Like the posting on stuttering, this is not about “understanding” or “getting over it” either. It is about attack and counterpunch.
Back in late summer and early fall 2000, I worked in lower Manhattan and took the PATH train from Newark to the World Trade Center station. And I read. I was not the type for frippery fiction, as I call it; my reading was historical, religious and spiritual, and ultimately involved with psychoanalytic theory. One day I was reading a book I found the day before in the Trinity Church bookstore. The author was a minister named Parker Palmer, and the book was called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Palmer seemed to hit on a surpassing sin for anyone called to a vocation, not just a job: turning your back on the voice, turning away from the vision before you. It was rather like Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus Christ on Easter morning and saying “You’re shitting me, right? My friend’s dead, you putz! You’re not him!”
Here I was earning $80,000 a year on yet another job about which I could have cared less. I had had a history of such jobs: well-paying and inducing nothing but misery and second guessing.
A few days later I wound up in the hospital overnight. I thought I was having a heart attack. All it was was acute anxiety and panic. I was aware yet again of how badly I’d blown up my life by letting everyone else tell me what to do, how to act, and how to react. I felt like a prisoner. Felt like? I was.
It turns out I am a bit too familiar with renouncing vocations. I have done so four times in my life, each circumstance was different and sometimes justifiable, and I have lived long enough to regret every one of those refusals to see the force of God’s hand.
So each time I slapped it away. And I have paid the price.
Time One: In 1982, when I was still a Jew, the rabbi of my synagogue said I ought to be a rabbi, attend Jewish Theological Seminary. I had the spirituality and the vocation. I sloughed it off: I wanted to be a scholar, not a pulpit rabbi. My then-wife would never get used to being a rebbitzin, it was a silly idea. Except it wasn’t. In those days, as a practicing Jew, I might have stayed in the fold. I might have been good at it. I might and probably would have loved it. But I turned my back on a suggestion I made myself think was outlandish for perfectly selfish reasons. Why disrupt a non-career making money so you can follow a source of joy? Who would do such an outrageous thing?
I should have.
Time Two: From age 16 to 32 I wanted to be a college professor of English Literature. I even made it through to the Ph.D. “in hand” despite a job market that has collapsed. I lacked the patience to wait it out. Every single person I knew who went through the Ph.D. program with me got an academic job: not always the one they wanted, but the job they needed. I alone decided I was tired of prolonged adolescence and wanted to go out into the world. And the world was there. I became (for awhile) a community college administrator, working for a man I consider to this day a fourth-rate human being. From there I went on to private business. I describe my trajectory as a series of random jobs which paid more or less well, but which were almost uniformly delusional and hateful.
Time Three: At age 47, hope behind me, I went into a classroom as an adjunct in a New York City college. I feIt like I had run into an old girlfriend and discovered the feelings were still there, that I absolutely had to have her again. I started scrutinizing the Chronicle of Higher Education and found a couple of likely openings. I returned to where I had gone to graduate school and updated my dossier. And I was called by a technical university in the Dakotas. Over my wife’s objections I went out there for four days, interviewed all over campus, taught a class, and then the chairman called to offer me the job: Associate Professor, 3-year tenure track, teaching both Technical Communications and Shakespeare. And I said no. My wife had prevailed on me to turn it down. The school system was supposed to be substandard and the Jewish community (for that was supposed to still matter) was almost non-existent. I said no. And to this day I have not quite gotten over it. It was, in retrospect, the first and primal marriage-breaker.
Time Four: It wasn’t teaching this time, it was a sudden discovery of the power of psychoanalysis to interpret life events. I was a victim of delayed grieving for my mother, and that delay helped drive me to drink, quite literally. It helped shatter my marriage. It helped make a shambles of most relationships I had. It made me pretend it was okay to be a wage slave as long as the wages were high enough to take some of the sting out of the lash. I decided I wanted to go to a training institute in New York to train to practice psychoanalysis. Oh, I have at least one friend who tried to talk me out of it, saying analysts were all nuts (no shit; so am I). I had a relative tell me it’s all fraudulent. But I persevered, only to be rejected by the place I chose. I’d been excited by something for the first time in years, and now they were telling me I was in the wrong place, to heal myself and not others. I could have gotten up and gone elsewhere, tried again. But I chose to accept defeat.
I had no reason to work except to eat and pay alimony and buy chochkes I did not need. Every job I hated, even when I had them–and there were long periods when I did not–were there for the proverbial Stuff. Also known as Shit.
How I look at this? As a huge series of mischances and mishaps, of rejections of what was best in me in favor of what was most cowardly and mercenary.
My advice to anyone in this spot has been hard-earned and paid for in misery. And it is this: follow if not your bliss then your needs. Push out of the way anyone who gets in the way. Anyone. The list will be shorter than you think. You belong to yourself and to God, though not necessarily in that order. That is where your allegiance lies. Find the blood in your heart and feel it pump within you lest at the end of your life you be forgotten before your funeral sermon. Don’t let the tombstone carving read “It was what it was.”
Do not let anyone build a heaven on your misery.