Monday, July 18, 2011


One of the blessings of teaching writing is that I get to think about all kinds of topics--based on whatever the class is reading.

One semester I got to research the Enron debacle and greed.  Another semester we studied African-American rhetoric, slavery, and King.  Another semester we watched Food, Inc., and I became obsessed with eating naturally healthy foods and avoiding meat from CAFOs.  

I don't always get sucked in by the arguments we teach.  Sometimes I just think about things that I probably wouldn't have thought about otherwise.  

Right now we're reading about happiness.  Specifically, we are looking at research on what makes people happy.  

Apparently our American culture is obsessed with happiness, something that really isn't all that central if you don't have enough to eat on a daily basis or you live in a war zone.  And the irony is that studies show our country isn't any happier in 2011 than it was in the 1970s, when happiness research began.  

But that doesn't stop us from chasing after an increase in the happiness scale.  

First of all, a definition of happiness.  Oddly enough, the three articles we read for class have no criteria for measuring happiness other than what Daniel Bok describes as "subjective well-being."  In other words, if you think you're happy, you're happy. The scale makes sense.  Who, besides you, can tell you how happy you are?  

So I asked my students what makes them happy, and they came up with all kinds of things.  Parties.  New cars.  Hanging out with their friends.  Getting new clothes.  Acquiring a new cell phone or iPad.  

And in the introductory essays they wrote on the first day of class, in which I asked they why they decided to go to college, most of them told me they wanted to get a good education so they could get a good job so they could have a good life so they could be happy.  

But all of them acknowledged that parties and cars and hanging out with friends don't make them happy permanently.  Clothes get old.  Technology becomes obsolete.  

And not everyone graduating from college gets that amazing job.  Additionally, research consistently shows that once people make enough money to take care of basic needs, having more money doesn't make them happier.  

And so what makes us happy?  

A simplistic answer for Christians might be "knowing Jesus makes me happy," but I know Jesus and I'm not always jumping up and down.  And even if jumping up and down does not constitute subjective well-being for me, which it does not, I'm not always 10/10 on the happiness scale.  

Honestly, I'm hardly ever 10/10 on the happiness scale.  I'm not sure what that would look like.  

Moreover, I know a lot of Christians who aren't happy all the time, and quite a few that don't actually ever seem like they're happy.  

Researchers suggest that perhaps DNA or temperament plays a significant role in how we rate our own happiness.  You can't change that.  

So I'm left wondering if happiness, or subjective well-being, even ought to be a life objective, or if it is one of those serendipitous emotions we feel sometimes, but not always.  

At the same time, there's something to be said for being content with life and looking forward to the future.  And that makes me think of Paul in the book of Philippians.  

At the end of his letter, he thanks the people of Philippi for the monetary gift they gave him, and then he tells them, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances [in my life].  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."  (Philippians 4:11-12)

That's a pretty awesome secret.  So often we attach happiness to circumstances.  We say, "I will be happy when [fill in the blank]."

I will be happy when I finish my thesis.
I will be happy when I find a writing job.
I will be happy when I go on vacation.

I will be happy when I get a new laptop.
I will be happy when I get married.
I will be happy when I have children.
I will be happy when . . .

And the thing is, Paul is saying that happiness, or contentedness, or subjective well-being, is not dependent on circumstances.

And here is Paul's secret:

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

In redefining happiness, in separating his subjective well-being from his circumstances, Paul changes his expectations.  He puts his trust in God.  He prays about everything and worries about nothing.

He stops saying, "I will be happy when ____________" and rejoices in God's plan for him today.

And quite honestly this doesn't make a lot of sense logically.  It only makes sense if you absolutely believe God loves you and cares for you and wants to work through you in everything.  It only makes sense if you have hope in the future, if you keep in mind "the joy set before you."

Here I'm referencing Hebrews 12:2.  In this passage, the writer of Hebrews admonishes his readers to run the race set before them, no matter how hard it is, to remember those who have gone before, to keep their eyes on Jesus, who suffered the cross because of the joy of sharing in fellowship with all of them.  That's all of us.  

Certainty of happiness in the future, of joy in the future, equals strength to endure whatever happens today, and contentedness with whatever happens today, and even happiness or joy today.

But that certainly only comes through God's strength.

Again, none of this makes logical sense.  Unless you believe God loves you and loves mankind and wants to have fellowship with you.  Unless you believe that walking through difficulty or monotony will bring you into that fellowship.

And so I return to this idea of happiness.  Should this be a primary goal in our lives?  Should we keep chasing after the things that make us happy, for the sake of happiness?  Remember, research and experience demonstrate that most things that make us happy don't make us happy for very long.

For the record, I don't think Paul was chasing happiness.  I think he discovered contentment when he chased after God.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning to Move Through an Existential Crisis

Confession time.  I'm not exactly sure what an existential crisis is.  But I think I'm having one.

Who am I? What am I doing? What do I next?

What if it doesn't work?
What if I can't find work?

See, the way I'm using the word "existential" is related to my existence and not to "existentialism," which thoroughly confused me when I was 17 and which I never studied after that.

I suppose we all go through these crises as we go through life.  I also suppose it's part of experiencing change,  whether we chose the changes or the changes choose us.

Nothing ever stays the same, and although some people may journey through life without freaking out, I am not one of those people.  I maintain that most of us face these existential crises periodically, but we just navigate them a little differently.  (Or a lot differently.)

At any rate, I chose the changes I'm experiencing right now.  I chose to redirect my life.  I chose to go after writing and teaching and taking risks.  And I'm not second guessing my choices--I would make them again--I just don't know what to do next.  I don't know how to move forward.

Moving forward.  We move forward at many times in our lives:

  • After finishing school.
  • After getting laid off.  Or fired.
  • After losing a friend or a family member to death.  
  • After a divorce.
  • After surgery.
  • After starting a family.

We choose to move forward when we
  • Get married.
  • Start a family.
  • Go after a new job.
  • Return to school.
  • Decide a major.  
  • Apply for jobs.
From my perspective, some people seem to move forward effortlessly, boldly, without fear.  I do not.  Most people do not.  The risks of change, of moving, can seem monumental.  But nothing ever stays the same, and even if we do not choose to move, the world will nudge--or push--us into moving eventually.

And so we must learn to move.  To take risks.  To try new things.  Things that take a lot of work.  That put us in new situations.  That that challenge us.  And we have to persevere.  Keep going.  Keep moving.  

At the same time, we must build and maintain structures of stability in our lives.  Friends that move alongside us.  They don't necessarily go with us, but they encourage us in our journeys, and we encourage them in theirs.  

And we look straight ahead to Jesus, the author and completer of our faith.  We all always be moving, but he never changes.  

I think I haven't done so well on building and maintaining structures of stability recently, and now I'm trying to go back and rebuild them.  I got so focused on the moving and the finishing that I forgot where I was going and how to get there.  Hence, my existential crisis.  

And honestly, although this blog is about my existential crisis and my inability to move and my disappointment at waking up and figuring out that I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing or where I'm headed and I feel all alone, I know I'm not the only one.

I know someone reading this is living through an existential crisis right now.  Probably not for the same reasons, but there are a lot of reasons to have an existential crisis.  I have one every time I reinvent myself.  And I suppose the point is, and I really am trying to make a point out of my angst, that this is normal and we need to keep going, keep moving, keep looking to the future.  And keep looking to Jesus, who gives us strength to keep moving.  And who comforts us in our angst.  And find people to journey with us along the way.

And I suppose finding those people is a struggle in and of itself.  Maybe I should write about that.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Last January I went to an English department forum on getting jobs in community colleges.  A professor from Mesa College suggested getting a certificate to expand the number of classes we could teach.  For example, reading or English as a Second Language.  Great career move.

I visited an ESL class and loved the students.  I filled out an application for an internship--and then I crossed my fingers.  Well, I got the internship and now I need to take a few classes to get the certificate.  

The internship and the classes add up to a lot of hours, and that could leave me unable to teach writing, my first love.  And that's assuming I could find a class or two to teach anyways.  

So great career move, but I don't know if my heart's in it.  

Last night I went to an informal gathering of interns and mentors and I gravitated toward the English teachers. Because that's what I love.  I totally love English.  

I've never made what's considered good career moves.  I've never even made career moves in the past.  I just kind of went along with the flow.  

Ultimately, this can help my career teaching English as well because I'll make great contacts.  And it will help my ability to teach ESL students in the regular classroom, one of my original goals.  

But this next year will be incredibly hard.  Sigh.  Sometimes I don't like being an adult. 

Friday, July 1, 2011


I like writing in the blogging box.  It makes me happy. And I don't know why, but I think it's easier to write in the box than to write on a blank Word screen.  That's why I'm writing my thesis acknowledgments here.

My thesis is done, and all I have left is to write an acknowledgment page.  I've sat in front of my computer for the last thirty minutes trying to adequately recognize the many individuals who have helped me in my pursuit of a Master's Degree.  Honestly, I've been thinking about this page for nearly a year, trying to figure out how to thank those who have influenced my love of words and who have challenged me to seek answers to my many questions.

The problem is that I don't know where to start or how to fit this on a single page.  It's probably not possible to thank everyone, and I hesitate to start naming names for fear that I will leave someone out.  I probably don't need to worry.  It's not like they'll all read this page anyway.

I want to begin by thanking my mom and dad for encouraging my natural love for language and learning.  Every Saturday, when I was little, my dad gave me fifty cents, and we went to the book store and I bought a new book.  I don't know what other kids did with their allowance, but I wanted books.  My dad seemed to like that.  I never went anywhere without a book, and my dad seemed to like that too.  My dad's gone now, but I know he would be incredibly proud of his little girl who has grown up to become a teacher and a writer and an academic.

I have to thank Pastor Mike at Newbreak Church for challenging me to read the Bible and figure out what it says.  I grew up in a Christian home and memorized countless Scriptures, but I never really spent much time mulling over the meaning of passages or considering what the writers were trying to do.  I didn't know it at the time, but this was my first attempt at rhetorical analysis, and I loved it.  Not only did Mike whet my appetite for reading and studying books of the Bible, he allowed me to participate on the sermon team.  Together, we spent many hours in his office studying passages, looking at commentaries, and developing sermon outlines.  Mike has an amazing knack for knowing how to communicate persuasively, and I learned a great deal from watching him.  Working as his assistant renewed my desire to hone my own communication skills.

Despite my growing passion for rhetorical studies, I entered school cautiously.  I wasn't sure I could succeed at the graduate level, but the professors in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies department at San Diego State are amazing.  In particular, I want to thank Dr. McClish, who has challenged me to write precisely, most specifically in this thesis.  He graciously spent time answering questions and challenging me to think about new concepts.  Dr. McClish acts as a model for the type of teacher I desire to be.   I also want to thank Dr. Robinett for her cheerful smile and encouraging words.  Running into her in the hallways always brightens my day.  And I must thank her for pushing me into the Rhetoric, Literacy, and Technology class (RWS 511) taught by Dr. Werry.  Honestly, that class changed my understanding about writing and technology and language.  I never would have taken that class if she had not gently nudged me into it, and if I hadn't taken that class, I never would have discovered this project.  Thank you!

I can't thank Dr. Werry enough for introducing me to new media studies.  I love all aspects of rhetoric, but this one challenges my imagination in unique ways.  The class provided a broad overview on the topic of new media literacy studies, and Dr. Werry offered additional and extensive help as I began studying the rhetoric of Internet churches.  He pointed me in all the right directions and graciously challenged me to narrow my focus multiple times.  He empathized with my desire for perfection and consistently reminded me to give myself grace.  Over the course of the last year-and-a-half, he has spent many office hours listening to me talk about my research, discussing it with me, and asking questions prompting new lines of research.  I cannot thank him enough for his academic mentoring, related to this thesis as well as to pedagogy.

One of my greatest challenges is that I am insecure and doubt my abilities.  Certainly my professors were helpful in overcoming my timidity, but without my friends and family, I don't know that I ever would have returned to school.  I have been blessed with a great number of men and women in my life who pray for me, laugh with me, and lovingly prod me to finish.  Special thanks to Rodney and Beth for dinners with pinochle and bottles of red wine, to Dan and Denise for accepting me exactly as I am and making me laugh about it, to Amanda who doesn't mind telling me what to do, to Portia has prayed and fasted for this project, to Nancy who amuses me with Facebook anecdotes while I am writing, and to Cheryl, who loves unconditionally.  You remind me that there is more to life than school, and I am especially grateful for that.

I know there are more people I should thank--all the women in the Life Group that just ended and the Life Group before that and some former coworkers and the list goes on and on.  I cannot list all your names so I will thank you in person as I see you.

Additional thanks to Michelle Barbeau, Bridget Malaney, and Laura Hofreiter, who are also in the final stages of finishing their theses in the RWS department.  Together, we have commiserated about the process of thesis writing and graduate studies and the challenge of teaching and finishing school.  It's been good to know I'm not in this alone.

And finally, I must thank my family.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how blessed I am to have you in my life.  Thank you for encouraging me to keep going.  Thank you for challenging me to pursue goals set aside many years ago.  Thank you for doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen, taking me out to dinner, doing countless other things I didn't have the energy to do, and putting up with incoherent monologues about Aristotle, Walter Ong, and computer-mediated communication.

I am grateful for all the people God has placed in my life.  No accomplishment is every achieved independently.  I could not have finished this project on my own.