I saw CB from the old translation company at the grocery store this morning. I briefly thought of saying hello to him, and then decided not to. He was probably a little younger than the age I am now when I started working there seventeen years ago. CB looked as if he hadn’t changed much, but I look like I am about 55 years old–I look to be older than CB some days. That is probably why he didn’t recognize me. People see the white hair and instantly think that I must be very old. I can see it in their eyes sometimes when they see me out with my wife and little son–oh, most be one of those dirty old men who couldn’t be happy with a woman his own age. Now, he’s trying to have a second adult life with a little boy who won’t be able to know his daddy during his teenage years (because, of course, I’ll be dead by then). CB might have remarked about how old I looked, as I can remember him being one of those people with no filters on their mouths.
CB might have asked what I was up to, and chortled derisively when he learned that I was at seminary. Most of the people who worked at the translation company– with the exception of the management and sales team–they were all a bunch of unrepentant, sinful atheists–your usual collection of Austin hippie liberal slacker types who never grew up or grew out of their happy dorm days at UT. I really was so false to myself back then, thinking that those were my people. I just couldn’t deal with either type of reaction this morning, so I pretended to be very interested in the cold case in front of me, and oblivious to anyone walking past me. Maybe CB recognized me, maybe he didn’t.
I drive past that apartment complex where I stayed ever-so-briefly with a girlfriend about ten years ago. I never really look at it. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, either. I’ve always found the Hyde Park area of Austin to be charming, but I could never afford to live there, and now it seems to be overrun with a lot of automobile traffic of people trying to find shortcuts to get down to the campus. Austin has always been a laboratory for my personal growth, but it has never seemed like the real world–like, at some point, I am supposed to get out of Austin and very far away into having a “real career” and a real life, which I’ve never had.
These days, I feel like a stranger here, someone who really is passing through this time. I don’t really feel like many of my memories belong to me, either. Who am I, really? I ask myself all the time. Am I a man, or am I secretly a woman who was a woman in all of my past lives and thought that she could be more successful at life as a man? Or, am I really a no-person–some other kind of being who can never quite fit into the mold of being a human? Human society–this entire world and time and place–it all kind of seems like the macrocosm for what Hyde Park in Austin is: it’s very appealing and seems like I could almost belong here, but I never quite fit and I never quite do anything good enough to “make it.”
There are many days where I wish I was in some other time and place. I would rather be most anywhere and anywhen on the planet–as long as it wasn’t too violent or too weird for me. This inisistent need to be someone else, somewhere else has never completely left me. Indeed, as I grow older, it seems to flare up in a much more extreme sort of way. I’ll go through weeks and even months where I am simply resigned to being who I am and not being anything more than that, but when the urge to be someone else flares up, it seems to be a lot worse than it was when I was younger. After all, when I was younger, I could still kind of fool myself into thinking that I potentially could “make it” as another twenty- or thirty-something in a big city like New York or LA–just another few years of getting my shit together here in Austin, and then off I would go, and I would show everyone what I was really made of.
Of course, I didn’t really bother to come to any definitive conclusion about what exactly it was that I should be made of. Should I be made of the stuff of a visual artist, a musician, a writer, a businessman, an actor, a tough guy, a social butterfuly? I saw all of these in myself, but none of them, except perhaps the writer, was really there to any appreciable degree. But more importantly, I never understood the importance of picking one special characteristic and developing it to the nth degree at the expense of all of the others. Sure, I wrote a lot, but it was mostly catharsis/therapy writing to keep my head from feeling like it was too full of chaos.
Would I have every become a visual artist with a nationally recognized name and exhibits in major museums and galleries? Perhaps not, but I most certainly could have become someone who was considered to be a pretty good artist who made a living at it either by participating in more popular art festivals or by being a professor. However, I was too pride to go seek out an MFA and train under others who would be severely critical of my work. I thought of myself as having enough natural talent that all it would take would be for me to paint a few canvases, stick them on a few websites and get discovered.
The siren’s song of being famous young (or something akin to that) gasped its dying breaths during a trip to San Francisco shortly after I was married. It was a business trip to go to a marketing conference and mingle with a bunch of young professionals all vying to make it in that world. It was May, but the city was especially cold most of the time I was there. It didn’t feel like the San Francisco I’d remembered visiting a few years before during the middle of summer. The time and place for deriving satisfaction from worldly recognition had drawn to a close. I was thirty-six and married. We had moved up to Waco, Texas, though I still kept my condo in Austin for a while longer. I really was just about completely resigned to the notion that I would spend the rest of my life living in Waco.
For whatever reason, I continued to put up a fight. I kicked and screamed a lot and blamed my malaise on everyone around me. The truth was, I was unhappy with myself, but I had never bothered to chart out a course of what it would look like in order for me to be happy with myself. I would indulge myself in this or that subject matter–buying up random sets of books or checking them out from the public library and reading very little of them. I would occasionally take up running or working out with weights, thinking that some kind of better body would make me happy. I bought a bunch of canvases and paints and made messes of them. I declared that we should buy a house, and so we did. We had a son, and I was close to being satisfied, but not quite.
Part of the problem is that I never really bothered to distinguish between some of the old urges and desires to travel and do new things, which were themselves a mixture of authentic and inauthentic desires (ie, ones that I genuinely had vs. ones that I had in hopes of impressing others in conversations), and I never really bothered to sit down and ask what I was willing to sacrifice in order to make any number of dreams come true.
Unless you are abundantly wealthy or perfectly content with living a life amidst books and movies and television, you inevitably must make sacrifices in order to make your dreams come true. You have to sacrifice some part of yourself in some way. You will either end up doing what you are doing for the applause of other human beings, or you will do it with some hope of obtaining recognition by God and the saints in an afterlife. If you seek the applause of other human beings, you might play the long game in hopes that your work will be applauded after you die, or you will find ways to do things that earn you applause in the near future. If you aren’t completely honest about this, you will always be unhappy.
You might assert that you can do what you want to do for yourself only, and not for any recognition by other human beings or a deity of some kind, but I don’t think that this is really possible. All humans have some kind of ego mechanism in them where they want to be validated by an external consciousness. You might be more abundantly blessed with the ability to do many things in a self-motivated fashion, without the instant gratification of attention for what you are doing, but you are simply better at delaying that gratification than others, and your expectation for spending hours a day, most days of the year at doing something is that one day you will be recognized for what you did.
I think that perhaps there is a faint hint of the altruist in all of us. We occasionally are such good and wonderful creatures that we will do something for someone else with zero expectation of God or humans recognizing it, but this is so minimal and it inevitably dissipates when we are recognized for it and our pride rears its ugly head–or we inevitably feel the need to tell someone about the good thing we did in order to get the kind of reaction of applause and praise that we are looking for. So, I would say that by and large, pure altruism isn’t strong enough in anyone for it to be worth noting or even cultivating.
I am, myself, quite dishonest about my intentions when I write. I secretly hope that someday I will be discovered, even if it happens after I am long dead. I yet entertain hope that human beings will validate me for my work, and place this at a level of importance in my head that is above a desire to be recognized by God. The truth is, there is still more of an urge in me to see from the grave a kind of widespread recognition and reading of my work than an urge to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” from God. It is painful and shameful to admit this, but it is probably one of the first steps I should have taken a long time ago, during so many years of convincing myself that I actually cared more about God’s opinion than humanity’s.
What is also pathetic about me is that I still am by and large resistant and uncomfortable with human beings criticizing me or ignoring me. For so long, I was reluctant to share much of my writing with my wife. When I did, and I got little response from her about it one way or the other, I was incredibly disappointed and would have almost preferred to have received a lot of detailed criticisim, though there is no doubt that I would have thrown up a lot of resistance to it while it was taking place.
I am rather ashamed to admit that at the age of 40 I am still incapable of being as honest with myself as I would like to be. I want to put myself in the best possible light, and reveal a self that is closer to becoming an enlightened being than a self that is still every bit the selfish, prideful, insecure human being that he is.
How liberating would it be for me to be able to confess to myself and to God that in all truth, I would much rather be toasted and feted by some artistic or literary social circle in a big city than spend my time praising and worshiping God among the saints up in heaven? How freeing and calming could it be to admit that I am very much still a human being who likes to be entertained by movies and even sports sometimes, and drink beer, and just putter about living as a human being instead of a man intent on living as much like a monk as he possibly can within the world of being a middle-class, married father?
What this has to do with running into CB from the translation company, and that old world, is that I can look back on that time among those so-called friends at that company and the other coworkers I wasn’t especially good friends with, whom I somehow thought were going to be my training wheels for eventually entering into a circle of artists, writers and socialites in New York or a similar city. All of those people who laughed insensitively at me when I mentioned my little brother’s recent death or my mother’s battle with cancer–people who were mostly interested in just going out and getting drunk and seeing a few bands–they should have been my wake-up call–and they were, but it was a very slow and painful wake-up call. Because what I really wanted at the bottom of my heart was to know people who were the decent Christians I remembered from my youth, but were also artsy-fartsy liberal types who were spiritual but not religious. Instead, the kinds of people I mostly encountered in Austin during my twenties were angry, liberal atheists who were lacking some kind of fundamental sense of empathy and tolerance for people who didn’t think like they did. There was a certain lack of caring and human concern for the grief someone else had recently experienced, and a tendency to be downright mean and nasty to you if you didn’t want to get high with them all the time.
I suppose if I had actually found the courage to move to New York during those years, I would have experienced many of the same kinds of people, only much worse. The friends from the TV show Friends were just that–fictional characters on a TV show. In reality, most people, Christian or not, were more like the characters on Seinfeld, except they weren’t funny–just self absorbed and mean. Was I simply attracting a certain kind of person because I was that kind of person myself? It is possible, but I guess I’ll never know.
What are my goals for the future? Does being a parish pastor really jibe with something in me that is real, or have I invented yet another fantasy person to be–a person I can never really be? Or, does everyone who becomes a somebody have to start with a purely fantasy person, and they just stay focused on growing into being that person better than other people are able to? I’m not sure. At its best, my future will see me living in a wonderful little college community that isn’t too conservative or too liberal, and my son and perhaps another child will grow up experiencing some of the best things I got to experience growing up with little or no of the awful things. Is my vision of the rest of my life just as vague and unattainable as it’s always been? Perhaps.
I think my starting place for how I proceed with the next couple of years should be a place of wonderful honesty that is at the same time freeing to where I am not constantly burdening myself with expectations that I can’t meet but also focused and concrete enough that I do accomplish the kind of mid-life career transition I’ve set out to make.