A few months back I finished a lecture in one of my Sociology of Gender classes. It was a great, dynamic exchange with students: the conversation was lively and engaged. But as I returned to my office, I felt the overwhelming need to burst into tears. I was wracked by doubt both in my status and ability, asking myself; Did I say the right thing? Am I guiding these adults in the right path?
I know my skill and expertise in this area: trust me, this is not a pity party post. But that day we were discussing important, deeply personal and integral concepts of identity – and I felt the weight of it. I felt the burden of ‘doing a good job’ according to myself as an academic, and also the institution for which I teach.
As an academic, I desperately want to introduce students to ‘good’, solid sociological concepts that will give students perspective and power to ‘make the invisible visible’1, to empower them to change their context for the better. But also in the context where I teach, I want to offer wisdom in a faith perspective. It’s not easy to straddle both. Again, I felt the weight of the topic, and the importance of the knowledge in my students’ lives.
In that moment, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job of either role. I felt I wasn’t qualified to be in that space, because I wasn’t ‘pure’ or wholly located in a cultural discipline: Being a traitor to both sociology and theology, I made a meal of it all.
There is something to be said for those of us – and for the times in our lives – where we dig deep. We sink roots into the soil of knowledge and master a craft, or settle into a space/learning/field, gaining wisdom and expertise in an area. We can and should celebrate knowledge and specialties: this can be true of a learning major, a work field, of a hobby; but it also can speak of a community or relationship. We dig deep into a context; building relationships and immersing ourselves where we are placed. This is a glorious and deeply gratifying space. We can – and should – look to the experts in these fields for wisdom, truth, and guidance.
But my question is – what happens if we sit left of centre, out of the thick of things? What if you don’t have a specialty? What if your cultural heritage is different to that which we live? What if you have more than one passion? What if you have multiple groups of friends and networks? What if you are negotiating more than one context at a time, straddling across space?
What if you don’t share everything in common with those around you, and feel on the margins in your perspective, world view and connections?
If you do so,
If this is you, I just wanted to offer encouragement. If you’ve ever felt the weight of not being in the ‘one’ space, not being in the thick of it, not in the centre of the crowd, nor in the heart of the field – if you look at those who seem that they are connected (more than you) and are educated (more than you) and have authority in a space (more than you do) –
I see you.
You are completely valid in who you are, and what you’re doing.
and more than that, more than a lip-service acknowledgement of ‘you’re doing great – thumbs up – etc’
I want to offer the possibility that you’re not necessarily in the wrong space.
The world needs bridges between worlds and concepts.
I’ll say that again.
Maybe you feel left of centre – because you’re the one bridging the gap between one space and the next, giving others access they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I was sharing my frustration with a dear friend Mandy (who has featured in this space before – she’s often the ‘wise friend’ I refer to) about this topic; feeling like a jack of all trades and master of none, and she shared such a helpful analogy with me. Her grandfather had once said to her;
“Mandy, you will never speak English as well as the white kids, and you’ll never speak Cantonese as well as the Chinese kids. You’ll just have to work harder.”
(Mandy): As a kid I remember thinking, well that’s super depressing and not at all inspiring; Thanks Grandpa! But now as a 36 year old woman, I see how the extra “effort” it took/takes me to manage both language “worlds” has offered me a more adaptable and flexible brain (amongst other things). I think my grandpa was still right even if he didn’t see that it was/is a brilliant thing that I had to (and got to) navigate two languages…if we were to talk “advantage”, it actually put me “ahead”, and not behind.
What a perspective. We often interpret the navigation of different worlds as a disadvantage – and perhaps it is in some ways. But everyday, we all – experts and amateurs alike – negotiate and internalise different sources of knowledge. And it is in the synthesis of those truths – the way that we filter, discern, question, then create, produce and imagine – this is where the beauty is, friends. This is the money*.
The innovators are the ones who bring a new field of expertise to a persistent problem. The leaders are the ones who bring together systems and people from different spaces and get them to operate in concert. The creators are those who suspend assumption to make new connections between ideas and form. If you’re a believing person, Jesus as God and man – bridging those two worlds – did – and was – this very thing. The incarnation of deity into humanity is a major part of Jesus’ identity.
If you exist in two different worlds, everyday you are working and weaving the two in meaningful, practical ways.
Here is some more wisdom from Mandy:
Kirst, yes perhaps it is true that you and your beautiful brain have to work harder to understand and cultivate knowledge of two different “worlds” and somehow bridge and weave the two in meaningful and practical ways. That is tremendous work and the fruit is/will be incredible.
The feeling of “not being expert of either” is a natural part of that, I think. Perhaps it’s because you’re not aiming for/supposed to be that.
You’re creating and growing something else.
For those of us bridging worlds and crossing contexts, what I’m trying to do in my own work is attempt to reframe my position not as an awkward balancing act, but an opportunity to notice and translate. The best teachers I’ve ever witnessed aren’t about filling ’empty brains’ with information; rather, teachers do the job of interpreting and contextualising knowledge so that it can be embodied and internalised in their student’s lives. This is the very work of those who straddle worlds. We do the introduction, and then point our hearers to the experts (who thankfully know more than us) to dig deep and learn more. This is a joy and opportunity, not a sign that we’re not worthy of speaking in the first place.
Alternatively, when we think about being on the edge of a community, those who are in the immersed in the ‘centre’ are often not aware of those who feel disconnected. Perhaps we can be the ones who notice others on the edge and extended welcome and connection.
The world needs bridges.
Maybe you’re not a Jack of all trades and master of none.
Maybe you’re not left of centre.
Maybe you’re a bridge.
*unfortunately I can’t predict that this will actually earn you money. But it is often where our humanity finds its sweet spot.
- Mills, C. W. (1970). The sociological imagination . Penguin.