The month was November. I know this because I'd begun counting down the months since I'd left my job and went on sabbatical. I wondered what is the socially acceptable length of time to be unemployed while figuring out what to do with one's life. When three months turned into four, I started to panic. Had I officially turned into a bum?
"My advice to you," said Mr. Lebowski to the Dude, "is to do what your parents did. Get a job sir!" Because, as Mr. Lebowski points out, "The bums will always lose."
I scoured the list of openings on the University of Wyoming job site. I found one that looked halfway promising and began getting my resume and application together. Somewhere between trying to make a Master of Divinity applicable to life outside the church and massaging my list of skills, I saw an advertisement for the annual Women's Leadership Conference at the university. The theme was "Fearless Female and the Freedom to Be Happy." It seemed like the sort of event that could speak to me: an unemployed, thirty-five year old in need of career advice. What the hell, I thought, I don't have anywhere else to be.
I timed my arrival after the Friday evening banquet. This way I avoided an hour of polite conversation with strangers while consuming forkfuls of over-baked chicken cordon bleu. I found a seat at the back of the banquet hall. Used cloth napkins and half-full goblets of water covered in condensation were all that remained on the tables. The air smelled of coffee and recently extinguished Sterno units. I scanned the room. Much to my horror, I was the only woman above the age of twenty who wasn't a professor. I prayed to God I'd pass as a graduate student.
The keynote speaker for the weekend was Dr. Erin Foley. She reminded me of the motivational speaker Suze Orman, only younger and hipper. If "hip" constitutes using a clip from the movie Mean Girls and numerous other pop culture references dispensed in a popcorn fashion. I liked everything she said. Even if there were times I felt like her presentation resembled a YouTube commercial.
"Passion is not always fireworks, it's a string of strong moments."
"You can be good at something, but if it doesn't have an emotional connection you won't be able to sustain energy."
"A weakness is anything that makes you feel drained, frustrated, bored, and tired."
"The time you spend eradicating your weaknesses pulls you away from cultivating your strengths."
I decided I'd return for the morning session and slunk out the back door.
The next morning we filed into a much smaller room. Dr. Foley greeted us with perky hellos. She was either highly caffeinated or a bonafide morning person (they make those?). I prepared myself for another popcorn round of indispensable wisdom. Only this time she invited us to open our notebooks and write down a question: "What would you do if you were not afraid?" I knew the answer before I'd even finished writing it down. And then, in an entirely out of character move, I found myself telling the room full of college students, "If I wasn't afraid I would stay unemployed." Elsewhere, a student said "If I wasn't afraid I'd go backpacking in Europe by myself." And another, "If I wasn't afraid I'd change my major." Here we were, separated by nearly two decades of life, and yet united in fear.
"What would you do if you were not afraid?" is the sort of question that never grows old. Even if we do. I found myself revisiting this question recently as I arrived at a fork in the road. Mercifully, a situation presented itself which made it clear I was headed down the wrong path. The wrong path, like so many times in my life, turned out to be the prudent, safe bet. That's what we're not told when deciding what to do with the rest of our lives (at 20 and at 60): the secure, realistic path often leads to a dead-end.
I'm continually amazed at how fear disguises itself as practicality. It sounds like the rational, reasonable voice in our head with a watertight argument. We have our finances to consider. And what about our reputations? Not to mention our loved ones who can't possibly be expected to go along with our reckless idea. The reasons are many. The result always small and comfortable with a hint of desperation.
The writer John O'Donohue said the way to reclaim our power is with a question. I can attest, "What would you do if you were not afraid?" is a powerful place to begin. As it turns out, the bums do not always lose.