On the second day of the second-year retreat, “Building a Good Life: Meaning, Purpose, and Balance,” I came to a mildly shocking realisation: I had never made a major decision. I attended college at the university that both accepted me and gave me enough money to fund my education. I majored in the subject in which I had accrued the greatest number of credits by sophomore year. And I postponed any serious consideration of jobs, careers, and further education by winning the Rhodes. In fact, I vividly remember exiting the law firm in which my district’s selections were held and turning to the other Scholar selected from our district. “Our lives just changed,” he noted with gravity. “We don’t have to find jobs!” I exclaimed.
And we didn’t, for a couple years. But as one year in Oxford became two, and the end of the stipend loomed, my stress began to build. An ambient kind of stress, one that sits in your joints, in your gut, that seems to radiate without any clear origin or direction. It wasn’t just economic or status anxiety, the manifestation of some fear that I would fail to sufficiently capitalise on the opportunities offered by a Rhodes Scholarship. Sitting on that couch in Rhodes House though, I understood – somehow, at twenty-four, this would be my first real decision, and it felt binding.
For me then, this retreat was extraordinarily well timed. I was just beginning to consider seriously for what sorts of positions to apply, for what kinds of organisations I wanted to work. What should be my priorities in this search? Salary? Location? Institutional values? Proximity to eligible marriage partners? Were these valid criteria? Was I allowed to make these calls at all? Meanwhile, I had begun the assigned readings while on fieldwork, and as I spent afternoons conducting interviews on adornment and aesthetics, identity, politics, home and homeland, I spent mornings reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry, and reflecting on pieces by Baldwin and Vonnegut. And in that peculiar stillness born of fieldwork goals unfulfilled, I considered seriously the retreat’s focus on happiness, and family, and home. I stepped off the plane at Luton, got home to Oxford and slept for a handful of hours, and then headed to Rhodes House, ready and thankful for this liminal space between break and term, travel and study.
The retreat, this strange time in which we are freed, or at least removed, from the pressures and pleasures of everyday life, is born of a peculiar mix of leisure and hard work, indulgence and moral necessity. It is surely a privilege to be given three days to consider nothing but your purpose, your values, your priorities. There is leisure implicit in the allocation of this time, to days spent discussing poetry and philosophy in grand rooms, to being fed frequently and for free, to making space for big ideas within the jumble of everyday life.
So too are there critiques to be made around the privilege of lounging about a colonial mansion, discussing our ideal institutions, while people the world over remain cold, hungry, and sick. Why devote this time to talking about friendship and family when we could be discussing the ways in which we, the recipients of this privilege, might go about using it to improving the world around us? A friend lamented as much to me in the course of the weekend as she raged at the idea that our peers would leave the retreat without having fully considered their duty to “fight the world’s fight.” In her eyes, we incurred a debt, one we could not pay back but could, and must, pay forward. And discussing what would make us happiest in our own lives was at best insufficient and at worst self-congratulatory.
I disagree with this assessment, not because I disagree with her conception of duty, but because I view the retreat and spaces like it as not only products of privilege but also as extremely necessary exercises. As Rhodes scholars we are all bright, driven individuals. Surely we could have gotten well into our careers before asking ourselves the questions posed by the retreat. I know I could have. But what would it mean to reach thirty-four, forty-four, fifty-four, having never truly considered what I imagined my purpose to be? What I imagined happiness to be, what I imagined home to be? How could I gauge success or failure on my own terms if I had never set those terms, or even considered my ability to do so? A three-day retreat is indisputably a privilege, and such privilege does indeed imply responsibility. But that responsibility is not only to act in certain ways, but also to think critically about those actions. We are enjoined not only to “fight the world’s fight,” but to consider thoughtfully, reflectively, intensely, the meaning of that command in our own lives, and the ways in which we, uniquely, can carry out its promise.
I wish I could conclude this post with an epilogue in which I have indeed answered the questions asked here, and found a job which both makes use of my skills and aligns with my values. But of course there are no answers, and, well, it’s still a little early for the job. Nonetheless, the questions posed by the retreat linger still. They come up with fellow Rhodes folks in conversations over drinks, at lunches, on walks between classes. We continue to make time for discussions about purpose and priorities, even when, maybe especially when, those discussions are sandwiched between the latest gossip and complaining about the quality of food available in Oxford. This too feels like a privilege and a necessity, much as the major decisions ahead of me are beginning to feel. For there is leisure too in prolonged deliberation, in reflection, in the necessary work of planning a future. And as my stress recedes, I feel more and more the privilege of these years, of grand spaces for grand ideas, of intimate friends for intimate conversations, and of deliberately imagined futures in this old, rarely forward-looking place.
Leah Michalove (Georgia & Green Templeton 2016) reads for the MSt in Oriental Studies, having completed the MSc in Social Anthropology in 2017. Her work is primarily ethnographic and focuses on the politics of pop culture in the Middle East and North Africa.