Faithful Is Successful: Interview with Matthew Cabeen

ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful, chatting with Matthew Cabeen about career/family life balance. You can read Daniel Roeber’s post on Matthew Cabeen’s Faithful Is Successful essay here. Matthew Cabeen is a postdoctoral fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Foundation studying in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. He studies bacterial community behavior in Bacillus subtilis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the laboratory of Prof. Richard Losick. He conducted his doctoral studies with Professor Christine Jacobs-Wagner in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at Yale University. Matt lives with his wife, Rose, and their three young sons, Tommy, Benjamin, and Henry, in Boston, Massachusetts. The Cabeens attend church at their local Roman Catholic parish, St. Ann.

1. ESN: You talk in this essay about the delight and value of making space for a vibrant family life even as someone with a busy academic career. I’m curious if there are any ways that you find insights in your academic work and insights in your family life overlapping. Do you ever discover that God is teaching you about your family life through your academic career, or vice versa?

Matthew: A congressperson once asked a scientist, “Why should we keep funding so many research projects when such a small percentage actually make important contributions to human society?” The scientist replied, “You are right that very few projects have profound results. But the problem is that we don’t know beforehand which few projects will be the important ones! So we have to do them all.”

Any researcher reading this will recognize that this paradigm also holds for individual research projects. Sometimes experiments fail, maybe for weeks or months at a time. Many hypotheses are wrong, or the data are inconclusive, and it feels as though you are just wasting your time. But then there are breakthroughs that make all the frustrations fade from memory.

I see an important parallel to family life here. Much of the time we spend with our families may seem boring, routine, or even annoying! We fight the kids night after night about brushing their teeth, struggle to get them to say “please” and “thank you”, and deal with their endless litany of requests (I especially think of my wife, Rose, who deals with this all day, every day). However, the perseverance and hard work pay off at those special moments we have with a child or spouse, or when a child is polite without prompting, does something kind, or says something profound. But, just as with research, we can’t predict when those moments will come! The only way to be there for the most precious moments is to be there for all those boring and frustrating moments, too.

Tending to the relational needs of a family reminds me that all persons, even scientists, are human beings with needs and personal challenges to which we must be sensitive. It is tempting, in the “objective” world of hard science, to forget that scientists are not just robots that somehow transcend the messiness of human life to conceive and perform experiments. Our own struggles, we think, are unimportant compared to Doing Science! Of course, we and our colleagues have the same needs for human fulfillment that all persons have. A sensitivity to this fact is especially important when mentoring our junior colleagues, as a person who has balanced priorities and who is secure and relatively unstressed is a person who will not only be generally happier and a more pleasant colleague but will also be a more productive and successful professional.

2. ESN: What are some of the harder challenges in making family your priority while also pursuing an academic career, and how have you and your wife approached those challenges? Do you have any practical suggestions for managing it all that you’d like to share with other academics?

Matthew: There are these two desires I have, namely money and power. In both cases, the root vice is pride: I want people to see me and want my big house and influential job. Making a choice for family is a struggle against these very desires. Why? Because taking the time for family means that certain lucrative and influential careers for which I would be qualified are not viable possibilities. Plus, having a larger family means less disposable income. Frankly, I worry about affording things more than I should, despite Jesus’ precise words to the contrary (Matt. 6:25) and my own experience that God always helps my family meet our needs.

Rose and I approach these challenges by trying to remember a few deeper truths that Christ teaches us. First, we have the Evangelical Counsels, to which every follower of Christ is called to some degree: poverty, chastity and obedience. We consider our lifestyle a positive (though far from heroic, given our relative comfort) choice for poverty, understood as a simplicity of lifestyle. More than that, though, it is a practicum in humility.

What is humility other than laying oneself low and not taking things that you might otherwise be entitled to? Jesus explicitly teaches us in Luke 14:7-11 not to take the seat of honor but to let the host lift you up if he so desires. Money and power are not impressive to God: he has them in infinite abundance and can give and take them as he wills (and he knows what we need). What is special to God is humility, something that he cannot simply give us or force on us but that we must freely choose.

Rose and I try to remember that you can’t out-give God and that he will care for those who seek his kingdom first. So, practically speaking, we suggest caring for your family as a priority that trumps all others. The papers I publish or projects I complete will be forgotten in a few years (seriously: can you even remember one Nobel laureate from 1995?), but our children have immortal souls themselves, and they will also affect their children down through countless generations. It is far more important that children receive the things that money can’t buy than the things that it can.

3. ESN: How has working on this essay deepened your own understanding of what it means to be faithful in your vocation as a Christian and a scholar?

Matthew: It has been a way to crystallize some of the struggles I face by forcing me to put them in writing and share them with my Christian brothers and sisters. I still feel like a novice when it comes to really embodying the spirit of “ora et labora,” to make my work itself a form of prayer. There is a long tradition of careful scholarship among faithful Christians, and I hope to be part of that tradition. What I have realized through this process is that my goal is not just to achieve an appropriate balance between work and family, as if these two spheres are in conflict by their very natures. Instead, I hope to arrive at a place where the practice of my scholarship and the care of my family are both forms of prayer that harmoniously help me become the disciple that Christ wants me to be.

4. ESN: How do you hope your essay will encourage our readers as they live out their callings to follow Christ in the academy?

Matthew: Here is what I want to say: don’t be afraid. There are a lot of things to be afraid of right now—let’s not be shy about naming them. The secular university is a hostile place to be for a Christian. The “new intolerance,” as it’s been called, severely punishes those who stand opposed to secular dogmas, irrespective of the quality of their academic work. Even at best, deeper truths of life and matters of morality are ignored in professional life. There is a lot of pressure on young academics: to publish, to innovate, to get funding. It can be hard to compete with others who sacrifice their personal lives at the altar of work. People even cheat to get ahead and rarely seem to get punished.

It is hard work to raise a family. Children require time, effort, and stuff. Christians are fighting an uphill battle against a society and even a public educational system that assumes the irrelevance of religion, fights against the very idea of morality, and holds tolerance as the highest virtue. Having a family can make you seem like an outsider, especially if you dare to have more than three kids.

But wait. There’s good news, too. That’s what “gospel” means, remember? We Christians have something much more valuable than the approval of society, than tenure, than the empty promises of man. We have the ironclad promises of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, the one who told us that yes, in this world we will have many troubles, but that we should take heart, for “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The freedom from fear that Jesus offers us is the freedom to be adventurous, to boldly practice virtue, to witness to others, to experience the heart-pumping excitement of something important, something prepared since the foundations of the world. It is not a promise of comfort or ease—Jesus assures us of trouble. So what is it a promise of? “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world…that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:24, 26)

5. ESN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to emerging Christian academics?

Matthew: Be. Not. Afraid.


Note: An interview part of the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is a writer/editor on staff with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature, and she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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