It was hard saying good-bye to theologian Karl Barth. But he was just one of the nearly 900 spiritual friends that I had to sacrifice recently.
For a scholar and teacher, especially someone whose faith life is tied up with her work, that’s how it feels to get rid of your books. I was the type of student who would sit quietly reading at a carrel in the seminary library until I came across an amazing idea, and then erupt with “Oh wow!”
Books and their authors have always been my friends. They have enlightened, consoled, and encouraged me. They have taught me to keep the faith and to recognize my ministry. They have helped hone my work as a theology professor. And they have kept me going in rough times. Whenever I’d reread a text that I’d assigned to a class, I’d get inspired all over again. Often my students felt the same way, falling in love with the books, the ideas, and the God they pointed toward.
Books and their authors have always been my friends.
But this spring, just a few days after my retirement was announced, I was unexpectedly given a very short deadline to move out of my seminary office. Because I had been awarded a new title and I expected to stay connected with the school, this surprised me. I now had to figure out what to do with the 83 linear feet of books I had acquired over a 32-year teaching career and the 13 years of education it took to get there. I knew my home was too small to accommodate them. And when an appropriate place was not offered at school – a place that was large enough, dry enough, and spacious enough to allow them to be organized on shelves and easily located – I was faced with a hard reality. I had nowhere to safely move these many volumes. I feared that if I stuck them in a storage pod, I might never have the heart to open those boxes again.
Since time was limited, the parting was not just difficult but rushed. What could I keep and what had to go? A few friends tried to console me, saying I could just get these books online or at the library. But I knew that was not the full answer. Not only were many of these books out of print or so specialized that they’d be almost impossible to find again – even more compelling, these books had been my spiritual companions for a very long time.
What could I keep and what had to go?
After choosing the 900 victims, I needed to move them out. The fastest thing was to simply donate them. Day after day, I took them over to Goodwill, to my city library’s used-book sale, to a friend’s bookstore, to students, to my church, and other places. I wondered if these books would end up helping others’ faith, or simply be discarded.
There were also three stuffed filing cabinets. I had to ditch talented students’ papers, notes of thanks, flyers from conferences I had given and attended, useful articles and hundreds of carefully crafted syllabi. And then there were the pictures, plaques, mugs, prints and gifts from friends, students, colleagues. I had no time to linger over these memories. The recycling pile outside my office grew daily, stretching at least three feet high and ten feet wide.
With my office up several flights of steps and the elevator out of service, I soon suffered a metatarsal stress fracture. The fracture to my sense of vocation was perhaps even more painful. Giving away books is one thing; letting go of a significant calling is another.
Giving away books is one thing; letting go of a significant calling is another.
Who are you now, when the structure that grounded you has disappeared? Who will you talk to every day? Where will you go? What will you wear? For a religious professional like myself, the questions get more complicated. How do I know what God is calling me to now? Or does that end, too, since my work and faith have been so bound up together?
One reason I deeply valued my work as a theology professor and researcher was because of the long and difficult road to get there. Being from a non-religious background, I had spent the first decades of my life finding God and allowing God to find me. As a woman, a vocation in ministry was also hard to recognize. It took many years to reconcile that with a call to seminary teaching and then many years to prepare for it. Once there, I felt I was where I belonged. I loved helping others find their own vocational paths and was grateful to be able to talk about God with interested students for many hours each week.
I know not everyone finds work they love. Some workers are thankful when they no longer need to show up at the factory. Some have longed every workday to instead be playing golf, making crafts, cooking, or caring for grandchildren – and are excited when they can finally do it. But many people today get their identity primarily from their work. With declining church membership, families disrupted or at a distance, many living alone, and less community participation at all levels, sometimes work is all a person has to shore up a sense of self. When that goes away, a gaping canyon opens up. This can happen in a natural sense, due to age or the timing of a pension. But it’s less and less that way anymore.
With less community participation at all levels, sometimes work is all a person has to shore up a sense of self.
In this brutal age of down-sizing, buy-outs, forced retirements and capricious “weeding out” of employees, the dangers to one’s sense of self are greater than ever. While we know there can be terrible financial consequences when a job ends, few anticipate the deep personal pain. It seems that no longer having a rigorous daily schedule should be liberating and relaxing. But it can be stressful instead. Many are left floating in a vacuum where their identity, their place in the world, their sense of belonging, the familiar faces they had seen daily, and much of their self-esteem, has disappeared.
Often others dismiss that pain with easy platitudes and shallow consolations. “Oh, you’ll get over it.” “Start volunteering.” “Take some classes.” “Give it a few months and you’ll be busier than ever.” But these do not answer the real issue, especially if one’s identity has been wrapped around the work. I suppose you could say the same thing about the books I just gave away.
Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love cautions against disregarding one’s vocation. “When you discover something that is a gift from God, you have to claim it and not let it be taken away from you.” But without the books, the office, or the students, what did that mean for me? Nouwen’s advice is to give up “the old country” and instead vulnerably “enter the new country,” where now “the Beloved dwells.” Someone else recently said you can’t see the open doors ahead until you fully close the doors behind you. Perhaps they are right, but it all still feels very foggy to me. Until then, I will hope someone fishes poor Karl Barth out of the donation box and makes a new friend.