As I sat down to write this reflection, I got out everything I thought I would need for such a task: my old CVV journal, my trusty Little Book of St. Vincent DePaul, and a now decaying shoe box filled with prayers, quotes, stories, and notes I had saved through the years. Surely somewhere in these artifacts I would find some nugget of wisdom to share that would be meaningful. Surely after rereading and reflecting on all of these items, I would have a clearer idea of how the Vincentian charism I learned about some 9 years ago is still recognizable in my day to day life.
It certainly was much easier to see and feel and pinpoint back during my volunteer year. Working at Mount Saint Vincent, a school for children with emotional and behavioral needs, I felt confident I was doing God’s work. Mainly because it was challenging and a daily test of my patience, love, and any sort of understanding I had about the world. There were many days I didn’t think I could do it. There were many days I didn’t want to do it. And there were many days that I thought that no matter what I did, it wasn’t resulting in much good anyway. Yet with the constant mantra of Mother Teresa’s words, “God doesn’t call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful” echoing in my head, I managed to finish out that year and gain some insight in the process.
There were definitely joys- small breakthroughs with students who came to the program closed off to the world or playing basketball and connecting with the kids at recess. And there were heartbreaks- hearing stories of trauma I could never imagine or seeing kids leave the program strong and independent, only to arrive back a few months later, worse off than before. The daily struggle broke me down on many physical and emotional levels. It was during that year that I quickly learned that doing God’s work isn’t easy. And somewhere along the way, I think I also came to the conclusion that if it’s not hard, it’s not God’s work.
After I left CVV, I continued teaching in many different capacities:I had the privilege of teaching in both urban and suburban areas, I taught gifted students and those with special needs, I taught both here in the US and in my second home, Ethiopia. My time at MSV had made me more sensitive to the needs of my students. I learned that you never know what a child is going through at any given moment, not to make assumptions about people or their circumstances, and that humor is usually the best line of attack. Again throughout my years of teaching, it was easy to feel like I was doing God’s work. Direct service easily lends itself to that understanding. I believed that teaching was a challenging and important profession, so surely this was what I was meant to be doing. Sure there were long days and stress and constant weight on my shoulders that the future of the world was in my hands, but that’s just how it goes. Again, it was hard, so that must be what I’m supposed to be doing.
But then one day after 9 years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like if I continued teaching, I’d be doing a disservice to my students, and they deserved more. So after that school year, I “retired” from teaching. And in that decision I instantly felt like my identity was lost. I was a teacher, that’s all I had ever known. Who was I supposed to be now? Furthermore, in the past, even when things were hard, I had always pushed through. It was not my nature to give up. But now I was.
Did I sell out because it was too hard? That was a question that I grappled with for a long time. But after much reflecting, I realized no, that was not the case. Leaving teaching was not a decision that I took lightly. It was something I prayed about, reflected on, and critically analyzed. I had examined my choices from every angle, and after I decided, I knew I just needed to trust. I needed to trust that I knew myself well enough to know when I’d hit my limit. I needed to trust myself enough to know when it was time to move on to something else. I needed to trust that God would open up other doors and opportunities for new ways of serving. Yet, even though I knew it was the right decision for me, I still couldn’t shake the guilt that I felt for having an easier life, a less stressful job, and more free time. No good could come from doing anything that didn’t leave me depleted at the end of the day, right?
I remember when I returned back from Ethiopia for the first time, I had a similar feeling. I had guilt about the amount of possessions I had here, the freedom I had here, and the life that I had here. How could I live the way I did when so many have nothing? The guilt continued to nag for several weeks and it began to paralyze me from doing what I needed to do once I returned. It was a one comment from a friend who had also been there before that finally snapped me out of it. He said, “Guilt is the most useless emotion there is. The only thing that matters is what you do with it.”
So as I have gotten older, I have learned that service looks different than the narrow-minded view I originally had when I set out to “help people.” I have learned that Vincentian charism is not something to be found in the treasure trove of readings I have stored under my bed. It means doing what you can where you are. For me now, service means living with my eyes open. I believe it means seeing a need and acting on it. The opportunities are everywhere and they are not defined by what God or I deem as “hard.” So now that I have this new-found time and new-found freedom, I try to ask myself daily, what will I do with it today?
Jenna Carbone, CVV12 and Vincentian Lay Missionary, is a Giants fan from New Jersey. She has a generous spirit, a dry sense of humor and loves anything with ranch dressing! Amidst her trips to Ethiopia through Vincentian Lay Missionaries, she has been teaching for the past nine years; and continues to teach in different capacities (whether she knows it or not).