I went to a very nice liberal arts college. I had exactly the experience you hope your kid will have when you send them to a school with an amazing faculty-to-student ratio, kids hanging out on picnic blankets in the Commons, active study-abroad programs, and minimal access to civilization. It wasn’t cheap, and I thank my parents, grandparents, and whoever funded my scholarship for helping me to make it happen. College is important for little things like being employable and for big things like learning to communicate effectively (not that college is the only path to those things, but it’s generally a good one). When I think about the lessons that keep on giving, though, it’s the ones that I didn’t sign up for that come to mind. Calculus? Don’t remember much. Why did I take that? (Do you hear that sound? It’s my father’s voice in my head, saying, “You never know when you will need to calculate the area of an irregularly shaped room!” Yes, Dad, I know exactly when. Never.) Brit Lit I? Yes, where would I be without Piers Plowman? Biology for non-majors? Don’t get me started (and yet, it was an amazing class, involving so many fascinating lessons–few of them related to biology, per se).
Spending four years in a place where the point of you being there is to come out with better critical thinking skills, better relationship-building skills, and stronger self-awareness is kind of trippy. By showing up, you are giving these faculty whom you do not even know permission–nay, invitation–to point out your flaws and challenge you to be bigger than them.
I have never regretted my decision to spend four amazing years at Hiram College.
One of the lessons that was not at all on the curriculum came early in my senior year. I had sent a hand-written letter to someone for whom I had interned, thanking him for the experience. He never responded–but a week later, he published a list of “picky rules for writing” on his personal web page. I became (irrationally) convinced that this screed was aimed directly at me. Because I had sent a letter–not an email–I couldn’t even review it and see if I had, in fact, committed any of the sins he listed there. I obsessed over it. I was in one of my more anxiety-prone phases anyway, and this was something to fixate on.
Ellen, one of my English professors, finally asked me what was going on. I confided in her–I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and gave me one of the most loving and firm reality checks of my life. “One thing about growing up is learning when to know that it is not about you. Trust me. It is not about you.”
“It is not about you” has become one of my mantras. The way she put it could sound awfully harsh, except that it so clearly was not meant that way, and absolutely was what I needed to hear. I tend to take stuff on–if someone is rude to me, I assume that it’s because they are upset about something I have done; I’m the pedestrian who hears an angry car honk, and tries to figure out what she did to provoke it. Ellen was right, most of the time it is not about me.
Those important lessons, though, are the ones we tend to forget. We have to learn them over and over.
I’ve had two reminders very recently that it is not about me.
The first came one morning at church when there was a little skit I had written and directed. I needed to move a set piece into place, but Petra wouldn’t let me put her down. I tapped Anna Maria to help me, and moved the thing with a wiggly toddler on my hip, grumbling the whole time at her–it would just have been a minute! You love the nursery! What is your problem?! Poor me, lugging this clingy, teething fusspot around.
Later, Anna Maria told me that a visitor–an older man who hadn’t been to church since he was a young teenager–had told one of the pastors that the most moving part of the whole service for him had been seeing me struggling to get things set up one-handed. He thought it showed how accepting the church is–that a young woman could be managing her family and still be part of the service. That the children are welcomed as full participants. He’ll be visiting us again.
And here I was being all woe is Mom over it. It is not about me.
The other one that kind of smacked me upside the head was running into the person who got the teaching job that I had hoped to get (a friend, just today, referred to him as “the man who stole your job,” proving that one virtue of good friends is that they can be the bad people we are so tempted to be, on our behalf). All this time, my story has been just this trainwreck–I didn’t get that job, and then JC was laid off exactly a week later, and lots of things have been hard and complicated and panic-inducing since then.
Since then, I’ve actually been getting to know this guy a bit–little conversations here and there, encounters on campus. He’s a nice guy. I’m sure he knows (because he’s no dummy) that I applied for his position. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know (because I specifically asked everyone to not tell him) how close I got. The last time we talked, he said, “It was the weirdest thing–I hadn’t exactly planned on coming here, but my wife was laid off and we were kind of freaking out, and then the next day, I got this campus interview, and it’s all just worked out.”
What was a problem for me was the universe aligning for him. Of course, his family has to eat, too. Why should I imagine that my family, my calling, or my art would matter more than his, or more than anyone’s?
It is not about me.
Myers told me once that he thinks the universe is like a plate God is spinning and balancing, and God has to keep moving things around so the whole thing doesn’t tip over.
It is a very large plate.