In the scriptures, we find (among other things) stories we slip into in order to make sense of our lives. We are Adam and Eve, Joseph preparing for a famine, David facing Goliath, Alma the Younger looking back at his choices. We teach people to seek answers by earnestly praying like Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. I’ve never been the rich young man, but I’ve been a good Samaritan a time or two.
And I was once Lehi, warned to take my family and flee. I mean that metaphorically, but not figuratively.
* * *
My visiting faculty phase spanned 13 years, six states and one foreign country. It started with an incident that I couldn’t easily dismiss as mere coincidence. With a recently conferred degree and a fruitless year of applications behind me, a series of improbable events (like the factory shipping the wrong part to the garage working on our car) meant that we waited a day longer to leave our Midwestern grad school town, and so I was literally sitting next to the phone when the head of a late spring search committee called. I picked up the phone, set up an interview, and was hired two days later (at which point I was already in another state). I had misgivings about taking a job with low pay and a high teaching load in a city far from family or anywhere we’d ever lived, but it turned out to be a great experience and the first solid evidence that I was actually cut out for the academic career I hoped for.
And so “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go” became half theme song, half covenant. I still can’t make it through the first verse before my voice fails, no matter how I tell myself that this time I’ll be fine.
And the academic job market became my own personal oracle, my personal conduit to the divine will. A few years later, as that first job was ending and another job search was lurching to a halt, the dean at a Big 10 school called up to offer me a job I had applied to but never interviewed for. A year later, a research postdoc came through. The position after that was a poor fit, but close to grandparents. When it ended and all my efforts to find another position were proving futile, my mother found an opening I had missed. It’s a cliché of academic job market black humor, the parent who tells their child to send an application to their alma mater, but my mother actually pulled it off. At each stop, the agreement grew stronger: give me a place to go, and I’ll do what you want me to do.
For over a decade, the academic job market was my personal ball of curious workmanship telling me where to go – until one day it was not. There came an earthquake and a whirlwind and a fire, so to speak, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, or the whirlwind, or the fire.
As usual, another visiting position was coming to an end. As ever, my search for the next position had stretched late into the academic year, and then into the summer. There was a promising job for which I ticked every box, but the search committee head remained distant throughout the conversation. After that came the next interview with another search committee, this time leading to a job offer. And the still small voice said You should not accept this job.
* * *
Let me clarify that I don’t mean a still small voice literally, but neither do I mean it figuratively. While I have had some rare experience with perceiving an answer to prayer as a voice – enough experience at least to convince me that “still small voice” is not a mere figure of speech – I confess most of my experiences receiving divine guidance have been less verbal. You could call them promptings. They had included things like You should invite that girl to your sister’s wedding reception on your third date or You should not go off to grad school without her and, five years later, after a day of fasting and archival research, You should keep going with your dissertation, and however this pregnancy works out, or doesn’t work out, you can accept it.
And that June, when the academic job market was all but finished for the year and I had a job offer in hand and no other options, it was telling me You should not accept this job.
The job came with more than the usual number of red flags. Although it was renewable, it seemed like a dead end with no future. Most concerning was that it made no sense for the department to offer me the job, and the department head couldn’t explain why they had. I had a few days to decide whether to take a job I didn’t want, or to throw away a career I had spent 20 years working toward.
I took the job.
* * *
From the moment I accepted the offer until the day we moved, everything felt wrong. I wanted to call up our landlord and renew the lease and tell the moving truck not to show up. When the truck was halfway loaded, I felt like the better option was to unpack it. But I didn’t.
This is what happens when you ignore the promptings of the holy spirit: You arrive in your new town and never can shake the feeling that you don’t belong there. The job you moved across the country for turns out to be just as bad as you’d expected, but with none of the pleasant surprises you’d hoped for. As you watch the downward slope of your net worth point towards an impending financial crisis, you realize that throwing your career away would have been the better choice. You see your family going through each day more as spectators of their own lives than participants. Your child’s therapist calls and says she has some serious information she needs to share with you. You end journal entries with things like “this could be the week when all dreams die” and start the next one with “yeah, pretty much.”
(Ignoring spiritual promptings didn’t cause the difficulties in our new town, any more than ignoring a fire alarm will cause your house to burn down. Rather than causing the problem, the alarm was doing everything in its power to prevent it.)
* * *
But the thing about ignoring the promptings of the holy spirit is that the holy spirit does not ignore you. Before we moved, our home teacher showed up just as we were trying to haul some heavy appliances out of the basement because he felt like he should stop by. Our new ward welcomed us and helped us in critical ways, including help finding the therapist our child needed.
Six weeks into the fall semester, what the holy spirit told me was You can’t stay here. It isn’t safe for your family.
* * *
Lehi too made preparations for his journey. I sent out more applications, and crossed each one off the list as it went nowhere. I contacted mentors and colleagues, but none of them had anything promising to report. Despite that, my conviction grew that we couldn’t stay longer than that academic year. Eventually I told my colleagues that I wouldn’t be back in the fall, and an advertisement was placed to hire my replacement. (It turns out that I had been occupying someone else’s dream job; my departure made it possible for her to be hired.)
We packed up our belongings and loaded our boxes onto a moving truck. What we didn’t have was anywhere for the truck to go, so we let it sit in storage for the bargain price of $395/month.
And then, like Lehi (as I told myself at the time), I set out with my family in our Caravan, fleeing a town where we didn’t belong, hoping that we would find a destination along the way as we visited friends and family and several of the places we had previously lived.
* * *
We drove back the way we came to the city we had left less than a year ago. As we drove into town and our children met up with their friends, I saw them happy and excited in a way I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. But we could only stay a few days.
At our hotel, my son asked me: Can’t I stay longer? I could stay with my friend’s family. I answered by telling him how at certain times in my life, ideas had come to me that wouldn’t make much sense to an outside observer (like that invitation to a wedding reception on the third date). The previous summer I had taken the rational option against my gut feeling, and it turned out badly. This time, the idea that came to me was to move out of our home, visit all the people and places we knew, and consider our options. These visits were important and we needed him with us, but I didn’t know what would come after that.
The next day, I stopped by my former department unannounced. The department head was in his office trying to figure out how to cover a couple of courses in the fall. I told him I’d be interested in teaching them, and he found some online courses that needed to be created as well. For him, it was a fairly typical part of his day, a surprising but welcome chance to solve a temporary staffing issue. For me, Lehi fleeing Jerusalem without a known destination, it was far more: not just the first indication that my idea wasn’t going to end badly, with no job, no home, and nowhere to go, but a way to have nearly everything that had seemed like an impossible dream for the last year. Once I made it out of the building, I asked myself What just happened? This wasn’t God moving in mysterious ways; this was club-you-over-the-head-until-you-believe levels of obviousness.
So the reason I now live – again – in a small city in a remote part of the upper Midwest, a place no one (apart from a few hockey fanatics) would call the promised land, is that’s where our metaphorical ship came to rest. A part-time position that has me teaching fully online most semesters isn’t most people’s idea of an ideal outcome, but for us it was the critical difference between having nowhere to go, and having a reason to move back to the one place my children needed to be and where there were people who needed us.
* * *
Just to be clear, fleeing into the wilderness comes with its own challenges. Even Lehi and Sariah had some unhappy moments. I don’t know what would have happened if I had turned down the job offer. That option also came with a set of difficulties. Life isn’t really tenable if you’re unemployed, you know? I suspect that the eventual solution would have resembled what I’m doing now, but there’s no way to know for sure.
In the same way, if I had missed that long-ago phone call and my visiting faculty career had never launched, I probably would have eventually found something else to do. The unemployment rate among humanities PhDs is quite low. Most of all it’s comforting to know that you can make some dumb choices and not lose all access to spiritual promptings.
I wouldn’t recommend our particular course of action to anybody. There are perfectly rational alternatives like exploring alternative career options and making a geographically targeted job search. But when those methods fail, the scriptures can provide alternative models to work with.
You can dismiss this all as coincidence and flimsy emotion if you want, but I think that’s a dismal way to go through life, and also you’d be wrong. I’ve come as close to A/B testing following vs. ignoring the promptings of the holy spirit as I care to get, and the results are quite clear. When I have followed those promptings, my life has been significantly improved in critical ways, while when I ignored them the results were much worse. What you do with that information is up to you.