When I die, no one will make a documentary about me. I don’t expect a big New York Times obit on my grand contributions to society and culture. It’s unlikely that social media will be flooded with worldwide tributes and memorials to how my work changed people’s lives.
We’ve lost a lot of famous people over the last month: David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Alan Rickman, Lemmy. We hear the news and stare blankly at our screens, feeling like Hawkeye on MASH, who never had the chance to say goodbye to our good friend Trapper.
It’s a strange thing, the genuine emotional connection and sense of loss we feel when a cultural icon dies. And maybe I’m the only one, but it also prods an abiding question in me: How will people remember me? What mark will I have made on people’s lives?
I don’t know.
But I know this. My mark won’t be measured by documentaries, fancy obituaries, or the number tweets or shares or likes about my passing. It won’t be measured by my bylines or publications in first-, second-, or third-tier journals. I’ll probably never have my name on a building, and that’s OK, too.
When it’s all said and done, I want only one thing. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
I have to fight to keep that mindset straight. I’ve found it dangerously easy in academia to doubt my accomplishments. Am I publishing enough? Am I a good enough teacher? Am I helping to make my university a better place? Does any of it even matter?
Yes, I think it does matter. And I think the Lord calls us to honor him through our work. But his approval and that of my peers or administrators is not the same thing.
Don’t get me wrong; it is right and good to feel validated when we successfully defend that monstrous dissertation, when we get emails from students saying we’ve made a difference in their life and education, when we pass a milestone of tenure or promotion.
But what about when it goes the other way? After numerous campus visits you don’t land a single job. That manuscript gets rejected for a third time. Students complain on course evaluations that you’re the worst teacher they’ve ever had. You’re denied for tenure.
What does God say? Has he not shown you many times over that you are loved and favored by him? Do you trust him? Do you not still desperately desire to see his will done in your life?
That’s what matters. The rest is just details.
In his self-reflective film, “Garrison Keillor: The Man On the Radio in the Red Shoes,” the beloved host of “Prairie Home Companion” says he used to be afraid he was going to live an ordinary life, until he realized that’s what we all get, an ordinary life.
“And it’s good enough,” he says. “It’s good enough.”
I suppose it’s in how you look at it. I think God has been abundantly good in my own life. And I don’t know what ordinary is, anyway. But I can say this:
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).
Until the day I go home.
About the author:
Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.