Not Having the Answer is My Answer
By Tara Smart, Ed.S.
I returned to graduate school in 2012 after living and working in the professional world for over a decade. In fact, 12 years ago I graduated from the University of Montana with an Ed.S in School Psychology. I had survived the onslaught of stress that graduate school threw at me the first time. While working towards my Ed.S, friends and family often asked “What are you going to do when you graduate?” I always responded—with confidence—that I would be working as a school psychologist. People often commented that the financial, mental, and emotional stress of graduate school would all be worth it, since I had a solid plan for the future. Their affirming responses reassured me that I was suffering for a good cause and that it would all be worth it in the end. I was nearly immune to the stress of everyday life, because I was already living in the future.
This time around, my rendezvous with graduate school is a completely different experience. I’m now in my second year in the Counselor Education and Supervision Department at the University of Montana, and I fumble over my words every time the question about my future plan gets asked. And it gets asked quite frequently. Initially I hoped that, over time, my answer would evolve and then flow smoothly from my mouth. I have come to realize, however, that there is and will be no flow. I simply don’t know the answer. Instead of receiving affirmation, I watch people’s faces scrunch up and a concerned smile cross their lips. Their heads tilt and although they utter words of encouragement, their body language shouts that I’m a pitiful soul locked in the dungeons of graduate school purgatory for what seems like no good reason. This mixed message makes me uncomfortable, so I try to minimize the stress of the situation by reassuring others that I’m okay and that I’ll figure out the answer eventually.
But underneath my reassurance to them, and to me, questions linger: Why do I even feel the need to have an answer to this question? Why does a confident answer assure others, and more importantly, why do I need it as reassurance for myself? It occurred to me while listening to a mortgage commercial on the radio, that modern society often focuses on looking to the future. Buying a house, long term care insurance, and retirement planning all promise us that if we make sacrifices today, then we can live a perfect life in the future. The planned future is always bright and full of potential. The future—although it obviously hasn’t happened yet, somehow compensates me for painful decisions in the present. If I don’t like my job, I just look at my retirement account and tell myself to keep on plugging away, because there will happiness at the end of this work rainbow. For me, in the past, the future was a pretty decent place to live, until I realized I was missing out on the present.
The present is jumping on the trampoline with my boys. That moment is filled with laughter and love. The present is going to Lolo for Sunday dinner with grandparents. It’s typing this blog at the computer with my cat purring on my lap. The present isn’t just hopes and dreams, it is reality. It’s not always as grand and fantastic as an imagined future, but it’s always real. I can touch, smell, and experience it. Now, I’ve decided I like the present, even though it’s still a struggle for me to remain here.
Intentionally deciding to remain in the present has implications for how I handle myself. It means I don’t need an answer to the question. It means I’m not failing when I don’t have an answer. It just means I don’t know yet.
Not knowing yet is different than never knowing. I trust the present to guide me to the future. I trust the present to bring me happiness and wisdom. Before, I was good at answering questions about the future because I was good at living in the future. I wasn’t able to enjoy the present moment. But now I’m living in the present and trusting myself that my future will evolve exactly as it needs to based on how I live each and every day.
When I realized that my discomfort and inability to answer the question was a reflection of an enhanced ability and comfort to stay in the present, my shoulders relaxed and I let out a deep sigh of relief. I don’t need to know what I’m going to do when I’m done with graduate school, again. I can enjoy this moment, this day, and this journey. Not having an answer to the question doesn’t mean, as I’d feared, that I’ve foolishly entered graduate school and will waste time and money since there’s no solid plan for the future. In fact, it has helped me understand that my plan for the future is to live in the present each day because this is a journey that’s worth savoring.