Before I began writing professionally, I worked as a volunteer fossil preparator at a prestigious natural history museum. My childhood ambition was to become a paleontologist. I wanted to attend graduate school, perhaps earn a Ph.D., and devote my life to studying fossils. After earning my bachelor’s degree, I was working in a promising museum internship that I hoped would be the beginning of a long and fulfilling career in paleontology.
Then the 2020 pandemic struck. Museums across the nation closed their doors to the public and laid off unessential staff. My internship ended abruptly and job opportunities in the paleontology field, already scarce and competitive before COVID, all but vanished completely in the economic turmoil. So many doors that had seemed wide open to me were suddenly slammed shut.
My dream career was, as far as I could see, over for good. I might have despaired, but instead I looked for ways I could turn what talents and skills I had into new opportunities. My other great childhood passion was creative writing. I felt a growing desire to serve God and my community by educating, inspiring, and entertaining with my essays and stories. In particular, I wanted to write books for children and teens.
One day recently, I was looking around my small writer’s workspace and noticed my bookshelves sagging under the weight of a huge collection of paleontology books – textbooks, field guides, lab manuals, and technical encyclopedias. I had acquired many of these dense tomes in college and I hadn’t used or even really looked at them in years. I was reminded of a pithy statement from the Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca: “If you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.”
Why was I holding on to these paleontology books? Various excuses and rationalizations immediately sprung to mind: I spent so much money on them! I might go back to school someday. What if I need them for a future research project?
But when I was brutally honest with myself, I knew that I wasn’t really attached to the books themselves. I was trying desperately to cling to what they represented: my former career as a paleontologist. I knew in my heart that this attachment was holding me back. I couldn’t freely and enthusiastically pursue my new career path as a writer if I was still shackling myself to past disappointments. With this in mind, I gathered up all my paleontology textbooks and put them in a pile so that they could be donated to my local library book drop.
Then I froze with indecision. Can I really just give away all these books? Wouldn’t that be a waste? What about all those years of hard work in college? Or at the museum? I can’t really turn my back on all that, can I? I found myself sorely tempted to return the books to the shelf, so I changed tactics.
When decluttering, I’ve found it extremely helpful to examine my unused possessions in light of my priorities. I ask myself two important questions about each object: 1. “Is this item somehow helping me grow closer to God or deepen my faith?” 2. “Is this item helping me achieve my goal of writing more children’s books this year?” If I can’t answer “yes” to either of those questions, the item goes in the trash or (if lightly used) is donated to my local thrift store.
When I applied this exercise to my paleontology books, I felt liberated! The next day I donated them all to the library. The two simple questions I mentioned above helped me to detach the process of “letting go” from the powerful emotions of disappointment and regret I still felt over the end of my museum career.
This experience reminded me vividly of a scene from C.S. Lewis’ wonderful novel “The Great Divorce.” In the story, souls from hell take a kind of day trip to the outskirts of heaven, where each one is given a choice. They can choose to repent and begin a process of purgation and healing. Or they can continue to cling to their sins and disordered attachments and return to the netherworld forever.
One of these poor souls carries a red lizard on his shoulder which whispers to him incessantly. The creature represents the man’s vices and earthly attachments. An angel approaches and offers to free the soul from his burdensome companion. When the soul dithers with indecision, the angel clarifies: “I cannot kill it [the red lizard] against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” Although terrified of this emotionally painful procedure, the soul eventually consents. When the angel kills the lizard, both the man and the reptile are transformed, reborn as heavenly creatures.
Even though the process of emotional healing can be a wrenching, even painful, experience at first, I’ve found that simple acts of trusting in God’s goodness, and cultivating a healthy detachment from old ways of thinking and doing things, can be truly transformative.
Since I acted on my decision to part with my old textbooks, it’s become a lot easier for me to give up other “stuff” that has accumulated in my life – unread books, old clothes, and various knickknacks that used to hold sentimental meaning, but had become burdensome debris in my closet! I’ve also experienced a renewed creative energy – I’m exploring ways I can incorporate my love for paleontology and fossils into my creative writing projects, such as using dinosaurs to tell children’s stories!
I’m having fun doing what I love. I no longer feel regret that the pandemic forced me to change my career goals – indeed I now see more clearly how God can perform miracles in my life when I choose to cooperate with his grace. When I give the Lord “permission” to get rid of even my most precious attachments, they can be reborn in ways I never expected.