A secret


Feb 20th 2012

On Friday I finally mustered the courage to go to the life drawing studio at the Durham Arts Council. I’ve had the impulse to practice drawing for a while now, but have felt intimidated because I didn’t learn to draw as a kid. And like so many “smart” kids I somehow internalized the notion that you shouldn’t try anything unless you already knew you were good at it. I write these words and am amazed. This is clearly nonsensical. But after many years of self-observation and many years of teaching at Duke where this illusion runs rampant, where we carry on thinking that it is somehow shameful to struggle, I know that it is true, at least in the sense that it has real consequences in the world. So it took courage for me to go public in a life drawing studio.

But this is not my secret. At least not the one I meant to write about. The secret is that if you follow this delusion, if you only pursue what you’ve been identified as “good at,” you can travel a long way down a path that is not meant for you. As I write I realize that I have too much to say about this. As my friend Jehanne likes to say when she’s onto something important, “it’s complicated.” The short version of my secret is that I have spent most of my adulthood pursuing someone else’s career. Out of some unconscious sense of filial obligation, perhaps. And out of a lack of awareness that there was any other way. It has taken me a very long time to learn that it is possible to live your life from the inside out. And without that awareness. The errant foray into librarianship. The decision to become a historian. And then an administrator. All not me. Luckily, I think, the opportunity to teach came along with the jobs, and I like to teach, especially when I can shape the course towards the personal development of the students rather than the mastery of any given subject matter. I’m about to retire so I guess it’s safe to say that now. I have had a long and “productive” career as not me. And maybe if teaching hadn’t come along I would have figured things out sooner. Luckily? Unluckily? I am reminded of the Zen story of the farmer who’s horse runs away, one of my favorites.

And now the complications. Two come quickly to mind. First, it has been a long and productive career. Not all bad by any description. I learned a lot along the way, and these lessons, and the friction that goes along with pursuing the “wrong” job, have helped to shape the person that I am today. Second, how many people get to worry over whether or not their jobs faithfully engage their truest gifts? This is a dilemma of privilege. Right. But it should not be. We should all be able to pursue work that fulfills us, and by fulfilling us helps to feed the world. Shouldn’t we?

For me, at least, it comes as such a relief to be dropping the pretense, the tension. I feel the muscles in my back relaxing. I imagine that the flow of cortisol in my body is regulating to normal levels. And after I walk into the life studio and began drawing I wonder at my fear.