by Jamie Hughes
In the fall of 2005, I was in the last semester of a master’s program. The only thing that stood between me and the M.A. in English I’d been diligently working toward for three years—through two job losses, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, and an out-of-state move—was a single class and the defense of my thesis.
One evening after class, my professor and I were walking through the deserted breezeway, continuing our discussion. In the middle of the sidewalk, she stopped and asked me, “You’re going on for your Ph.D., right?”
I told her I wasn’t sure, that I hadn’t had the bandwidth to think that far ahead, and she uttered one of the most flattering (and grossest) compliments I’ve ever received—“If you need to hock an organ, girl, do it. You’re bright, and you owe it to yourself to go get that degree.” She patted me on the shoulder and left me to my thoughts.
It was what I’ve come to call a “threshold moment,” a type of liminal space where the world holds its breath for a few beats, a caesura in the steady click-click-click of existence.
What my professor didn’t know was that I’d been wrestling with my faith, which I had just returned to after many years of wandering. The book we’d been discussing during our walk was Toni Morrison’s amazing novel Song of Solomon, which I was studying for the third or fourth time since I became a serious student of literature. At that time, I knew Morrison’s book inside and out. I could discuss it through a Marxist lens, a feminist lens, a Postmodernist lens, and a hundred more besides. I could analyze characters, setting, and plot down to the most minute detail and find every Christian allusion hidden in its pages.
That afternoon, as I was rereading the book for class, it struck me that while I could tell you any and everything you wanted to know about Ms. Morrison’s book, the other Song of Solomon—the one in the Old Testament—was utterly foreign to me. I’d never taken a pen or highlighter to those scant few pages, never analyzed its meaning or symbolism. And for the first time ever, that fact bothered me. Despite all the hours spent in a classroom or researching in the library, I was ignorant when it came to this book, and I knew I had a decision to make.
I could continue down the academic path toward a Ph.D. in literature. I had a great topic for my dissertation (Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy) and a supportive husband who was willing to pull up stakes and go with me. I could get funding, work as a teaching assistant, and make the dream happen. And what was more—I was darned good at it. I’d found my niche, the thing that I was uniquely created to do.
And yet, and yet …
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I realize now that my nascent faith would never have survived upper academia. All the compromises I would have had to make to blend in, be accepted, and gain tenure would have weakened my faith the way floodwaters erode a sturdy riverbank. That bright flame growing in the center of my being would likely have been extinguished by my honorable and (let’s be honest here) selfish pursuit.
In that threshold moment, I decided to stop my formal academic pursuits and return to the classroom as a teacher, and for that decision I am well and truly satisfied. It led me to a Christian school where I was surrounded and encouraged by other believers to think more deeply about my faith. It gave me time to study God’s Word and explore great theological works both ancient and modern, and today, fifteen years later, I’m putting all the skills I have to use in the field of Christian publishing. It’s a job I never knew existed, much less that I wanted to spend a decade of life doing. I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I was born to do.
Don’t get me wrong. I still wonder what it would have felt like to receive my doctoral hood. Some part of me still wants to be referred to as “Dr. Hughes,” to have students hang on my every word, to write the treatise on Mervyn Peake’s masterwork that will be cited for generations. But the yearning grows weaker by the day, especially when I consider something else Solomon said:
“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later thingsyet to be among those who come after” (Eccl. 1:8-11).
I could never have created something truly “new,” for there is no such thing. I am the new thing that’s being created and shaped every day by the hand of my master, and while I still don’t fully grasp Song of Solomon, I’m making progress. And somehow, that pursuit is altogether more fulfilling.
Jamie A. Hughes is a writer and editor living in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two adopted sons, and a pair of needy cats. She has written for Christianity Today, CT Women, Ink & Letters, The Brink, The Bitter Southerner, You Are Here Stories, Fathom Magazine, Comment Magazine, and Restoration Living. Follow her on Twitter or read more on her blog.
Wonderful, and very vulnerable article. I believe we can all relate to getting caught-up in our own pursuits and/or those of our children. Let’s face it; people will usually start by asking you things like what do you “do”, where did you attend college….
And if you’re looking to better understand The Song of Solomon, I highly recommend He Calls You Beautiful: Hearing the Voice of Jesus in The Song of Songs, by Dee Brestin.