Turning Inwards

I recently finished my first year of law school. As that recognition sank in, I came across feelings that were nowhere to be found when I finished my freshman year at college. I felt pangs of nostalgia for the rapid learning process of the first year and its many formative moments. I swam in a pool of regret, interrogating myself to see if I had worked hard enough to squeeze ever ounce of worth out of the year.

Those who are close to me know that I am not one interested in getting stuck in the past. I’m a dogged adventurer in search of the elusive present and I view nostalgia and regret with suspicion. From my view, they are the poison-tipped weapons of time past. Wary of their toxins, I’ve spent a lot of time since the year ended trying to sort out the feelings of nostalgia and regret.

To make sense of those feelings, I decided to get extremely close with them. From my own experience, you cannot truly understand what’s going on in your mind unless you are willing to sit with it all for a while, even when it gets uncomfortable. If you can weather the storm, you might just make it to its eye and see things a little more clearly.

With fits and starts, I got close – and found that the feelings dissipated. Regret and nostalgia were simply veneers; something different sat beneath the surface.

It was not the feeling of regret for what was left undone in the past that was pulling at me; it was a fierce commitment to learning and growing in this moment and the next. I was not regretting my navigation of the first year of law school, I was trying to gather the lessons about focus, balance, and care in order to bring them to bear on today. It was a reaffirmation of the virtuous hustle for worthy ends. I wasn’t lost in the past, I was only finding my bearings and making sure I was still moving in the right direction.

It was not the emotion of nostalgia that I was feeling; it was the pressure of a bursting soul. The year’s end finally offered a moment to turn inwards, unencumbered by the distractions of the day-to-day, and, in a flash, I witnessed all the energy I had taken in during months past and subsequently made my own. While I’ve felt a lot of confusion and doubt this past year, plagued by questions of whether law school was even right for me or what should come next, I’ve also slowly built a process of becoming, the sort that Kurt Vonnegut pushed us to chase after. I mistook the opening in the present for the growth of the last year to show itself for a longing for the process of growth itself.

Stripped of these veneers, I had a clearer sense of what was swirling in my head. With that clarity in tow, I re-read both a journal entry from the midst of my first quarter and an essay on capital-H Hope I wrote in the wake of the death’s of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – all the more relevant after the tragedy of Charleston – and noticed that in both cases I was mulling over the same wonderful language from Victoria Safford’s “The Small Work in the Great Work”:

“You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…

There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”

I am wondering and wandering into a sense of how I might stand at a gates of Hope. I feel in myself an intensity that I have touched before but am only now systematically feeding. Where that intensity takes me, I still do not know. As I wrote in that journal entry, I’m not due some clarifying realization. To be honest, anyone who tells you that they do know is fooling themselves. I revisit Paulo Friere’s words often – “We make the road by walking.” – because they hold so much truth.

Far from regret and nostalgia grabbing at me from the past, the feelings brought on by the close of the year were instead rooted in the present: a commitment to the hustle today and tomorrow and a thankful witnessing of my growing soul. As the next moments tumble into one another and the steady beat of my footsteps slowly carve out the road ahead, I would do well for myself to regularly pause, turn inwards, and not lose sight of the true feelings underneath it all.