I have a tendency to take arbitrary numerical milestones literally. I try to close out my accounts as much as possible prior to the New Year, for instance, and my mind often wanders to other forms of autobiographical numerology about the number of years I’ve taught at various places, the timing of my book publications, etc. Now I am approaching one of the biggest of arbitrary numerical milestones — my fortieth birthday, which has me thinking a lot about the stereotypical experience of decade-based units of life (your 20s, your 30s, etc.). In my case, the objective life milestones match up weirdly well with the arbitrary deacde-based milestones. When I was 20, I did a study abroad semester in Oxford that completely changed my life, or at least made me realize that a different life was possible. And when I was 29, I finished my PhD and got my first academic job. There isn’t as clear a milestone happening right now, but my 20s and my 30s both map onto pretty clear stages in my life — the latter being a much happier time, in fact the only time in my life (perhaps aside from early childhood) when I would say I was happy most of the time.
I was not happy in my 20s, nor was I much fun to be around. My time in Oxford allowed me to envision, for the first time, being able to actually live a life of the mind, but at the same time, it highlighted the obstacles. I talked to Oxford tutors about the possibility of coming back to do my PhD, but (whether rightly or wrongly) I did not regard that as a live option. Where would I get the money? Better, I thought, to do an American PhD, where I could get full funding — and I applied to a random assortment of schools (in English, my college major), with no success. Part of the problem, of course, was that I was an arrogant jerk who looked down on my own institution and therefore didn’t ask for help with my applications. Looking back, I had no idea what a research program even was, and my research statements were basically proposing that I could become a generalist, perhaps with the model of Harold Bloom naively in the back of my mind. I guess I did wind up fulfilling something like that generalist vision in the Shimer Great Books program, but that was a serendipitous path I never could have predicted.
My path forward at that point was twofold. Having been rebuked by the anonymous powers that be, I connected to the one place that I saw serious intellectual engagement at Olivet Nazarene University — namely, the circle of students around Craig Keen, a theology professor who was forced out just as I started taking his masters classes. Deprived of that option, I went to Chicago Theological Seminary to study with Ted Jennings, who was a friend of Craig’s and whose classes many of Craig’s students wound up taking. Looking back, it was striking how incredibly cautious I was. I had no models for graduate study and thus followed what I saw people around me doing. I had no experience of higher education outside of Olivet, so I sought out mentors based solely on personal trust and relationships. And crucially, I didn’t even move to the city (despite a really hard commute that included a near-impossibility of finding a parking spot) until I felt forced to do so when the college bought out the building I was living in. I was miserable in my college town, clinging to a part-time job that barely met my needs (though it made me a wealthy man in my social circle), often spending weekends and evenings alone — yet I was, absurdly, afraid to let go of what little I had there. Even when I did move to the city, my life was insular and constricted. Teaching Crime and Punishment has always been difficult for me, because Raskolnikov’s lifestyle feels just a little too familiar.
My main outlet was online. I’ve written before about my life strategy of using writing to build a new social circle. In my 20s, this took off in a big way, as I was joining in the blogging trend just as it was becoming most influential. Despite my arrogance and prickliness, I managed to build a community around The Weblog (and subsequently An und für sich), simply because I needed a community so badly. And like so many things in my life, it proved to be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it gave me a public intellectual profile far beyond that of most grad students. When I went to AAR as a grad student and young professor, people knew who I was, stopping me at the book stalls and receptions to tell me how much they enjoyed the blog. In the last analysis, it got me my job at Shimer, as students there who read the blog saw a post where I asked if there were any job listings in Chicago that I was missing and encouraged me to apply. So it is likely due to the blog that I am even in academia at all, because things were looking pretty grim in those post-crisis years. But on the other hand, it gave me a great platform to offend and alienate people — giving me a reputation as a verbal brawler and general bad sport that still dogs me to some extent and that some senior colleagues have suggested has contributed to my ongoing underemployment. So the blog is simultaneously the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of my career — in keeping with the heavy Derridean tone that Craig and Ted both contributed to in those formative years.
I was more extreme online, but in person I could also be harsh, irritable, and dismissive. Part of this was a hangover of my evangelical past. In rejecting the fake “evangelical nice” — and in particular the culture of Olivet, where I felt that I had been manipulated and lied to repeatedly — I opted for a narrow and self-serving vision of honesty on the model of “truth hurts.” As with so many Very Online men in their 20s, being a jerk became a moral obligation. But more fundamentally, I think I was so hard to be around because I was in a constant panic. Nothing I was doing was possible, so sooner or later I would look down and realize that I had long since run over the edge of the cliff. And it really did feel like a cliff, because the back-up option of moving back with my parents was not one that I even seriously considered. Even moving back to my hometown would have felt like the ultimate defeat, the ultimate humiliation. If push came to shove, I may have contemplated suicide rather than moving home.
More than just avoiding a return to my parents’ home, I was trying to avoid my parents’ lives, which I took as cautionary tales. My mom and dad are both intellectually curious, creative, and ambitious people, and from my perspective, marriage and family life took that all away from them. At that time, my mom had decided to go to college to become a teacher, so my main cautionary tale was my dad. He had gotten married too young, so I tried to avoid getting “tied down” in any relationship — an exceptionally arrogant attitude, given my modest success on the dating front, and one that led to really hurtful behavior, especially with the woman I was dating through most of grad school but periodically dramatically broke up with because of the “threat” of settling down. All of this was her punishment for once, once, mentioning she might want kids some day. The need to work and support a family had led him to drop out of college, so I tried to keep my outside work to a minimum, leading to near-constant financial problems requiring radical solutions. I spent my 20s in abject penury. I didn’t even have a proper winter coat, living in Chicago. If not for a generous high school friend who became my roommate in the latter half of my 20s, I literally don’t know what I would have done — but of course, in a late-breaking case of 20s-style assholery, I put him off when he needed a place to stay for the night. We haven’t talked since.
When I reached my 30s, it’s not like a switch flipped — but by and large, everything did change. I suddenly had steady paychecks, meaning that it no longer felt like every month was an elaborate heist. I settled into a relationship with a wonderful woman who shared my preference to remain childless (if anything, even more intensely). And in general, teaching mellowed me out. The switch from online verbal sparring with my peers to an in-person relationship with students in need of help and guidance did wonders for my patience, compassion, and general social awareness. In that respect, I think the Shimer discussion-centered approach was exactly what I needed, because it helped displace me from the center of attention — helping me to avoid, at least to some extent, the stereotypical academic male social formation wherein you just yammer endlessly because obviously you’re the smartest and most interesting person in the room. It’s not at random, I think, that BoJack Horseman — star of a show which is ultimately a show about a man who remains in his 20s for decades, with increasingly destructive consequences — begins to find some redemption in the experience of teaching.
What would I change if I could go back? My gut reaction is to say nothing, because my path to any kind of liveable career was so narrow and improbable. I’ve enjoyed enough time travel stories to be familiar with the butterfly effect. And to take the biggest thing — even if I had gone to a supposedly “better” school for my PhD, I still would have graduated into the decimated post-Financial Crisis job market, and in that setting, I almost certainly would not have been able to do the diverse writing I have done. In fact, I have sometimes been tormented, looking back, by the thought that I did largely make the right decisions based on the information and constraints I was operating with, that there really were not other live options that I reasonably could have understood and taken. The take-away here is not that I am some kind of genius, but that I was dealt a pretty bad hand, such that my far from extraordinary outcome is something of a feat.
But on the interpersonal level, would the butterly effect really have applied? Are all the people I offended or hurt or took for granted or pushed away “baked into” the timeline of my happiness? Was it all somehow worth it in the end? I don’t think so, but I also don’t know what it would have taken to nudge me toward being a nicer and braver person — or if I would have had ears to hear if it had happened.