Remember how I’m a commitaphobe?
Well this semester has been especially painful for my indecisive self because this is the last semester of my MA which means… picking a thesis topic. Even though I selected the extra class/ shorter thesis option, it still means picking a topic to invest in all semester. Finding topics is not my problem. I have in fact found at least four that intrigue me. But picking just one… I can’t do it. I love them all. How can I say goodbye to Proust? Or give up the chance to spend all semester with Camus? Or relinquish the work I have already put into animals in Colette?
These are the anguishing everyday decisions of academia.(FIRST WORLD PROBLEM.) I am fully aware that they are not decisions that actually affect anything beyond my desk, but they are still ones I have to make.
Last week I went to talk with my committee members, hoping they could help me muddle through my decision. Of course, they too are academics because they couldn’t handle the thought of ceasing to learn, so it didn’t really provide a clear answer. This whole process ended with me in one of their offices babbling about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree.
What – you haven’t been flipping through depressing modern lit lately? I finally read the Bell Jar a couple years ago and I think it will be one of those books that has marked me, that will stay with me throughout the years. That doesn’t mean I liked it, but I resonated with it. The part that I rethink so often is the scene where the narrarator depicts the crippling reality of freedom and unlimited options:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
Dramatic, I know, but doesn’t it sometimes feel like that? Wouldn’t we sometimes rather starve to death in the fig tree than choose something and be happy with it? Yes, Sylvia is writing about a feminine reality that isn’t totally true anymore. We can have a career and a family, we can choose two figs. But two still isn’t all of them. There are figs that will fall around us as we choose starvation.
The professor who had to listen to my fig frustration advised me to just go home and start writing a description of each potential thesis, claiming that the one I wanted most would just reveal itself. She was right. I now have a topic, one that I am choosing to stick with, despite how temptingly figgy some of those other topics still look.
Today I opened the mail to find an article* from my mother about this very issue. It hit home with me so I just wanted to end this reflection on the hunger in fig trees with these words from Barry Cooper:
“We worship the god of open options. And he is killing us. He kills our relationships, because he tells us it’s better not to become too involved. He kills our service to others because he tells us it might be better to keep our weekends to ourselves. He kills our giving because he tells us these are uncertain financial times and you never know when you might need that money. He kills our joy in Christ because he tells us it’s better not to be thought of as too spiritual….The living God, the loving, triune God, did not create us to keep our options open. He didn’t create us to live in fear of making a choice….The god of open options is a cruel and vindictive god. He will break your heart. He will not let anyone get too close. But at the same time, because he is so spiteful, he will not let anyone get too far away because that would mean they are no longer an option. On and on it continues, exhausting and frustrating and confusing and endless, pulling towards and then pushing away, like the tide on a beach, never finally committing one way or the other….The god of open options is also a liar. He promises you that by keeping your options open, you can have everything and everyone. But in the end, you get nothing and no one….Choose the God of infinite possibility who chose to limit himself to a particular time, a particular place, and a particular people.“
*Read the full article here.