As I approached the one-year anniversary of my graduation from college, I began to wonder about one of the descriptors I had on this blog and that I was using in my cover letters for job applications:
“Recent college graduate.”
I wondered if I could really identify myself as a “recent” graduate anymore. How long after graduation do I discontinue the word “recent”? When does “recent college graduate” become a way of saying “I have nothing better to call myself so I’m just going to keep identifying myself with my alma mater until a better descriptor is dropped into my lap”?
Imagine my delight, then, when I was offered my current missionary position. I could finally update my blog headline from “recent college graduate” to “missionary.” I no longer had to worry if I was growing out of that label.
A lot of things were taken from me when I started my work in West Virginia—having my own bedroom, my record player, my weekly paychecks, the convenience and variety of living in a city. I had to adjust to new norms, like living in community, making do with less, living off a modest monthly stipend, and traveling half an hour just to go to the grocery store or to church.
Though these changes were noticeable right away, it took me awhile to notice other changes that crept into my life since I started my work as a missionary. My panic over whether it was still appropriate to label myself as a “recent college graduate” and the relief I felt when I found a new role to live into should have been the first indicator of a tendency to identify myself in terms of external things. It’s a tendency I would have been uncomfortable acknowledging before I became a missionary, but it’s all too obvious to me now that I’ve had time away from those other things I tied so closely to my identity—collecting music and band merchandise, going to concerts, building up the wardrobe of my dreams, striving to be a better blogger with a bigger audience.
But getting away from those pressures and living a life of service has made me realize that what I am—writer, music lover, even missionary—doesn’t really matter. Because those things can be taken away. They WERE taken away from me. During the summer I had little time to write and to focus on this blog. I had little time and money to spend on music and I’m hours away from cities that host concerts I’d like to attend.
I instead have to learn to identify myself in new ways, in terms of things that are on the inside, in terms of my heart and of who I am and not what, which is hard for me. It’s hard because I’m so used to my old ways of identifying myself. And it’s hard because it means acknowledging good qualities about myself, which has always been difficult for me because I’m either too humble or have too little self-esteem (I can’t decide which it is) to name those things.
Thankfully, the people I work with and for don’t care too much about the “what’s” of my identity. They know that I write. They know that if I could I would zap myself to Madison, Wisconsin to catch Old Crow Medicine Show play there in early October. But they see so much more than that, too. They see someone who’s willing to live into whatever role and whatever task she’s given, even if she hasn’t been trained for it. They see someone who will take care of a need when she sees it, even if it cuts into her free time. They see someone who’s selfless and who will give even what she doesn’t know she has. And they see someone who’s tough (an adjective that I never would have used to describe myself until a fellow staff member used it to describe me). And I’m so glad that they see and are willing to point out those things in me, because God knows that I have trouble acknowledging them myself.
And I’m glad that those things have been pointed out to me, because living into who I am, on those gifts that have been laid on my heart, brings me greater peace and joy than focusing on those external things. Because focusing on things like my wardrobe and my music collection makes me restless for more. And even when I get more, I’m still not satisfied. And because those things don’t matter in the work I’m doing now, and they certainly don’t matter to the One I serve. My fellow missionaries and my supervisors care more about my talents than they do my favorite band. God cares more about my heart than the amount of clothes in my closet. That means that I should, too.
So let me introduce myself. I’m Erin. Yes, I love record stores and concerts and my teeny collection of band tees. Yes, I love putting outfits together and stringing words together. But I’m also hospitable. I’m also caring. I’m pretty good at connecting ideas and using that talent to create meaningful experiences for those I’m ministering to. I’m selfless, a servant ready and willing to put others’ needs before my own. And I’m, I guess, tough. These are the things I’m called to continue being as I serve the youth of West Virginia. And I’m sure there are many more things to discover about myself along the way.