By Alie Benge
‘Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble’.
At the end of last year, I applied to do my masters in creative writing through the IIML. Only ten people get in each year, out of around 200 applications. So, when I decided to apply, I didn’t feel too hopeful about my chances. It wouldn’t have financially possible even if I had been accepted, but I figured I’d go for it anyway. It took about three months to write my application. In that time, everything changed. I got a new job and I decided to build a tiny house, which would reduce my living costs considerably. All of a sudden, it was financially possible! And then I did that thing I always do where I look at the pieces of my life and I jiggle them around, trying to fit them together, and I come up with a picture of what God’s plan is, like one of those wasjigs. I figured out what he was up to. He was putting things in place for me, I was going to get in.
When my application was finished, I sent it to readers. Everyone seemed happy. I got good feedback from another teacher at the IIML, an earlier encourager of my novel. This, combined with the fact that I had God-hacked my life plan, meant that I allowed myself to hope.
I’d been talking to my sister saying, “When are they going to write back? What if they don’t like me?”, and trying to bring it up in every conversation. She said that I was stressing about a uni course the way other people stress about crushes. In understanding why I got so obsessed with a uni course, it’s important to know, creative people need affirmation or permission in order to keep being creative. Enough people need to like your work, or it will never sell and you’ll have to keep your day job. This course wasn’t just about learning how to write – it was about being told that I was good enough to write. I made this course a crucial part of my life plan – the point where I would be given permission to be a writer.
And then I got the email that said: ‘Thank you very much for your application for the Writing for the Page stream of our 2016 MA programme. We are sorry to say that in the end it was not successful’.
I sat in my chair and stared at my bookshelf and felt like the colour was fading out of everything. It wasn’t just that I wouldn’t be doing the course. It was the understanding that I wasn’t Good Enough, and that next year’s publishing calendar will be filled with the people who were Good Enough, a community from which I am excluded. The next year stretched out in my mind – not as an equally worthwhile year in my life, but as the span of time I’d have to wait until I could apply again, this black hole of waiting that could end in the same result. I had my new job, and a tiny house to build, but those things were meant to enable my masters. I had back up plans but I couldn’t face any of them.
It pretty quickly dawned on me what I’d done. I’d made an idol, and it did what idols do – it let me down. I was vaguely aware of this happening during the application process. I knew it was becoming so big in my mind that it lost its shape and perspective, but I thought I could reset that once I’d heard back. But it never works like that. Months later, I’ve hardly written anything. I’ve pushed back my plans to start submitting things because I’m not Good Enough yet. There’s nothing harmless about idols.
I built my house on the sand, and it washed away. Really, this course is only a sub-idol. The true idol is my career. I want to be a writer, and being rejected from the course has made me wonder if that plan will fail. If that happened, I can’t help but wonder what the point would be. What am I supposed to do for the next 60 odd years? That thought is exactly the problem. I’ve allowed an earthly thing to give my life meaning – a thing that will spoil and fade. Goals are great. Make goals to your heart’s content, but don’t allow that goal to become something it’s not: meaning or identity. We can treat goals as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If the achievement of a goal is an end in itself, it can be celebrated for what it is. If it’s a means to an end – that end being the hope of fulfilment or purpose – the achievement can be followed by swift disappointment. If I hadn’t realised this now, I may one day have achieved my goal, only to find it didn’t fulfill the role that I had thought it would.
There’s nothing wrong with being focused and driven. This isn’t idolatry. When you make an idol, you let it direct your path. You expect it to save you, to give you meaning, identity and purpose. When the bottom falls out, it can feel like the end of things. My career can’t save me, it can’t take away my sin, or give me a secure foundation for hope and joy. Only Jesus can do that. He doesn’t have a waiting list, and he’ll never send a rejection email. He is sure and steady, and still there. I don’t need to mentally prepare myself for disappointment or rejection from him because it’s not coming. All of this doesn’t mean that I won’t try for my masters again at the end of the year, or that I don’t put myself out there, or be ambitious. It means I don’t put my faith in something that isn’t God.