The Pearl, vol. 74: What holds us back

Dear Oysters, 

This past Thursday, I rose at 5:45am. I made a cup of tea, walked to the Metro in the dark, and found my way to an anonymous, beige suite on the 9th floor of a downtown office building. I put all my belongings in a tiny locker, sat down at a desktop computer cubicle, and took the GRE—a widely-required admissions test for graduate school.

I took the test because Catholic University, where I'm hoping to pursue my master's degree in social work next year, uses it as a metric for scholarship consideration. When I finished the test, I immediately learned that I'd achieved the score I wanted. I walked out of the building with a feeling of accomplishment, joy, and excitement that I haven't experienced in a long time. "I DID IT!!!" I texted Susan. 


But that moment—including the celebratory beer—almost didn't happen. In fact, three weeks earlier, I was on the verge of canceling my GRE appointment altogether.  

Back in October, when I first realized that I could attend Catholic—a reputable social work program just a few miles from our home—I was thrilled. I announced my intention on social media, and to friends and family. I started studying math, sitting outside with my textbooks in the warm Mid-Atlantic autumn. Feeling a sense of alignment, I started listening to podcasts about social work and diving deeper into the therapy-oriented books I already read regularly. 

And then, without really understanding what was happening, I felt the wind go out of my sails. Inner voices started hissing at me with their doubts and reservations. You're just trying to escape your failures as a musician, one particularly ugly narrative went. This is never going to work, another chimed in. Nothing you do will make you feel like less of a loser than you do right now. Consciously, at the time, I couldn't perceive the words of these inner messages. Instead, I just felt a cloud of doubt, heaviness, and confusion settle over me. Quietly, I stopped studying math. I started telling people I wasn't so sure anymore.

In December, as I shared with you, I discovered the work of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, like his friend Parker Palmer, was an advocate for "letting your life speak"—listening carefully to the feelings, signs, conversations, and experiences that gently point the way towards calling, towards vocation. In spite of my discouragement around returning to graduate school, this concept planted itself as a seed within my heart.

On Wednesday, December 28, two things happened. First, I got my hair cut in D.C. for the first time. My stylist was an incredibly smart and charming young, gay, black man named Collin. Over my hour-long appointment, we chatted about gender, drag queen culture, and the challenges that young, queer people of color still face. I walked out of my appointment feeling like maybe—as a someday-social worker—I could have something to offer to those young people we spoke about. 

Less than an hour later, I was on a coffee date with my friend Lou. This was our first real hangout. Out of the blue, Lou mentioned that his girlfriend Rachel was about to begin her MSW at Catholic. 

I heard a thunk, way deep down in my psyche. I'd been considering that program too, I told Lou, but I had stopped studying. That ship had sailed.

Hadn't it?

That night, I burst into tears trying to explain to Susan why I'd stopped studying—and why I wanted to start again. I realized that I'd been obeying some pretty dark inner messages. "It's like there's a monster whispering in my ear," I cried to her. "Saying that nothing I do will ever make a difference."

That settled it. I'd uncovered the deep pessimism—and frankly, the profound hopelessness—that lay behind my ambivalence. And there was no way I wanted that energy driving my life. The next day, I busted out my math books again and didn't look back. 

I'm sharing this story not because there's anything particularly enlightening or special about it, but because I think it demonstrates how challenging it can be to move in a new direction. We may face inner resistance we're not even fully aware of. We take a step forward, and then a step back. We feel certainty, and then we feel doubt. We pay close attention to the signs around us, hoping for the courage and the wisdom to make the right move.   

In my experience, what really helps is to have people walking along the path with you. So I've decided to create a program that I've dreamed about for a long time: a ten-week virtual support group for people undergoing shifts in their careers and vocations. This is something I wish I'd had access to over the past few years, and I'm really excited about it. Because in times of deep questioning, we all do better when we're not alone.

If you think you'd be interested in such a thing, or know someone else who might, you can learn all about the group here. We will read some great writers together, too.

Meanwhile, Oysters, stay salty. And may it always be easy for you to heed the inner teacher, not the inner asshole. Y'know ... if you've got one. 

Lots of love,
Ellen