A few years ago, when I started on my Peace Corps journey, I had only a few months prior been turned down to nine graduate programs in religion. Peace Corps hadn’t really been on my radar at all. But I loved traveling, and I figured, “Hey, if I’m not going to live with my brain, let’s see how living with the heart works.” Then, everything just fell into place. I got to Morocco. I was named “Fouad,” which means “heart.” I had this really clear purpose, so a few months into living there, it was easy to look back on those graduate school rejections and just think, “That’s okay, because this is what I needed to be doing.” It was like living a dream I’d never had. In fact, before I left for Morocco, I wrote about how dreams shouldn’t just be things that you have as a little kid but should always be things that can shape and change over the course of your life. I mean, there’s only so much you can know about what you want to do and who you want to be when you’re eleven. As we get older, we’re able to expand on our dreams and dream new dreams. And that’s what Peace Corps was to me, an unexpected dream that ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made.
But now that I’m back in America, and that dream has come to an end, I’ve entered another transition period where I’m having to reshape my hopes for the future all over again. I think there’s a part of me that’s hoping there’ll be another unexpected dream I haven’t thought of yet that’ll just sort of plop into my lap. I seem to do that a lot in my life, never really sticking with one thing, and I think that’s something people are usually critical of, you know, as though those sorts of folks just can’t make up their minds. And maybe there’s some truth to that, but there’s also something fresh and exciting about the unknown that’s always driven me. It makes me feel a little like a Renaissance Man (read: student of the Liberal Arts) who just wants to do as much as possible, to gain as many different experiences as possible and never be limited by degrees or by people telling me, “No, you can’t do that.” I like and need the challenge of always facing something new, and I think that’s true of a lot of my generation – true enough that I think it’ll change the way people think of careers as 20- or 30-year experiences down the road. I mean, job security is important, of course, and people will always cling to that, but I think doing the same job for years and years is also unhealthy, so it’s important to find a balance.
So, I’m in this transition phase, and I’m looking for the next big dream. For a while there, I thought it might be creative writing. After all, I have this, uhm, monster of a blog, which includes a whole section of poems and prose. I’ve written two novels. I’m constantly tinkering with essays and thoughts and culture. If I wasn’t going to do a Ph.D. in religion, why not an MFA in Creative Writing? So, again, I applied to six more graduate schools, and as of today, five have said no. It’s a door that’s not shut entirely, but it’s closed enough that I’ve had to start thinking seriously about what other dreams I might be able to chase.
As it stands, in cover letters and resumes, I am currently facing the uphill battle of presenting myself as a Renaissance Man of the Cloth (without the cloth) and with no interest in doing church work.
Before I did Morocco, I earned a seminary degree from Vanderbilt, and now that I’m back and wanting something beyond ministry, I’m discovering that seminary degrees are pretty misunderstood outside of the field of religion. I think an employer hears “Master of Divinity” and just thinks, “Uh oh, Jesus freak.” Or maybe even, “Is that a degree in Harry Potter or wizardry?” And I mean, hey, I’ll be the first to admit that even to me, the M.Div. sometimes feels like an over-glorified degree to teach a really kickass Sunday School class. But the degree is actually much more than that. First, it’s a three-year degree (that takes most people four years to do, because yes, there were more courses required of my M.Div. than there were my undergraduate degree). I mean, if you want an MFA or a Business or Law degree, and you only really need one to two years. So, that already makes the M.Div. an incredibly formidable degree. And of course, there’s a lot of time spent on Biblical literature. You go and get an M.Div and you’ll learn how to read the Bible in Greek or Hebrew or Latin or all three. And then you may even learn how reading it in its original texts doesn’t actually reveal what it means, because interpretation is always up to the interpreter. So, yeah, there’s a lot of that sort of stuff.
But it’s not just sermon prep. As I wrote in a recent cover letter, “I found my Masters degree from Vanderbilt to be an educational experience which allowed me to go both deep and wide. So while I know a good bit about the ancient world, I also know about sociology, psychology, cultural studies, languages, history, and I have some practical skills in building community, reading contexts, public speaking, managing budgets, and developing strategies for change.” That’s something I really wish at times that employers would get. It’s like, “Yes, I realize you’re looking for someone with a Masters in Social Work or Non-Profit Management or International Relations, but what I’m trying to explain here is that my degree and experience has put me in a place where I could do any of that. Please believe me about this degree.” And maybe that’s the big crux of the M.Div. degree. When you’re done, you know you’ve done something huge but so generalized that you feel like you can take on the world and do just about anything, and let’s be honest, when it comes to people skills, if you can handle crazy parishioners, well, you really are able to take on the world.
So, that’s where I’m at. I’m looking for a new dream. I’m not against chasing down some of the old ones, should the MFA fall into my lap. But I think one of the life lessons I may be forced to learn before it’s all said and done is that sometimes, you have to chase money or boredom or hard work totally unrelated to what you want to do before you can chase that dream. Maybe I’ve just been lucky jumping from one dream to the next. Maybe a job at Wal-Mart or in a restaurant will be necessary for a while as I’m busy looking for the next big thing. Or maybe now is the time to, when not applying for a job, really get cranking on that second novel? I guess time will tell, the way it always does. I just hope I’ll keep contributing to it rather than letting it pass me by.