Chapter 4: The Land Between

As I was growing up, there was no question in my mind that I was going to go to college somewhere. My parents both strongly encouraged me in this direction from a very young age, and when I was ten or eleven, I set my heart on my dream school. We’d gotten a mailer from MIT talking about the school (who knew they started recruiting that young?), and this mailer had a funny fuzzy black stick figure on the front. It also talked about all kinds of cool robotics, and engineering, and physics, and other neat stuff, but really, it was the fuzzy stick figure on the front that did it for me. I was going to MIT, baby, and it was going to be awesome!

By the time I’d gotten to the point that I was more seriously considering schools to apply for, I’d broadened my horizons a little bit. I figured, you know, MIT is a long way from home, and it gets cold in Boston. Maybe I’d like to go to CalTech instead; that’s in Southern California, which is closer to home, and closer to family, and hey! I’d be the third generation in our family to graduate from CalTech! Not that MIT wouldn’t be cool… I’d just, you know, apply to both and see what happened.

So senior year of high school rolls around, and I’m starting to get nervous. I’d done pretty well on my SATs, but they were on the low end for what MIT and CalTech wanted, so I thought I’d better apply to a backup school as well. My aunt had gone to a school called Harvey Mudd College, which is also in Southern California, and once when visiting my grandparents, we took a tour of the campus. It was pretty cool, I guess, but I was going to CalTech, baby (or maybe MIT), and it was going to be awesome! It was time to change the world! But I figured that I would send in an application to Harvey Mudd, too, you know, just in case.

(If you know anything at all about these three schools, you might see where this is going. See, Harvey Mudd is just as selective as MIT and CalTech, if not more so. So for me to consider it a “backup” school was slightly pompous of me, to say the least. But that’s how I thought, so let’s just carry on.)

I sent in my applications. I waited. I got voted by my class in high school to be “Most Likely to go to Harvard”, which was clearly stupid. Who’d ever go to a dumb ol’ school like Harvard? Didn’t my classmates know I that I didn’t even apply there? I waited some more. Then I got my “Dear John” letter from MIT. I won’t say I was devastated, because I wasn’t totally — like I said, MIT was far away, and I’d matured enough that fuzzy stick figures weren’t enough to woo me. But this was my first hint that things weren’t going to go as I’d planned.

A few weeks later, I got my “Dear John” letter from CalTech, as well. This was much worse. All this time, I’d been stressing out about what school I was going to choose, not whether I’d get in to any of them. But oh well. This made my decision easy — I guess I’d just be going to my backup school! Time to buy my books!

Except not so fast. Not too long after that, I got a letter from Mudd (yes, that’s what we call it. And the people who graduate from there are “Mudders”) saying I’d been wait-listed.

In a book by Jeff Manion called The Land Between, this moment of tension is discussed. I’ve been there many times, and I’ll be there again. It’s that moment when everything changes — when you don’t know where you’re going next, but you know that it won’t be where you were before. In that moment, as I read the letter from HMC saying I’d been wait-listed, I entered the land between. It’s by no means a comfortable or fun place to be. Yet as I get older, I’ve come to believe that I should be spending more time in the land between than away from it.

But that does not make it any more comforting when I’m there; a good friend of mine described it this way: “The land between is that moment when a trapeze artist releases his hold on the bar behind him, but hasn’t yet grabbed on to the bar in front of him.” Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve never done trapeze, and I don’t think I would enjoy it very much, but that image struck home for me. It’s that moment when you’re flying through the air with nothing to hold on to, with no support. And I’m willing to bet that every trapeze artist on the planet doesn’t have a brief moment of fear and indecision as they’re flying through the air, because what if they fall, and there’s nothing there to catch them?

But I’m also willing to bet that trapeze artists live for and crave that moment, because there’s nothing more exhilarating in the world.

This actually has a lot to do with what I discussed in the last chapter, this idea of the excluded middle. Because I believe they’re really the same place, the land between, and the excluded middle. And if God’s power and glory are made evident most strongly in the land between, why on earth wouldn’t I want to spend my time there? All I have to do is trust. Trust that I can make the jump, and if I fall, I will be caught.

Once I started thinking about this, I began to see the tension of the land between everywhere around me. What does it mean that I live in relative comfort, and people all around me don’t know what to do for their next meal? There’s tension in that. There’s a between-ness in that feeling. What does it mean when my father-in-law dies before he’s even my father-in-law? There’s tension there, and it hurts. What does it mean when wars happen, when earthquakes happen, when economies collapse? How do we handle that tension?

But these aren’t the only moments of tension, of between-ness that I’ve experienced. I’ve also experienced it when I spend a late night drinking tea and talking with friends, because we’re going somewhere together. I experience between-ness when I learn new things and when I see new places, because the things I learn and see and experience will change who I am! I experience
between-ness in silence, and solitude, and reflection. There is tension in all of these things — I’m never quite sure who the person who comes out the other end will be. But I can trust that he will be changed for good.

I want to be very clear in this chapter: I do not believe that the land between is a bad place. It is a difficult place, a challenging place, a place where tears are shed and hurts are experienced and falls happen. But it is the place God dwells. The Bible actually says something nearly identical to this: it says that I am a displaced immigrant in this world. I was designed to live and be somewhere else, for someplace bigger and better and more. In a very real sense, I am in the land between all the time. Life, I think, is the land between, with all its ups and downs and joys and sorrows.

I’d like to say that the more time I spend in the land between, the more I seek it out. I’d like to say that I’ve gotten comfortable there, that like the trapeze artist I’m able to look past the fear and touch the wonder. But I’m not there yet. I still cling to the bar behind me a little bit too long, stretch out a little bit too far for the bar in front of me, because being between scares the crap out of me. But I’m slowly learning, and every time I jump it makes the next one, well, maybe not easier, but more doable.

The time I spent trying to figure out my life after high school was one of my first experiences in the land between, and it ended well. Despite being wait-listed, I was accepted into Harvey Mudd College’s class of 2008, and was very successful there. I met some of my closest friends in the world, and together we have all journeyed in the land between. But looking back, I fully believe that even if my journey through the land between did not lead me to HMC, it would have led me somewhere good. Maybe I would have had more bruises on the way (or maybe I’d have had less!), but I believe this strongly. The land between, as uncomfortable as it is, is where God dwells, and He will not let me fall.

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