Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving and the Gift of the Existential Crisis

I had an existential crisis last week. This isn’t unusual for me. In fact, it was entirely predictable considering my life recently. Within the past month I submitted my doctoral thesis, was recruited for some exciting regional teaching/speaking gigs on the topic of missiology, and I found out that, instead of staying state-side for at least a few years as I had expected, we’re moving to Ljubljana in 7 months.* Cue the anxiety attack. 

Now I know what some of you may be thinking, “Ah, poor thing has to move to a picturesque European town where she can easily do day trips to the mountains or drive to other picturesque bucket-list towns. Must be hard.”  But it is hard. I love my house, my neighbors, my church, E’s school, and the joys that come from living relatively near family and so many old friends. It’s hard to imagine the grass being greener anywhere else. ‘Cause, see, here’s the cold truth: while my Facebook photos the past decade may have given the impression that I’ve been “living the dream” overseas for years, those posts only showed the highs—not the lows—of what it means to be a global nomad. This past year state-side I’ve lived what most of my readers would view as a rather unremarkable middle-class life, yet it has been bliss for me. Leaving it behind means I must overhaul my plans, revisit difficult questions about identity and purpose, and start over in a country where I don’t yet have a single friend. 

My father’s 2017 death made it gut-level clear to me that life passes quickly and can end in a blink. What criteria are we to use to judge if we are using our limited days on Earth well? What does work-life balance look like to someone who doesn’t have a traditional job with clear on-off the clock lines? On a scale of hedonist to burned-out social worker, how much time should we devote to improving the world vs. sipping our favorite beverage in our favorite locale? Is a Doctor Who marathon a waste of a day?**

Two things helped me snap out of this thought spiral. A former congregant reached out to me for advice about what turned out to also be an existential crisis triggered by a life transition. I listened and then gave some coaching about praying, journaling and listening to one’s inner wisdom—all wrapped up in the message that existential crises should be embraced as opportunities to listen to what God may be inviting us to do next. My inner voice said “Uh, Taylor? Why don’t you try practicing what you preach?” 

The second head smack moment came when I found myself at a youth service on Sunday, and a friend passed out notebooks and encouraged everyone to not necessarily use them as gratitude journals, but to be present to wherever we may be at the moment—even if that means using them as blank coloring pages instead of writing words. I colored my page blue until my mind came to my sermon about the fundamental problem of the human condition being isolation. Then it hit me: What different questions would my existential crises produce if I truly understood my isolation as my primary issue instead of trying to measure my success/productivity/contributions in life?  Hmph. 

I’m still wrestling with that question, but I know some things already. It would mean prioritizing being a good friend over “being successful.” It would mean crossing boundaries for the sake of no longer being alienated and seeing folks of all life circumstances not as people to serve but as sisters and brother who are vital to my wholeness. 

So here’s my two cents this Thanksgiving. Reach out to others. Reach out to family, to friends, to strangers. Give thanks for the healthy relationships you have. Give yourself permission to lament for the ones you don’t. Cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries not with an agenda to serve others, but for the chance to become more integrated into the web of the Kingdom of God.  And next time you find yourself receiving the gift of the existential crisis, embrace it.

Happy Thanksgiving my beloveds.

Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo from danflyingsolo.com 

*My husband, a career diplomat, is to be the next American Consul there. It is his job that makes it financially possible for me to dedicate so much of my time to researching, writing, and coaching on transformative missional practices. 

**That’s a rhetorical question. Watching Doctor Who is never wasting time. It’s therapeutic and a highly useful morality discernment tool.

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