Thursday, June 19, 2014

What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do (otherwise known as the Post-PhD blues)

Getting my PhD--May, 2014

Last year my kids gave me a poster that listed the things PhD students wish people would stop asking.  At the top of the list was the proverbial, what are you going to do next?  Truth be told, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me that in the past several weeks.  But really, I wish that I had an answer, some duly impressive response that would prove I didn't just waste three and a half years of my life.  I don’t have an answer.  In fact, all I really have to go on is a few words I think I heard the Spirit whisper several months ago about how I was going to love God’s plan, one I might add, that He seems to have no intention of revealing to me just yet.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do?  Maybe you can relate.  Perhaps you have hit an impasse in a relationship, or your kids are driving you nuts and it’s only the first week of summer, or your job feels like an albatross around our neck and you desperately want out, or you need a better living situation but keep running into dead ends, or a family member is ill and doesn’t seem to be improving and you wake up every morning with a vague sense of dread because you just don’t know what to do.  And no matter how much you pray or read Scripture or seek wise counsel, the answers don’t come and the path forward doesn't materialize.  At times it seems as if God himself has left the building. 

Thankfully, I've been here a few times over the course of my life and while that doesn't necessarily make it easier, it does mean that I've learned something about what to do when I don’t know what to do.   In fact, there are really just three simple practices that have become my “go to” when I have no idea what God is doing. 

By this, I don’t just mean think about it once in a while, but make it a habit, a pattern, a daily-and throughout the day-
practice, to focus on what you already know about God.  For me, this means starting my quiet time each morning by directing my attention to Him, regardless of how I feel.  There are so many ways to do this, but lately I've been working through a book on the Hebrew names of God.  I choose one, read the Scriptures that apply, and then just doodle a picture about it, all the while reminding myself that this is who I serve, that this is the God who chose me, who loves me, and who knows the end from the beginning.  Truly there is nothing as comforting and reassuring to me than to just remember God’s character, His attributes and His ways. (Click here for more information on praying in color). 

This too must be a pattern of life.  During this season, every day I try to reminisce by looking back and focusing on a time when God faithfully met me at my point of need.  It might be some huge event, like when he surprised us with our second son Jonathan after years of infertility, or it might be something more urbane like the encouraging email I got from a stranger who’d been blessed by one of my out-of-print books.  The point is that we seem to be hard-wired to forget how good God has been to us, and it takes a concerted effort to pause, take stock of our past, and just remember.

  This simple truth can be incredibly freeing and helpful.   In my case, I didn’t want to apply for a job because I was afraid I would get ahead of God and miss His plan.   I think I assumed that I would wake up one day and voila! Here was my future on a platter!  But that didn’t happen, and after wrestling with God over this, I sensed that He wanted me to just do one little thing each day, whether turn in an application, talk to a trusted reference, or update my LinkedIn profile.   Because I seek to set my heart towards Him daily, I do not have to worry about missing His will, or taking a wrong turn, or screwing things up on my own.  He is the one who opens and closes doors, and as I trust Him and take steps each day in the best way I know how, He will fulfill His plan, in His time.

So that’s it—three little practices that are getting me through this very strange season in my life.  I can’t say that I have it down, and in fact there are some days when I am overcome with discouragement and sense the seeds of distrust trying to find fertile soil in my soul.  

But although I don’t seem to be any nearer to knowing my future than I was a week or a month ago, I haven’t yet thrown in the towel.  Instead, I just try to do those three things consistently--remind myself of who God is, remember how faithfully He has led me in the past, and do what I can, which, by the way, is the reason I'm writing this blog.