I graduated college less than a year ago and quickly learned what a BA is worth (not much) and what kind of work is available in a town with a very sluggish economy (even less). As if that weren’t enough stress, I also got married, and my wife stepped into a Master’s program and job position that require us to live on the university’s campus. A lot of quick and successive changes, requiring even more serious decision making. I was feeling fairly schooled at facing the proverbial fork in the road when a new type of decision-making reared its head:
When it is time to bail?
This is frontier for us, this decision making that feels retroactive, dealing with when to go backwards rather than how to move forwards. When to jump ship.
I suppose there are spiritual elites so completely in tune with the status of their souls they don’t need help knowing when things are headed downhill. That is not me, and I have a feeling it’s not most of us, either. I began to see the signs, slowly at first. I noticed I was pursuing counterfeit joy (also known as medicating or anaesthetizing). When the essential needs of my heart and soul are not being met, when life is purely draining, I go looking for some sort of comfort. Personally that means whiskey and television; if I’m drinking a bottle of bourbon and watching 100 episodes a week, I can be pretty sure I’m not doing well.
I started isolating from relationship and community, too. That’s my survival mode—turn off all “unnecessary” functions and hunker down. Others might choose to become more demanding in their relationships, out of a need to feel a semblance of control over their otherwise sinking life.
Whatever “signs” work for you, the point is to know whether or not you are thriving, surviving, or deteriorating. Jesus gave us a pretty handy barometer when he said, “you shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). If the effect, or fruit, of your work or community, your city or school is the decay of your heart and soul, even your body, a decision is necessary.
I decided to quit the only job I seemed able to get, and my wife decided to leave her Master’s program.
We didn’t make these decisions rashly, in a moment of despair; nor did we make them because brighter, more illustrious opportunities presented themselves. Quite the contrary. These decisions were made with no known alternative, no safety net. Yet they needed to be made.
We all face casual decisions, crucial decisions, and critical decisions. Casual decisions are easy to spot (what type of coffee to order, what movie to watch). Crucial decisions might involve which college to attend or which tech startup to join. Though they feel life-and-death, the truth is they are still matters of preference (you have options). A critical decision is one in which your life is at stake. That’s not to say you’re Bruce Willis and need to shoot down a helicopter if you hope to save Manhattan. It means that without instigating a significant life change, the wellness of your body and soul are endangered. If all the signs point to serious harm, a tough decision is needed.
My wife’s depression resurfaced and was getting worse by the month. I hardly saw her because my work hours were the complete opposite of hers. Here in the first year of our marriage, both of us were in a serious dive, and the relationship itself was paying the price. We had to make a critical decision. Here’s what we learned.
Step One: Set a deadline. You don’t want to force or rush a critical decision and end up making a reactionary one. Nor do you want to let fear keep you from being decisive. The point of a deadline is to figure out if the hardship of a situation is simply a “season” or a reality. If it is simply a season, there’s no need to be hasty. However, if the true nature of a situation has revealed itself, that is a different story. It can be a week or two, even a month or two, but have a deadline.
Step Two: Assess the nature of the suffering. It might be part of your maturing through adversity. Many of our peers have left a position or a city too early, just because they encountered a little resistance. Life has challenges, and it’s important we learn endurance. However, if a “challenge” is costing you your marriage, your relationship with God, your soul’s worth, that challenge is not doing you good. I felt a lot of guilt when I decided to leave my job. Part of me felt like a quitter who couldn’t handle life. However, the severity of the cost of staying (I rarely saw my wife in the first year of marriage) was louder than my guilt.
Step Three: Get some input. Run the “data” by wise people. Be willing to hear what they have to say, especially if it goes against your “fight or flight” reactions.
Fear can really mess with critical decisions. Because these are not decisions about moving forward, but rather how to get out of situations that have turned sour, we found there is very little security to be found in them. I did not leave my job for another. By leaving her program, my wife and I will lose our housing situation. It’s not about weighing out pros and cons, such as, “Is my soul or my marriage more important than financial or housing security?” We had to trust that Jesus’ heart for us is good. Finances, security, community—he knows we need these things.
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Seeking first his kingdom is the point. Deciding to jump ship might be the biggest step of faith you can take; it sure has been for us. To stay in a truly harmful job, program, or city for money or security is to make an idol of those things.
I’ll be honest—there’s something a little depressing about putting time, energy, and stress into a decision that feels like moving backwards in some ways. But facing and naming why we must leave one situation makes it very clear what to look for in choosing another.