Three months ago I got hired at my first salaried, full-time job as sports editor at a local newspaper.
A few weeks ago, after much soul-searching, I quit.
And no, it wasn’t because I sold my first book for a million dollars, or decided to travel the world as some kind of free-lance Hemingway figure. I simply quit the only stable financial situation I’ve ever enjoyed because it wasn’t the right job.
Go ahead, make a joke about the entitled generation, and our need to ‘find ourselves.’ I’ll laugh because I know it’s true; if I’d been really desperate I would have stayed, but I’m not and so I had the freedom to make a choice.
I don’t like quitting, it reeks of failure. I was tempted to endure, rent an apartment and live the journo dream, even if only to accrue the superficial elements of success. I could have been an aspiring young professional, but instead I chose to throw it away.
Why? Maybe I’m inherently flawed, incapable of the long obedience in the same direction that is both a description of Christian discipleship and also (ironically) a professional career. Maybe I should have stayed in school, been more serious about pursuing a graduate degree. Or maybe not.
Maybe I don’t know the full answer yet.
Being given the opportunity to work at a newspaper was both a blessing and a pain for me. It was the first real journalism job I’d ever applied for, partially because of a foreboding (in hindsight accurate) that it wasn’t a career I wanted. Still, getting the chance to gain experience in a real newsroom is a priceless opportunity, and being chosen for the position out of a crowded field of candidates was a (timely) affirmation of my personal value to the market economy.
There were certain things I really enjoyed about my job, most especially my coworkers, my boss, and the chance to do some of my own photography. Other things, including the pace and relentless publication deadlines, were a constant weight. I’d been brought in incredibly green, and while I learned, it was never quick enough, never bright enough to match the work of my predecessor.
Most of the time, when people tell stories about taking monumental risks (like quitting jobs), the decision is described as some sort of life-shattering epiphany. Most of the time it was the smart choice, the obvious choice, and those people immediately benefit from their bravery with something better.
I don’t have that retrospective confidence, because I have no idea what my ‘something better’ will be. I’m in the middle of my story, and the narrative is not yet clear. I quit a job I didn’t think was right, and the people I respect most in my life were split on my decision. Many thought I quit too fast, and even those who respected my decision weren’t sure it was the right one.
Nothing about it was clean-cut or absolute. Since my graduation from university, the future has devolved into a complexity of good options, with no absolute rule for which one will provide the most advantage, or the least regret.
The infinite possibilities of life are either liberating or terrifying, depending on how confident I feel in meeting them. The rest of this post I wrote before I got the job at a newspaper, while I was struggling with the idea of being turned down for a previous position and uncertain about my future. It fleshes out some of my ideas on story, narrative, and the unfinished tale that is life.
What I find most interesting looking back, is that I had no idea I was about to get a newspaper job, then quit it, all in matter of months. I had no idea of the incredible relief of being hired, or the gnawing frustration of realizing you don’t want to do what you’re doing. It was a different season, a different story, yet the central themes are still resonant.
I’m gambling, just as I gambled then, and trusting that God’s hands are also on the dice.
Wake Me Up Once I’m Cool Again
There’s a reason that people don’t tell unfinished stories.
Think about it. What if the tale ended just as riding hood’s grandma got eaten? What if there was no sixth Star Wars movie? What if (God forbid) LOTR closed with Gollum dancing on the cliffs of Orodruin, or Saruman’s Uruk-Hai shattering Helm’s Deep with primitive explosives?
What if Job’s story ended with his wife telling him to “Curse God and die”?
Unfinished tales convey a very different message from finished ones. Occasionally, as in the case of a classic tragedy, a mid-story finish might be a form of mercy, but only because it doesn’t force the reader to the inevitable darkness of a conclusion.
Life, like it or not, is one long unfinished story. We can tell it as a complete work, conforming our struggles and accomplishments to the needs of our current situation, but that doesn’t stop it from moving. Life is water flowing, and our fates (as famously said) are writ upon it. The letters and symbols we attempt to draw are lost to its fluidity, and our stories keep evolving as long as we draw breath.
Still, they are times in life when we wish to tell our stories, and there are times when we do not. End a story a chapter early and the hero can appear triumphant, end it a chapter later and watch the world rip him or her from the throne. Perhaps we have faith that the situation will reverse itself and some eucatastrophe will save the tale, but if the pages are yet unwritten then faith is all we have.
In the beginning of this summer, my story seemed to be on a trajectory towards all sorts of wonderful things. Newly graduated with the hinted promise of a great job, confident in my skill, and dating someone wonderful, my story was one I thought to be worth telling. I had overcome, I had succeeded! The world was offering me a future that I wanted, I was standing on the beach ready to enter an ocean of promise, and I believed I deserved it. We’ve been told since we learned to scorn that some of us will be successful and some of us won’t. I’ve always been told (perversely) I’ll be in the first group, and I thought maybe I’d finally actualized those prophecies.
But that chapter ended, another began, and now my story hints at desperation rather than success. The job was given to someone else, the girl is gone, and that shining future has resolved into crumpled tinfoil amidst all the other beach flotsam. Perhaps something will resurrect itself Lazarus-like from that corpse, but so far that possibility is only supported by faith.
Why do I find it so difficult to admit this? Why do I work hard to hide exactly how far my hopes have fallen, or how silly my May dreams seem now at the beginning of September?
Because I, like most of the people I know, am not good at vulnerability. I boast publicly, I bleed privately, and I know the cost of upsetting that balance. Once I’m back on top I will freely admit my struggles, but only because I’m confident that I overcame them. To admit weakness while still inhabiting it – that is more difficult than the words can convey.
I’m scared that my story is finished — that I’ve reached the apex of the arc and have begun the long slide towards oblivion. I’m scared that my chance at joy is gone, and that I’ve surrendered something essential to the human struggle. I’m scared that I’m not following the plot and I’m straying farther and farther from what life had lined up for my journey.
Yet what do any characters think in the middle of the conflict, when the Uruk-Hai are closing in and the world is falling into shadow? They too are afraid that they have reached the end of the story, and it is only by defying the inclination to despair that such times prove to be the darkness before the dawn. The characters in a story don’t enjoy the privilege of knowing there are hundreds of pages left in the book, they simply believe, make choices, and accept the consequences.
As a writer who is continually trying to extract meaning from event, narrative from chronology, I rage against the unknown. I want my story to make sense, I want it to have progression, escalation, redemption, and power.
I want to know that Gandalf is coming with the dawn.