transition.” I became a volunteer Spiritual Guide and seminar leader at Holy Wisdom Monastery. This time there was no well defined “God” to whom I could pray. My God, who previously had evolved from a strict Father figure to a Friend, evaporated into a cloud of unknowing. Then, as now, there is only the yearning that impels me forward.
Being in touch with God or “in the Flow,” doesn't guarantee happiness or satisfaction. The stories of our faith traditions make this abundantly clear. Moses encountered Yahweh in the burning bush.2 He and the people of Israel met obstacle after obstacle in the Exodus.
Buddha meditated under the Bohdi tree3 and was tempted by demon images of his past. Evil Spirits brought nightmares.
Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the desert after his baptism epiphany. There he questioned the deepest convictions in his Jewish Psyche.4 Many times he was confronted by frustrations and uncertainties. When he prayed in Gethsemane5 near the time of his execution I imagine he feared that his whole ministry would end in failure. More poignant yet, he cried in anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”6
Mohammad thought he was going insane after his revelation from Allah in the cave.7 He was so distraught that he considered suicide. Yet he followed his vision, struggling to unify the squabbling tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.
Dr. King endured trial after trial in the civil rights struggle. He was promoting the failed “Poor Peoples' March” when he was gunned down by an assassin.8
Mother Teresa was tormented by doubts about her faith and the existence of God. During the last half of her life, she told others she felt like a hypocrite.9
If following the yearnings of our deepest selves results in challenges such as these, why shouldn't we just “go with the crowd?” Why not try to fit in and win the game by the rules of the dominant culture? Why on earth would Jesus say, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it?”10 Is there something more important than “making it?” For me, the answer is, “Yes.” If my life has no meaning - if I justify my existence by how I'm perceived by others - if I spend my life just 'putting in my time,' I'm existing in a kind of living death.”
I had a friend, Henry,11 who was gay. He was remarkably talented, but continued to search for the right job or the right partner. He told me once that he and his LGBT friends felt like outcasts, particularly when religious people condemned them. Henry left town, and I lost track of him. Several years later, I asked a friend about him. “Henry died.” I asked, “How?” The friend responded, “Henry was diabetic; and he didn't take care of himself. He stopped taking his medication and ate foods that weren't good for him.” Then he added, “I met Henry's partner at the funeral. He was heartbroken.”
I imagine that Henry found his life intolerable. The negative opinions of others became his self-definition. He felt unworthy and undesirable as a person. His 'living death' became an actual death. What a waste. Henry had so much promise. The prejudice he experienced prevented him from engaging his authentic self.
Life is difficult. It is filled with challenges. Some feel downright evil. It's my experience that God, using traditional language, doesn't save me from challenges. Living in tune with my authentic self may even complicate my life. The journey, then, is not about preserving biological existence. It's about a deeper dimension of living. It's about engaging the energy that animates creation. It's about Living with a capital “L.” It's about living with Soul.
- See I Gotta Be Me - Part I
- Moses and the burning bush reference Exodus 3:1-15
- See the story of Buddha's enlightenment <http://www.waupun.k12.wi.us/Policy/other/dickhut/religions/50%20Story%20of%20Buddha.htm>
- See Mark 1:12-13 (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 1-13)
- See Matthew 26:36-56 (Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46)
- See Mark 15:34 Matthew 27:46
- See Luke 17:33 New English Translation
- Not his real name