In my last post, I wrote about change and the seasons of life. I am now on the threshold, watching my life seasons changing.
When I think back to my younger years, I remember being very passionate about my values - the ones I thought would never change. One of the most central was my desire to lead a life of voluntary poverty, a life of simplicity in which material possessions had little place, a life lived in solidarity with those for whom poverty was a grim reality every day.
Why would anyone volunteer to be poor?
When I search my memory for the roots of this value, I find many. One of the earliest was when I was in high school. As was often the case in Catholic high school religion classes, we were given the assignment to give a presentation in front of the class on some social issue. This having been in the early 1970's, such topics as war, abortion and drugs were among the popular choices. I gave a presentation on voluntary poverty (weird child that I was).
I remember my older brother bringing home some literature on voluntary poverty, apparently authored by some college liberal. This, of course, gave it immediate appeal. I was extremely conscious of the Vietnam war, the horrors of which regularly visited the front pages of the newspaper. The argument made in this treatise was that one could avoid paying the federal taxes that supported the war by keeping one's income below taxable level. There was no question in my black-and-white adolescent mind that this war - and all war - was morally wrong. Hence, this argument for a voluntary poverty was a potent one.
Looking back, even prior to that, I see another root. Between my sophomore and junior years in high school, my family moved from liberal, urban Minneapolis, Minnesota to conservative, suburban Columbus, Ohio. During the summer prior to the move, I had an eye-opening volunteer experience that exposed me to the realities of how poor people lived. When we moved into our new ranch style house in the affluent mid-Ohio suburb, I was bombarded by the contrast more than ever. Our new house had central air conditioning. I could not stop thinking about those sweltering in the heat. Why should I be comfortable when they were suffering?
And this was just the beginning of the "why" questions. The answers that came to me were strong. "I don't want to be among the privileged." "I don't want to be white." "I don't want to have things that other people cannot have." And so, like St. Francis of Assisi, I wanted to cast my father's riches out the window and be a poor person living among the poor.
But there was something more. Like St. Francis of Assisi, there was something deeply spiritual about this longing. It was more than just a political statement. It was more than just a rebellion against my parents' generation. It was a radically sacred call to give up everything that did not matter for the One thing that did matter.
In my youthful attempts to embody this call, I wore my blue jeans patched and frayed. When I wanted to visit Cincinnati the summer after college graduation, I stayed in a women's "inn" as a transient for $4 a night. (I gained a much deeper appreciation for the notion of "sweltering".) I then joined the volunteer corps that brought me to Cleveland. I lived in a community in a large old convent, with $50 a month for a stipend. I later took a job at an inner city mental health clinic where the director kept begging me to allow her to pay me more. I declined. I was living my version of poverty.
When I went to graduate school in Kent, like most of my ilk, I continued to have a low income. While I continued to cherish that, experience and maturity helped me to realize that my voluntary poverty was not really poverty at all. True poverty is not so much about income or possessions as it is about loss of control, about not having choices. My education gave me choices. My middle class parents in the background were my safety net. I did not have to be afraid of not having food or a place to live or people to care about me.
But I found poverty another way. I found it in the gripping anxiety that I felt when I walked away from the security of my home, job and friends to start a difficult course of study in which I might not succeed. I discovered the poverty of not being in control - and it was terrifying. Yet what it taught me was grace beyond measure. In my panic, I had to trust in something beyond myself - or I would die. I could trust in God - but I needed something, someone more tangible. And my therapist was still there for me, a gift greater than I can explain.
By the grace of God, I survived and I graduated with my PhD in Clinical Psychology. I then began the job that I have had for the past 20 years. And now it is time to move on.
As I stand on the threshold looking back, I contemplate why I stayed at this job so long. As much as I love being a psychologist, I'm not sure that this particular place of employment was ever a good fit for who I am. I began there because they were willing to hire me and supervise me until I was licensed. Once I began, I fell in love with all of the beautiful patients who came and shared their lives with me. I developed dear friendships with a kind and caring cadre of coworkers. But something else happened too. Something I never thought would happen to me.
I became attached to the security. I became gradually more and more comfortable with my paycheck and the benefits that enabled a comfortable lifestyle. By many professional people's standards, my lifestyle never gained extravagance - or even close to it. But I discovered one day that something had changed in me so gradually that I had hardly noticed.
As the world of healthcare changed and the style of providing care increasingly conflicted with the call of my spirit, I began to consider leaving my job. And I considered it some more. For years. One of the things that held me back was my patients. How could I ever leave them, these people who had trusted me with their deepest pain? I remembered the gift given to me in my poverty and it seemed unthinkable. I also feared losing the closeness of my colleagues, whose support was always there when either personal or professional trials came my way.
But eventually I had to admit that I was also afraid to give up the security. Not just the money but the assurance and predictability of knowing that I would have enough. This was not an easy discovery. In fact, I suspect that it was one that could only be made through pain. As the breaking points became more frequent and more profound, I cried out, "I would rather be poor" than work there. This, of course, was just a fleeting anger. But it gave me pause. When had financial security become so important to me? When had my trust in God become so feeble?
And so it began: the changing of the seasons. I began to explore the possibilities and in almost no time one emerged. I have been blessed now with an opportunity to continue as a psychologist and to allow many of my long term patients to continue to see me. And I have no idea how much money I will make and it is freeing that it no longer matters all that much. What matters is the One who has always mattered more than anything or anyone. I follow Him and all shall be well...
(If there are any former patients who have lost touch and want to know how to reach me, my new business e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. If there are any readers who do not know me but have stumbled across this site, you too are welcome to use this e-mail. Friends reading this blog are asked to continue contacting me via my personal e-mail so that my business account doesn't become too congested. Thank you and blessings to all.)