When Marilynne Robinson spoke at Taylor last spring, she told our students the same thing she tells her students in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
“Don’t view yourself as an apprentice,” she said. “The work you are doing here, now, is not preparation for the real work that will come later. The work you are doing now is the real work. Be serious about it.”
I often return to those words.
I have a hard time taking myself seriously. It feels vain, as if I’m giving my work more importance that it deserves. Instead, I like to downplay what I do.
“Oh, I just teach one class.”
“I wrote a little essay.”
“My garden is a disaster.”
But maybe to take my work seriously is less about believing that it’s important in some kind of global way - or that it’s more important than other people’s work. Maybe taking my work seriously simply means being responsible with it. I can downplay it to you, but I can’t downplay it to myself. I cannot become lazy in my vocation because I think it is small, or because I think the work I’m doing now is merely preparation for some mythical “real” work, later, in the “real” world.
Even so, viewing my work soberly is scary, because what if I try my best and still fail? My refusal to take my own life, work, and gifts seriously is often born out of a self-protective fear: if I’m not serious about something, it won't matter if fail at it.
Being earnest about my work and my desires, then, isn’t vain at all; it requires surrendered humility, because it requires the willingness to fall flat on my face when something I attempted comes to nothing.
When I find myself struggling to develop the courage to take myself seriously, I re-read what Paul wrote to the Galatians. I like the way The Message translates it:
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
It’s a conclusion that Denison Witmer also comes to on his self-titled album, a collection of songs that are ultimately about what it means to grow up. In “Take Yourself Seriously,” a track inspired by Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, he describes the realities of adult life - “Our days move so fast, there’s still too much to do,” he sings.
In the midst of that busy life, though, he promises that as we grow, if we have patience with ourselves, we may someday “endure simplicity enough to believe it.”
“Take yourself seriously,” the chorus says. “Everything, mysteriously.”
Recognizing yourself and your work as things that matter - and doing your creative best with your life, and your specific gifts - these, mysteriously, will move you through the complexity of mid-life to the simplicity that awaits.
The work you are doing now is the real work.
Take yourself seriously.