I could roll up the last twenty years into a certain kind of little ball (obviously hiding some things and exposing others), and not see much difference, if any, between the me of 1997 and the me of today. At 40, almost 41, I am still a restless spiritual seeker. I am not happy with the answers that get provided to me (by just about anyone). I return to whatever amounts to my core self, and find that I can never completely get away from Christ. If you knew me in 1997 you would be surprised to know that it was the same thing back then, too. I simply hid that part of me from you better. What makes me happy at the end of the day is really simple and unexceptional–but, I am so prone to getting caught up in other people’s notions of what a career or God’s will for my life should look like. When I am by myself and farthest removed from what other people think I should be doing, I find myself returning to the basics: spending time with family, being out in nature, reading books, drinking beer, going to museums, listening to music, writing, and occasionally attempting to make art or music. As someone who is currently attending seminary, shouldn’t I put church in this list? I don’t, perhaps because I think I am still looking for the perfect church, although I am close to abandoning this Quixotic pursuit.
For a long time, I think that trying to make something more out of my life was about pleasing others and proving something to those who had invested a goodly amount of their time and money into me. I didn’t want to be doing the same thing at 40 that I had been doing at 30. But now, I look back on several of those so-called office schmuck/button pushing jobs and I think, as long as I wasn’t overly concerned about people younger than me rising up in the ranks above me, and didn’t spend too much time worrying about having a so-called career, most of those jobs were decent, happy jobs. My salary might have never crested above about $120K tops, and I might never have really gotten to be a true manager of others and continued corporate ladder climber, but I was mostly content to manage websites and build out HTML emails, making sure they looked okay in people’s inboxes.
I also tended to conflate the usual BS everyone encounters in their day-to-day professional lives with being signs that God didn’t want me to be doing this-or-that with my life. Every collection of people outside of your family, and often within your family as well, inevitably sees the kinds of politics and personal drama unfolding between personalities that don’t play well together. No amount of discovery of the perfect vocation could have possibly prevented this stuff from arising or being present in the daily work. And, on most levels, I knew this, but I would say to myself: but when I discover my true calling, I will be so happily caught up in my life work, that none of that stuff will matter. Only, I have a much more accurate picture of the kind of person I was. The fact is, I held back a slight and unrealistic hope that I would find the perfect workplace or profession full of the most joyous, happy people, and I also was unwilling to see just how deeply I allowed day-to-day drama get to me and eat away at me until its relevancy to my personal and professional world had been blown all out of proportion. I could argue that this has happened pretty much everywhere I’ve participated in group activities outside of my home–so, the need to provide an example seems to be minimal.
Moving forward, I have come to realize a whole helluva lot that still needed to be realized. Insights and wisdom do not happen simply by contemplating, meditating and reading lots of books, and then declaring that you are an enlightened being called to save the world from its suffering. Personal growth is only realized in community. If you kick against the lessons that community is trying to teach you, then you will end up retreating into your own private space of stagnation. The more you embrace the growth that is wanting to happen when you are connected with others, the more you will grow and change. But, you don’t need to be in perfect environments with perfect people for this to happen, either. You can be surrounded by a lot of very flawed people, who, if they generally are trying to be good people, will teach you something.
What’s more, this kind of personal growth largely goes by unnoticed by the people who are participating in it. On one level, what I said is an utter cliche–nothing novel here–but, on some much deeper level, we are all changing and shaping each other fundamentally in ways that are mostly hopefully trending toward the better, and this kind of change can’t happen superficially. For example, when I left MCE for UW, I realized just how stunted some of my social growth had become. I was spending most of my time around people who were happy with me being just the way that I was, and occasionally going to conferences where I witnessed behavior from other people my age who had spent time working their way up at much larger companies in much larger cities. I began to believe that my insights from those brief encounters were sufficient enough to mature me to the point where I could obtain many of the things that are desirable to a young, single person in his early thirties. Then, I realized that I wasn’t nearly as mature or grown-up as I thought I was. The same thing happened again when I moved from UW to C. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people my age or slightly older who had spent the last ten years of their lives in hardcore, tech/corporate environments, and I REALLY saw just how much growth I still had to do. But, the growth wasn’t going to happen in just a few months’ worth of exposure. Sure, I was able to ditch my cheap pay-as-you-go phone for a shiny new iPhone, visit Starbuck’s more, and learn the lingo of the corporate sales/marketing world. But, my deeper social skills, the ones that were less easy to pin down and articulate, were still clearly lacking when I attempted to develop deeper relationships with my coworkers.
I think it is Tony Robbins who talks about modeling the behavior of the people you aspire to become, if you want to develop yourself into being a better person and more of a leader. However, simply picking up some of the outside character traits and habits of successful people is only the beginning. You can’t stop there, and you can’t be defeated the first time someone treats you like more of a leader than you expected to be treated, but you soon find yourself crashing and burning after flying closer to the sun than you ever have before. Aspiring to be the next Steve Jobs might see you acting less like a Pauly Shore character, but if you have been acting and living like a Pauly Shore character for most of your adult life, you are just Pauly Shore in a Steve Jobs suit. Of course, I should probably update Pauly Shore to be whatever Judd Apatow manchild character is more contemporary and relevant, but I am mostly writing this for myself, so, who cares?
All of this is mostly to say that I think I am finally reaching a place of resolution in understanding that: in spite of what parents and teachers may have told me when I was aged 5-8, I am not destined for greatness and being recognized as a Wunderkind. I am now 40–the time for flashy showings of prodigal talent has passed; I am not possessed with a particular calling or vocation–at the end of the day, I am more and more convinced that God just wants me to be happy and raise happy children in a safe and loving environment; I am not a leader–I don’t like telling other people what to do, especially when it is clear that all of the group resents me before they’ve even gotten to know me–I don’t need to have a career arc where I go from marketing email guy to Director of Demand Gen to VP Marketing to CMO to CEO. I don’t need to prove to anyone that I should be a leader or am better qualified than my boss to do my job. I am not a single guy still trying to impress single women at how much I am on the verge of becoming quite successful and a great catch. I am a happily married man who feels loved by his family, even as someone who won’t retire from his professional life as a manager or head or director of such-and-such. This is not to say that I wouldn’t welcome a career arc if it began to unfold naturally, and I came into it in an environment where my leadership and expertise was highly welcomed and desired. But, I am no longer going to pursue anything with an eye to hopefully running the company in the next ten years.
The things above that I said truly make me happy–spending time with family, being out in nature, reading books, drinking beer, going to museums, listening to music, writing, and occasionally attempting to make art or music–I am perfectly fine with these things never making me money. I am past the age where I hope to be a somebody at this-or-that creative activity or business. Does this mean that I am hopelessly stuck in more of a consumer than a producer mode? Probably. On the other hand, I could argue that those who create stuff are of no value to the world unless they have someone out there to appreciate what they create. I can be that someone. I can be the person who reads mostly-forgotten poetry and looks at mostly-forgotten art and listens to mostly-forgotten music with a simply appreciation. Perhaps my appreciation isn’t going to be on the level of someone with an MFA, but I can walk into a museum and be happy.
What this really is for me is an incredibly freeing feeling. I have been growing more and more unhappy and more and more guilty since we’ve moved down here. The kinds of stress and moves I’ve put my wife and now my son through in my search for the perfect calling–all for me to realize that there really is no such thing–of course, I bear the burden of the responsibility. Why couldn’t I have just accepted who I was back in 2011 and remained happy with that? That’s a great question! I’ve tried to answer it, more or less, in my above musings, but I still think that I have a lot of work to do. I will come clean and say that I have been kicking and screaming as I was dragged into my 40s–both in my resistance at becoming just another happy, oblivious white male who cashes out and accepts the good life in the suburbs, and in my endless looking over my shoulder at all of the moments when I surely was on the verge of becoming someone great, and those moments just never bore fruit.
But, here’s the thing. Right now, I am catching hints of a vision of how I can truly become happy. Not happy in any shallow or cheap sense of the word, but happy in a way that sees me cease this endless prattle about trying to find myself, my calling, my career, etc. Just happiness in the form of contentment that also knows I’m not going to be sent to hell because I didn’t follow Jesus more perfectly. I can’t continue a belief in Jesus/God and also maintain the impression that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have their collective finger on a button that drops me down a chute into hell the moment I lose my life, if I die having not lived up to their perfect expectations. I am sensing a lot of love coming from some place I can’t explain right now. Love perhaps from those who have departed before me, and love from the universe itself–just this kind of love that says, yes, it’s okay to stop beating up on yourself for your past mistakes or failures to make something more out of this or that time in your life. Love yourself, but not in a narcissistic or cliched way. Don’t go buy a “Life is Good” bumper sticker, but be content if someone you love does.
Be happy. Be loving, be blessed. Stop wallowing in this guilt and misery that you are somehow responsible for your little brother’s death and therefore your mom’s too-early departure. Stop trying to somehow also make yourself be responsible for your older brothers’ estrangement from your parents. Stop beating up on yourself when you say something that causes someone to raise their eyebrow or be offended. Stop killing yourself through an endless cycle of falling into lust and anger, giving into it and then wallowing in misery over how much God probably hates you.
Sure, some of these things I just wrote are an exaggeration–or are they? Am I simply putting into words what has been happening all along? Couldn’t I really just be happy walking into an office environment like the one I did back in 1999 when I first moved to Austin, back before I had any aspirations to make more money or do anything bigger with a professional career–where I was just going to sit and correct Word documents all day long for something above minimum wage, while I found my true happiness with my girlfriend, dog, nature, books, etc.?
I think I could be just as happy as I probably should have been so long ago, but I certainly shouldn’t be sitting here endlessly beating up on myself for not having permitted myself to let go and be happy back then. I should just let myself go and be happy today. If this means that I end up doing work that isn’t so glamorous around people who aren’t constantly talking about Jesus–so what? The pursuit of true happiness should never be denied or disparaged. For sure, the pursuit of happiness in the form of exceptionally shallow activities or an exceptionally shallow kind of happiness that is really just self deception–that needs to be questioned constantly. But to dismiss wanting to be happy as an invalid desire due to the fact that it is a bit of a cliche–that seems to be a kind of denial and hurting of self of the worst kind.