Alumni/ae Tuesday – Sarah Porter, MDiv’13

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“Seeking ‘a dignity that trusts the form a day takes”

I’ve heard lots of people confess it, so let me add my voice: The transition from divinity school to a desk job is rough.

The first day, I brought in my standbys: A Thecla icon and a few strategically placed lines of poetry. By the second month, I brought bright photos to hang on my wall. A Julian of Norwich-inspired piece was my desktop image (“All shall be well”). Later, I pinned fabric all over my cubicle and artfully stacked a bunch of books under a floral teacup. A year into it, I spent $100 at Target to make my desk look like a living room. Affirming sticky notes littered my workspace: “Choose joy!” “Follow your dreams!” “Pick your battles.” It didn’t work. I was still mostly miserable.

And this is all with the acknowledgement that I am one of the lucky few: I finished my M.Div. on a Thursday in December 2013. The following Monday, I started a job in a mainline Protestant agency that was relevant to my degree. My main job responsibilities included social media, volunteer management, and planning a 650-person event – all oriented toward college students.

Honestly, I found my work diverting and pleasant. I could make meaning out of it with little effort. With the team I supported, I provided opportunities for exploration and growth to students. This is, after all, my life’s call: to facilitate precisely these kinds of encounters and conversations, to ask the kinds of questions that provide the rattle to the cage of complacency that so many young adults crave. In my work, I made space for activists to share their frameworks and actions with large audiences; I wrote about confronting the world’s violence and spiritual (dis)affiliation; I debated how and whether an institution ought to manufacture movements.

And yet.

I spent more at Starbucks in eighteen months than I spent in my whole time in graduate school, because I feared I’d explode without the daily fifteen-minute walk for that cup of coffee. I was called a grump by my partner more times than I care to admit. I was unable to name things that bring joy to my life when my friends inquired. Mondays generally included a half-bottle of wine. My back muscles were crinkled and achy. I watched hours and hours of television.

Obviously, I am not a poster child for things like self-care, adaptability, or balance. I never have been. I do not recommend any of the above-mentioned coping mechanisms. But I do have some inklings on what made this transition so frustrating. Perhaps identifying the causes might alleviate the symptoms:

  • Moving from schola prophetarum to solo prophet…to just solo: One of the best parts of divinity school is the community of questioners. Being surrounded by strong voices helps us all sing louder. Upon graduation, some of us spend ages in the loneliness of the job seeker or the odd desk worker who doesn’t have anyone at whom to spout epiphanies or questions. After awhile, even our internal critics lose their edge – except, perhaps, to criticize ourselves or our coworkers. One of the most sensible ways to counteract this is to assemble a set of folks who are interested in interrogating the givens of the mundane, whether critically or appreciatively, and acting upon those interrogations. Bonus points if they’re more diverse in age, class, gender, marital status, and race than your VDS crew.
  • Fantasizing about a distorted idea of calling: Anne E. Patrick issues an important corrective when she says: “The powerful myth that there is such a thing as a life-calling should be balanced by a counterweight, namely the recognition that the meaning and purpose of any life is ultimately a religious mystery, to be discerned gradually over the course of one’s earthly existence. […] Furthermore, although everyone’s vocation is ultimately a religious mystery, there remains value in doing the hard work of conceptual and ethical analysis about the matter.”[1] I found that this notion of vocation as a journey absolves me of the guilt I felt for not ‘getting it’ right away. Patrick does not even consider vocational discernment a blip or a phase on the road to ‘the real thing’ – she considers mystery to be the whole point of vocation. I suppose one could find this immobilizing; I find it liberating.
  • Becoming a cog in an unjust machine: It is really, really hard (impossible?) for capitalism to avoid being disciplinary. Most workplaces reify the structures we’ve learned to hate, like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other policed –isms. When you’re dependent on a system for your livelihood, it is difficult to respond with integrity. I began wearing a wedding band in part to avoid questions about my dating life that might result in coming out. I perpetuated racialized and gendered bias when I didn’t dispute flippant characterizations like “uptight,” “paranoid,” “lazy,” and “loud.” I didn’t raise my voice when our janitorial services were changed, likely to save money and thus cheat low-income workers of living wages. I wasted a ton of paper. The workplace encourages interpersonal and systemic sin, because we all need to pay our bills. I don’t really have a solution for this one, other than to work hard to be more human.

It’s my naiveté speaking, but I found this transition really difficult. I hope my transparency here has, at least, been beneficial to some.

I leave you with the fragment of poetry that I scrawled on a sticky note and taped by my Thecla icon:


We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.

Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
That fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.

from John O’Donohue, “The Inner History of a Day,” 2008

Sarah Porter completed her M.Div. at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2013. She managed social media, event production, and volunteers for a mainline collegiate ministries arm from December 2013 to August 2015. This month, she’ll begin her Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University, which means she has a pretty solid response to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (Answer: Writing in a state of panic.)

[1] Anne E. Patrick, S.N.J.M. “‘Framework for Love’: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Christian Vocation.” In A Just and True Love: Feminism at the Frontiers of Theological Ethics: Essays in Honor of Margaret Farley, edited by Maura A. Ryan and Brian F. Linnane, S.J. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007. 306.