One evening in New York, after dining with a group of strangers from the church I was attending, I sent a friend an impassioned text complaining about the evening. “The worst feeling in the world is being around people and not clicking. When you’re your most charming and entertaining and it just completely falls flat. Worst thing ever! I’d rather be alone!” Yeah, I was being a little melodramatic and whiny but I meant every word.
He responded back, “Right now I really want oatmeal but there isn’t any to be had. But it’s okay because the next time I have oatmeal I’ll just appreciate it that much more.” I’ve been thinking about this simple wisdom after having a similarly disappointing experience last night.
At my parents’ church Sunday, a woman around my age invited me to her small group (if you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s sort of like a book club for Christians that usually meets at someone’s home). She texted me the address and let me know they met on Tuesday nights at 7:15. Since all of my friends in this state live at least an hour away, this seemed like an opportunity to befriend some people closer to me. Even though a college friend was having a concert nearby, I drove out to this small group last night.
In a word, it was awkward.
When I arrived everyone was lingering in the kitchen, mostly standing, munching on crescent rolls, listening to music and hardly chatting. I don’t know about you, but this isn’t really my idea of a good time with strangers, especially when I’m skipping a concert. I tried to spark some lively conversation and instead just got into a bland discussion about Joss Whedon with a guy who hasn’t watched enough to really be well versed in this particular part of geekdom (I know, I’m a little bit of a snob).
Transitioning to a more inviting environment, with comfortable seating, an hour later and launching into the night’s discussion didn’t really improve the experience. I never found myself fully tuning into the conversation or clicking with any of the people. None of them made any real effort to engage me or to interestingly engage back. Those two hours passed by agonizingly sluggishly. I slipped out as quickly and quietly as I could once I was able to.
This experience helped me to better appreciate all of my interaction with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a mission organization on college and university campuses. For the last few weeks I’ve been courting this organization, considering the potential of joining their staff and working with graduate students at UofM. Two weeks ago I attended one of their small groups and this past Saturday I went down to Detroit for a service day helping out an inner city church.
I’ve found the people I’ve met through InterVaristy events both interesting and inviting. At both the small group and service day, I had enjoyable conversations with a number of people. Instead of slipping out the door quickly, I lingered to talk. I drove a woman, who is getting her masters in Creative Writing, home from that small group so that we could continue our conversation. I hung around the church for an extra thirty minutes chatting with the pastor, a former architect.
Disappointing experiences can be unexpected blessings. They can help us to better appreciate good experiences and help us to learn what we want or where we fit. Too often, I underestimate how easy it is to find people I can genuinely connect to. Over the last two years, I have allowed my disillusionment and disappointment with aspects of academia to overshadow the fact that it is also where I am at home.
Before I left Fordham, the head of my department had a final conversation with me where he tried to encourage me to pursue my PhD and a career in academia. I told him that I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with academia. He said, “The older you get the more you realize that hate is another form of love.” That reminded me of a quote, I believe should be attributed to C.S. Lewis, that “hate is just love bleeding.”
Last night confirmed for me, that I should begin the application process to join InterVarsity. I may not be willing to go on for my PhD right now, but I think it’s time for me to return home to academia. On their staff I will also be able to do three of the things I loved most from my last jobs: mentoring others, providing resources and leading a small group of my own.
The lyrics to a Vigilantes song I’ve been listening to seem appropriate here:
There has got to be a deeper meaning
A reason I’m still breathing
In answer to the aching in my soul.
Magically our problems disappear
Vapor in the stratosphere
Our smiles perfectly sincere
The answer suddenly made clear.