Developmentally, 50 is a landmark number. However, diversity reigns when people attempt to define the value of this landmark. On the one hand, most fear its ominousness; some dread its arrival; others succumb to its reality and effects; and few choose to waste away in its prison. On the other hand, there are those who meet it with fortitude; those who embrace it as a new lease on life; those who see it not as an anchor but a badge of honor; and those who (repeatedly) seek to redefine perceptions of it–i.e. “50 is the new 40”, “…the new 30”, “…the new 25”, etc. Yet in the midst of this diversity, there is one constant: the definitions and/or perceptions are ultimately choices; they are not predetermined assignments from which there is no escape. Thus, those who feel confined by negative conceptions and perceptions of turning 50 are free to abandon such things and embrace more positive views. While it is that simple (in theory), it is admittedly not easy (in practice). And while some might not make the needed choice, the difficulty of it cannot be used as a legitimate reason for refusing to act.
I’ve still got a little ways to go before I reach 50. In just a small handful of months, I will turn 39. But I am nearing a different kind of 50–one that has brought with it many of the negative sentiments that come with human development. The 50 I’m referring to is the number of “No”s I’ve received in my search for full-time employment.* Since March 2009, I have kept a log of all the jobs I’ve applied for and the reasons why I failed to score an academic post. (Admittedly, a few of these attempts were part-time positions, but I applied with the hope that they would become full-time). In 2011, I broadened my search to include ministerial positions, because that is a vocational option we will not rule out. But that list pales in comparison (only 4)–i.e. the bulk of my applications have been academic.
When I reached 20 “No”s (near the middle of 2012), a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty began to descend. I not only started questioning why I was not successful but also started (subconsciously) nursing doubts about my abilities and worth. By the time I achieved 30 (near the end of 2013), the questions and doubts gave way to annoyance and frustration–primarily because, by that time, I saw several people (roughly the same age, with roughly the same credential [sometimes less]) easily landing jobs. Candidly, there were a few times when, “What the crap?!” gushed from my lips and I was tempted to quit trying and do something entirely unrelated to the nearly 10 years of educational training I endured. When I reached 45 (near the middle of this year), melancholy set in for a while and then it transformed into a sense of numbness. I simply got to a point where I had to shut down emotionally from the rejection. Doubts, questions, frustration, and tears got me nowhere. Why not try apathy? After all: if I didn’t care, I couldn’t get hurt. But then something happened. Or, I should say: someone.
Right after my 47th rejection, my lovely wife came to me with a healthy (and necessary) dose of supporting love and brutal honesty. She said she noticed an obvious change in my person, and it was a change that she watched developed over a couple of months. At first I rejected the idea, but I quickly realized that such a rejection was masking what I knew to be true. As soon as the mask fell, everything came out. There was nothing to stop the flood. For the first time in a long time, I admitted that I was fighting feelings of insufficiency, ability, and even worth. I confessed that I was deeply hurt, I was in pain, I was angry, and that I loathed applying for jobs because I already knew what would happen. And it was in this release of thoughts and emotions that I finally realized something: in this area of my life, I was faithless. I didn’t say this, but my wife sensed it and spoke directly to it. She reminded me not only of God’s definition of me, but also the faithfulness he has displayed throughout my life–especially in the past few years. In not so few of words, she showed me that my imprisonment was my own making. I put myself there and I decided to stay there and complain about the circumstances. And she was dead right.
That night, after our conversation, I realized (and remembered) that my perceptions about my situation–i.e. failure to secure a full-time job–were my choices. I chose to have doubts, questions, frustrations, sadness, anger; I chose to devalue to my worth, my abilities, and my contributions. And I (stupidly) chose to opt for a faithless approach. Because I chose these things, I failed to see that because they were choices, I could choose to see things otherwise. But before that could happen, I had to make a more immediate and foundational choice: I had to choose to trust in God’s provision and faithfulness. I had to choose to surrender inadequate views of myself and embrace the indescribable reality of his person and the incomprehensible abilities he has to (re)shape who I am. I had to choose to decrease so that he might increase. I had to choose to rest secure in his Yes when others say No.
I knew such choices would be difficult, but they had to be made. Failure to make them was not only hurting me but also expressing doubt in God. Thus, my prayer that night was not simply one of rescue but also renewal. I needed forgiveness and restoration. I needed God to help my unbelief. That has remained my prayer. And since praying, I have sensed his answer: I am more at peace than I have been in years. I am learning how to see myself (again) as a new creation in Christ–a vessel to be shaped and used for his purposes and glory. And I am being strengthened to choose the ways of God over all other competing ways of defining self and success. So I’m ready for 50, no matter the outcome.
* This list exclude the four “Yes”s I’ve received since the same time; although those are/were not full-time academic positions.