Discerning My Career and Letting Go of the Need for Validation
Letter from Sarah Zentner
“I just want you to make sure that’s true.”
I was sitting with the religious sister who’d been spiritually accompanying me for the last year (Sr. Hope) in a small room next to the conference room on the upper level of my parish. Haphazard scribbles covered the whiteboard and some unpacked boxes lay open in the corner; on the wall, old campus maps of the university the parish serves and other markers of passed time filled every inch of open space.
It was an appropriate setting that echoed the bevy of thoughts swirling around in my mind as I chatted with her about my plans for the next year.
We’d been discerning my options since I first met with her in January 2018, during my second semester of graduate school. On one hand, I could bring my love for education into a fulfilling career as a teacher. On the other hand, I could bring that same zeal to doctoral studies in literature after getting my master’s degree, an option that largely sounded appealing because of how badly certain family members and friends wanted that for me. But the offers of admission to Ph.D. programs were hard-won, the result of incessant personal struggles against self-doubt, imposter phenomenon, and the looping belief that this achievement that would finally make me worthy, that it would finally make me enough. And when the first acceptance came through, I wasn’t sure if it was the relief I felt at being externally validated or the honest daydreams of continued educational opportunities that prompted me to say to Sr. Hope, “It fills me with a lot of joy.”
What exactly did I mean by “it”? The work itself? The sense of purpose that comes from pushing onward toward a new goal? Or - the possibility that frightened me the most - what it would feel like to tell the world of these plans in a Facebook update, how impressive that would be.
She must have sensed something of what I was thinking because that’s when she reminded me to make sure that feeling - joy - was true for me. Joy, and not the conviction that this would be the achievement to finally validate me.
Honestly, underneath that joy was a creeping feeling of restlessness. If I jumped on this train, chasing after a career I felt would finally make me enough, when would I get off? Once I started the program, would the focus of my perception of enough just shift to something else? Publication of a journal article, then ten or twenty more? Presentation at a conference? Securing a tenure-track professorship?
It was dizzying.
And there was a way to get off the merry-go-round.
A few days prior to this conversation, I’d interviewed for a 4th-grade teaching position at a classical Catholic academy in Denver. The school is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, to nurturing joyful disciples of the Lord, and to developing critical thinking and written communication skills across all subject areas. That said, my heart leaped at the possibility of facilitating those endeavors in the hearts and minds of young people. In my own academic career, I had been committed to the pursuit of wonder and the study of the narrative function of grace across genres. So it sounded like this job would be a perfect fit for my own proclivity toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, and would allow meaningful fulfillment of my teaching ability.
But wasn’t everyone - my family and friends who’d walked this road with me for a while now, too - expecting me to get my doctorate? I didn’t want to be blamed for ruining their joy, didn’t necessarily want to deal with the shame of publicly changing my mind.
Some days after the conversation with Sr. Hope, though, sitting before Jesus in the Adoration chapel and still mulling over the job offer, I asked a different question:
“Lord, what would bring You joy? How do You want me to serve?”
He didn’t answer by saying ,”You’ll bring me joy when you have a Ph.D.”; or, “You’ll delight me when you become a professor.” Instead, He whispered, ever so gently, “You bring me joy when you use the gifts I have given you, right here and now. You delight me already.”
In that moment, I knew I could stop striving. My heart, still in His presence, blossomed with consolation as I imagined myself teaching fourth-grade, exercising the gifts He’d given me right here, right now. I didn’t have to chase after enough. I could stop. I could rest. I could live into the calling He laid on my heart, instead of restlessly striving for “enough.”
The fears I’d clung to - that those closest to me would be disappointed by my choosing to teach instead of pursuing my doctorate - turned out to be mostly unfounded. My joy in following the call of the Holy Spirit became theirs. And as for the faceless social media multitude, whose approval somehow still felt necessary to me? I reminded myself that wasting my time wondering if they were impressed by me would never yield the peace that came from listening to the only voice that really matters - His.
I’m not saying that a Ph.D. will never be part of my story, or that I don’t aspire to teach at the university level at all anymore. But if I revisit that longing down the road, I pray that it will come from a place of wanting to more fully live into a new calling, than of hoping to finally become “good enough” in the pursuit.
In the meantime, I take confidence in knowing that God calls some Catholic women to get their doctorates, and He calls some of them to be fourth-grade teachers. And He calls some women to places and careers completely unrelated to either of those things. And you know something?
All of those roles are needed. All of those roles are good. And you, dear sister, you are enough, and you belong, and you have work to do in the Church and in the world no matter where He calls you.
Will you accept His invitation?
Your sister in Christ,
About the Writer: Sarah Zentner
Sarah Zentner received her BA in English from the University of San Diego in 2015 and graduated from Colorado State University in May 2019 with her MA in Literature. She currently teaches fourth grade for the Archdiocese of Denver and joyfully seeks truth, beauty, and goodness around life’s every corner. She considers herself the foremost American expert on all things “hygge” and can usually be found ensconced in her latest read, sipping a London Fog tea latte, or indulging in the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show. You can learn more about her at For Whom My Soul Blogs.