Profess or Perish?

John Rodden

Dreaming My Life Away?

In 1992, as my head wrestled with my heart about whether to leave the only life I knew—the academic life I had once loved—I was invited to contribute an essay to a journal. The guest editor specified that it was for a special theme: the future of the academy. I tried to beg off, telling him that I had severe doubts about my own future, which might not much longer include the academy.

But he persisted. Finally, I told him that, if I could even summon the energy to draft an essay, it would certainly take the form of something very personal—and perhaps might be unsuitable for this special issue of his scholarly journal. To my surprise, he responded that he would very much like to commission such an essay from me and would give me a free hand to compose it in whatever form that emerged.

For some unknown reason, I was so moved by his supportive words that I found myself pondering at length his proposal. Perhaps I vaguely intuited that thinking through such an essay might somehow represent a form of self-therapy—and thereby assist me with the momentous decision I felt myself to be facing. That is to say, with my gut as the referee, my head acknowledged that the graceful way to end the wrestling match was to cooperate with, rather than oppose, my heart.

The immediate outcome was “Field of Dreams,” the story of my star-crossed (and starstruck) migration from an immigrant Irish family into and through the American academy. The ultimate result proved far more significant: the decision that autumn to leave my faculty position at the University of Texas.

Is there life after going down the up staircase—after scaling the ivory tower? Scholarly life? In today’s hyperspecialized world? For a luftmensch possessed of utopian aspirations (and illusions—or delusions)?

Profess or perish?

“Field of Dreams” was occasioned by an unexpected invitation, and it represented both a young man’s embattled engagement with unfulfilled dreams from a young man still oriented toward the tower he had climbed. More than two decades later, well beyond that dark wood in the middle of my journey, I can revisit that decision to part ways from academe, a return that entails facing in a more personal voice my bumpy descent—yet also reminding me of the fortunate fall that it eventually became.

Family and friends waylaid me for years about that fateful decision to leave my position. Not that the leave-taking itself was so incomprehensible—after all, as most of my colleagues acknowledged, the litany of complaints about the university, both from those within and without its walls, is never-ending.  To leave for an attractive position in business, industry, government, consulting? Sure. But how could I leave it—voluntarily!—for the life of a PhD pauper?

Indeed, all I had were invisible means of support—a barely audible inner voice that could be quieted but not quelled. Inarticulate in conversation, it yet remained unrelenting within. It could be stifled yet not silenced.

Believe me, I had tried.

I had never known anyone who had done such a thing as this. I was even later told by a former president of the American Association of University Professors that he had never heard of any young, quite unknown junior professor who had done such a thing—that is, leave a secure, coveted position in a humanities department within an elite university for the life of a freelance writer with no institutional affiliation of any kind. I joked to him about my string of successful applications since my resignation, year in and year out, for a fellowship that provided for my needs. I told him that I knew the director of the foundation and therefore had a guaranteed “in” for the funds. Inquiring more about the foundation, he let out a loud guffaw when I mentioned its name: “The John Rodden Foundation.” My annual “grant award” was typically in “the high four figures,” which induced another bellyful of laughter and some head-nodding and subsequent head-shaking.

I never went into such details with anyone unless a person showed keen interest in my past. Most friends and colleagues who did not know me well assumed that I was still a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. After all, I still wrote many books and essays, and I often did guest lectures in the classes of old friends at my university. I stayed in touch with them; my contact with peripheral acquaintances and merely professional colleagues dwindled away.

I knew that I had to keep my fixed costs low—and I had no qualms about that. I felt that I was exercising an under-utilized talent for simple living. The experiment was not whether I could survive—but rather thrive. I continued to live in the same little room near the university that I had occupied for several years, a converted dorm (for dirt-cheap rent) that dispensed with a kitchen and included a small bathroom that I shared with an undergraduate. Friends referred to my bachelor pad as “the cell.” (With fewer smiles, a couple of family members called it “the hovel.”)

Nothing had changed outwardly. I had continued to cherish the life of the mind—minus the academy. To an outsider who read my articles or occasionally heard me lecture, it doubtless all seemed as if I were still a faculty member, indeed a senior one. I was even asked by my chair—in exchange for the largesse of library privileges!—to continue to sit on dissertation committees on which I had been a member, or committees that my one-time students newly arrived at the dissertation crossroads were now forming. I was glad to do so. I wanted to help—and we had pledged ourselves to remain in close touch anyway. So why not help them, not just with the intellectual challenges, but also with the (equally or more important) institutional hurdles?

Yes, outwardly it all looked the same. Yet all the extraneous activities and undesired obligations —the academic version of the politician’s chicken-dinner circuit—had fallen away. As a result, inwardly, everything had changed.

A precious pair of soul mates quietly acknowledged and affirmed my decision to leave—even while admitting that they could not really fathom why I had done what I had done. Their wholehearted acceptance sustained me through the transition and beyond the horizon.

 

Triage, or the Path with Heart

I’m often asked, especially by my former students, if my path might be right for them. I tend to answer: no and yes.

“No,” I say, “because it doesn’t seem likely to me that you have my taste for a spartan lifestyle or my preference for the single life. I have never owned a car, iPhone or Android, TV, or stereo—and haven’t had a computer for a decade or more. I don’t possess a dozen books—public libraries with computers and other resources are nearby. You will probably need far more material resources than I have needed, especially if you want to start a family, run a household, and experience so many of the things that are wonderful and legitimate pleasures in life. My own material needs are minimal, but my emotional and spiritual needs for a certain kind of fulfillment are enormous, even insatiable.”

But then I quickly add: “On the other hand, also yes! Yes, insofar as you follow a path with heart as I did. That is the deepest call to every soul. If you do that, then however much our outward circumstances differ, we are indeed on the same path.”

Perhaps I even mention a thought of Valéry, who wrote in his magnificent Journal: “In all great undertakings, tradition, in the true sense of the word, does not consist of doing again what others have done before, but in recapturing the spirit that went into what they did—and would have done differently in a different age.”

Sometimes young friends will inquire much more deeply about my choices and my rationale. I do try to be honest with them. First I tell them that the young man in his early thirties who decided twenty-odd years ago to take his sharp turn in life was no daredevil. Despite all the brave self-talk—and obnoxious private complaining—about his situation, including the resolve to resign his professorship, he was a cowardly lion. For he admitted to himself: talk is cheap. Doing it—wow, that makes all the difference.

So the decision to do it did not entirely feel like a choice. It was not a want. It was a must. It was more like a reluctant admission that, although things had been wonderful before, now they were not right and might never be right. My relationship with the academy had changed, and there was no going back.

That is, it was more like a painful breakup with your lover. Leaving my field of dreams to go solo was a path that I took hesitantly. I told myself that the fearful leap was just a trust step. I braced myself with reminders that my anxiety was normal. “Fear before the leap,” I repeated. “Confidence on the other side.” Once the flight of passage is under way, I prayed, all would be well. “You WILL reach the other side!”

And I did. Of course, in the early months (or was it years?), as I wandered beyond the familiar, golden fields of my academic dreams, I was shocked and disappointed by the lack of support from my family. I was groping for a new direction. I did not have a neat and packaged explanation for my leave-taking. I was shaken that some people thought I’d taken leave of my senses.

Only much later did I fully understand their shock and disappointment about my “netless” leap from the heights of the ivory tower. My working-class immigrant parents found it incomprehensible—and they remained inconsolable for years.

“Are you crazy? I mean, seriously, mentally disturbed? You’re not a full shilling!” wailed my mother, pledging me not to breathe a word about my decision to anyone outside the immediate family—“especially not to the relatives in Ireland!”

She remained steadfast on this point for years—not that anyone in County Donegal could have cared a fiddler’s fart.

My father took me aside.

“John, couldn’t you apologize? Would they”—the nebulous “they” meant to him an inaccessible higher-up, someone like the rarely seen white-collar supervisor overseeing his foreman—“take you back?” When I told him that the die was already cast, a look of deep sadness crossed his face. I had let him down—mightily so. Stoical as always, he, too, was inconsolable.

“You were my hero,” one of my brothers lamented. “Now . . .” His voice trailed off. Another brother voiced anger on behalf of my parents for “all that you’re putting them through.” He added: “And what about insurance?”

I must admit that I felt, at times, very guilty—not to mention foolish and naïve. Certainly it seemed to some colleagues that I was hopelessly self-deluded—a greenhorn riding a very high horse who was arranging his own fall. After all, I had gone from a charmed life at the University of Virginia—indeed I had never even applied for a job. My dissertation was accepted by Oxford University Press before I had even assembled a supervisory PhD committee. I had been hired at twenty-six, started teaching graduate courses right away, received a Fulbright Scholar Award to Germany, appeared in a one-hour national TV special on higher education, was reviewed enthusiastically in a half-page notice in The New York Times Book Review (and practically everywhere else), received the National Communication Association dissertation award, along with a counteroffer of tenure from Virginia in my fourth year, received a lavish offer from the University of Texas and the UT book award, and my department’s Teacher of the Year award.

And all that is not enough?

Yes, more than a bit foolish and naïve.

One well-meaning older friend kidded me endlessly about my “shrewd negotiation” of the lavish “offer” of library privileges as compensation for directing PhD dissertations, adding that my beneficent self-funded “foundation” had awarded me the “Rodden Airhead Grant,” which he regarded as the bonehead obverse of the MacArthur “Genius” Grants.[1]

Then one day he turned serious.

“We all mutter about our dissatisfactions and vaguely boast that we are going to resign, sail off to Tahiti with Gaugin and paint our days away. Throw it all away and live some different, more adventuresome life. Whatever your reasons, you actually did it!

“Part of me admires that, but the larger part of me believes that you’ll regret it. Your family is aghast with good reason, even if their views aren’t diplomatically or eloquently expressed. So don’t dismiss your parents’ concerns about you as the timid fears of ignorant, risk-averse immigrants. If you think that your poor old father, with his sixth-grade education from that one-room country bumpkin schoolhouse in County Donegal, is ‘just off the boat’ in his thinking, think again!”

My colleague’s little lecture—especially his abrupt change of tone—jolted me.

True enough, had any of my faculty friends done anything like this? They were already incredulous that, in order to finish up some writing and reflect from a distance on my future, I had taken an unpaid four-semester leave of absence from the University of Virginia in my midtwenties and gone to Germany. But that decision had been taken with the Virginia dean’s permission and, therefore, in the secure knowledge that I had a road back—whereas this step at Texas was over the cliff. “No more leaves [of absence],” the dean ordained, even though I had taught extra courses (or “overloads”) when I returned—without compensation. The department had no scheduling or other difficulties.[2]

The dean at Texas conceded the points. Apparently when I had returned “some” senior faculty were envious. Why can’t they do it? I asked. We both knew that they earned twice (or three or four times) my salary. “They can’t afford it,” the dean replied. End of discussion.

Yes, the step was permanent. Could I “afford” it?

No doubt about it—I had returned from my sojourn a different man. The bookish, young, literary historian met the walking stories and talking histories. In Germany I had begun to listen endlessly, hungrily—with no notion that I would one day write four books about them—to West and East Germans telling me about their lives—under Hitler or East German communism, or in Nazi concentration camps, or the Soviet gulag, and on and on.

The trip changed my life. Against that historical backdrop, academe shrunk and faded in importance. I lived on curiosity, passion, and wonder—bitterly mixed with agonized sorrow and choked incredulity. The stories! Unimaginable suffering. Tragic waste. My sheltered life humbled me. Like Rilke’s Brigge at twenty-eight, had I “done almost nothing”? But wait: forget Rilke! These harrowing stories are erlebte Geschichte (lived history), not book stuff.

True enough, but my leave of absence was up. Finish preparing your new courses, professor! Do you plan to throw away a prestigious, secure job? (Early tenure is in the air!) No! In thunder! Certainly the dean and I will work out some arrangement with regular, extended—if unpaid—leaves of absence. All my friends say that it’s crazy—but a small and harmless thing to ask—and that they’d never do so. (“Damn, I lobby all year to get whatever summer teaching I can,” said one comrade. “I need the money!”). I can still have my cake, along with my indigestible bratwurst of painful German stories—and somehow eat both.

Yet the dean was not all smiles when I inquired months later about another leave, even though a Fulbright Scholar Grant was also involved.

“No, he said calmly. What part of “No” did I not understand? No . . . more . . . leaves.” No. In thunder!

Yet some large part of me was thousands of kilometers away in the Black Forest, already looking forward to the next adventure—and not just for a summer. Strangely enough, then, the dean’s refusal only served to embolden me. Still, all will be well, right? So I resigned anyway.

Yes, the step this time was permanent. And it was, another friend later warned me, probably irrevocable. “Apart from the signal this sends to other departments about your reliability . . .” He paused. “It raises other doubts about you.” He darkly hinted at these “doubts,” adding vaguely that my bizarre step to resign had probably earned me a “dishonorable discharge” from Texas.

Couldn’t I come back to a good place? Somewhere else? “Word has certainly gone out,” he said. Because my own explanation “makes no sense,” people would speculate about the “real reason” for my departure. Is it substance abuse? “Trouble” with undergraduate women? Mental instability?

Wow, all this had never occurred to me.

“Besides,” he went on, “academe is changing. Last time around you were hired at a junior level. More of those positions exist—both because of lower pay and because it’s easy to get rid of untenured people. But very few senior positions are available. Especially not for a white male.”

Court in session! Time to be crucified on the cross of gold by the Inner Critic. His favored opening often began with a sarcastic line in a thick Irish brogue, followed up by some academic jibes from professorial voices.

“Mic of the moment, aren’t ya now!”

Pause.

Big mistake, Dreamweaver! After ten years at Virginia as a PhD student and junior prof, you were Little Big Man! Here you are the new kid on the block—and doubtless a prima donna! Little Big Shot!”

I had no good counterpunches. Clearly, I had been riding a very high horse and was due for a fall.

“Was that decision an act of bravado!” jeers the Inner Critic.

I perform a martial arts move on him.

“Ha! So you say! My best self chooses to regard it as an act of Providence. Virginia had become so cozy to me that I might never have left Charlottesville or the academy and sallied forth on my quixotic adventure! The good little boy would never have dared!”

Leaning back, I follow up with a smirk and a casual dismissal. “I’ve already waited too long.” Looking off in a pose of self-reflective wonder, I close with my favorite line from Walden: “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well!”

Yet I soon found that my boffo repartee left me with no more than a Pyrrhic victory.

Quiet moments of deep disquiet soon intruded. It was as if I had, suddenly and rather puzzlingly, taken the exit ramp off a smooth, paved road and instead chose “the one less traveled by.” Or rather, not “chose,” but somehow stumbled onto this different route. And this alternate path was not “road,” just a narrow, winding mountain trail that led sharply upward and then disappeared from sight around another curve.

“Early retirement!” I’d joke to myself. “Three decades early! True—it’s not a golden parachute. But hey! The nonfinancial benefits are great!”

 

Of Choice-making and -forsaking

No, it did not quite feel like a choice. Whereupon my screaming Inner Critic took center stage.

“Isn’t it true that you struggled for a dozen years to reach the prize to tenure in an elite university?”

Yes, I had to admit: he’s right. He was a prosecutor privy to all the inside info.

“And isn’t it true that you threw it all away in a timorous act of bravado?”

Well, I remonstrated, I know it may look like that . . .

As I strained to hear that quiet inner voice amid the din, suddenly he’d interrupt me.

“ . . . Yes, it looks like that to all your biggest supporters—dear parents, loving brothers, loyal friends, close colleagues, caring mentors. Let’s hear first from your poor old mother and father, who sacrificed so much. . . .”

No, no, not again! But the show (trial) was on. . . .

“Enough of this nosebleed idealism! Grow up, Peter Pan, PhD! Earth to Flying Boy! Ground Control to Major Tom! Are you there?”

Look, let me explain, Mr. D. A. . . .”

“Ha! You can’t fool me with that faux innocent, “wow” look! Your jolly-gee, ingenuous “all this never occurred to me” line! Because it certainly did occur to me!

Had “all this” really never crossed my mind? I ask myself again through the long night’s journey into day. Were you really so innocent? Or were the doubts and hesitations just repressed? Did you simply fail to consider the darkest consequences because you did not want to complicate further the decision to leave? Or you wanted relief from the incontrovertibly painful “known”— so you sallied forth half-blindly into the uncertain rose-tinted “unknown”? Must the painful admission of complicity be added to the suffering?

The questions hang in the air. Then the momentarily muted Inner Critic raises his volume. And he ceaselessly drones Philip Larkin’s suspicion: “You were less deceived” than you might, than you dearly wished—and still wish?—to believe.

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks. . . .
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.[3]

“For . . . you were less deceived.”

The hissing, crackling voice trails away.

Silence.

And then a thunderclap.

“Profess—or perish!”

Yes, in the immortal words of that inimitable philosopher, Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.

I felt such a jumble of emotions. Elated and proud of myself at one moment, ashamed and guilt-ridden at another. I was disoriented. But I was not discouraged, let alone depressed. Not as I had been for months and months earlier. Not anymore. Physical pain is more endurable than mental pain. I was no longer living an outward life that my inward being couldn’t accept.

Around this time I wrote a poem about the four years of agonizing struggle that culminated in my decision to leave the University of Texas (and the academy altogether).

                         Renunciation
Trust
And it will be restored to you
In a tranquil and purified form.

But now a clean cutting out,
A sharp excision is necessary.

Cut. It will steady you,
And the Lord’s grace will ease the pain.

Your reward will be a new serenity
Far more valuable than the old compulsiveness.

All that is true and pure
In the relationship
Will live on

Even through years and decades and lifetimes
Of silence
And separation.

No, it did not feel like a choice. Yet even in the beginning, it felt like awakening. Maybe a self-willed professional catastrophe, yes, but somehow an act of spiritual salvation. I calmed myself with a silent prayer of trust. “All will be well”—if only I marshal the will to believe that my premature midlife crisis represents a wondrous opportunity—and that I can make the most of it by embracing this unexpected new stage of the journey.

 

The Journey

My journey has been no path strewn with roses but rather something better: an odyssey of challenge and adventure. In hindsight, I see it as a providentially fortunate fall, an act (or “soft-headed” stunt) of crazy love in which the heart crusaded for my heart’s desire—perhaps its first outspoken declaration of in(ter) dependence! Freedom! Dignity! Joy! Life! Never have I wished to retract that heartfelt decision. Never have I regretted that small outside step, that giant inward leap.

And yet, whether it has all been for better or worse is not the point. It was the path that I had to undertake if I were to grow, perhaps even to survive. Although I tried desperately to repress, deny, delay, stave off the necessary decision and its consequences, I was haunted by a poem from Mary Oliver’s Dream Work, “The Journey”:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

As I hesitantly prodded and tugged my life into this uncharted territory, I lived my way into a new mode of thinking. Here, too, “The Journey” echoed in my ears as it called out to me, “Onward!”

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.[4]

 

Odyssey of an Odd Man Out

How I would like to report that all those dastardly Sirens of Security were left thereafter in the dust as my intrepid, companionable new Vocalist marched ever onward and upward, following that radiant star, blazing new trails, striding deeper and deeper into the New World until we finally reached Utopia (or Nirvana or Oz—whatever!). But then Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would rightly chide me about my “essay”: “The good end happily, and the bad end unhappily. This is what fiction means.”

No, Rodden’s Rotomontade (or prose choeropoem) does not extend that far. So I cannot sugarcoat those four embattled years, during which I was lost in a fog of confusion and depression so deep that eventually I could not write a line or even jog a step. For a former collegiate long-distance runner, that was almost a death blow—and the demon of heaviness felt like an anchor that might sink me.

Indeed, it was as if my ramshackle house had drifted out to sea, as if I were living a scene from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.

Yet what came to mind at a providential moment and buoyed me was instead a little story by a classic American author, a one-time student expelled for drunkenness and gambling. Ironically, for years I walked past his undergraduate room (by then a museum) around the corner from mine on the University of Virginia campus.  

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Confusion of the Whirlpool,” a fisherman caught at sea on a stormy evening must abandon his small boat. It costs him everything he owns, but he thereby saves his life. That is the ultimate fruit of the capacity to face the challenge of triage. You emerge after a catastrophic odyssey, managing somehow to salvage whatever can be saved. This requires the willingness to carry the sometimes unendurable tension of hopeless confusion and nerve-wracking uncertainty to the absolute limit of our strength, while neither repressing nor overlooking the glaring contradictions and thorny dilemmas stabbing us with every move. It requires dwelling in the painful doubts until we live our way into a new life as some answers begin to dawn. What emerges is a wondrous self-trust. “I will make it through the night! Somehow, like wily Odysseus, I will exploit whatever meager resources are available and prevail.”

During those dark nights, I gropingly discovered a salvific truth: the mystical power of forbearance. If you carry the tension, you will develop a tremendous confidence in yourself and in Providence. That is what Goethe also taught me in “Orphische Worte.” In this poem, Goethe speaks of a temperament that does not “revolt against Necessity and is constantly renewed in Hope.” The smallest victories inspire hope, and even the most devastating losses do not result in despair.

And so, throughout it all, I have learned that, while I am skeptical about the pursuit of happiness, I bear a personal responsibility for something that I believe the founders might really have meant: life, liberty, and the cultivation of happiness. For happiness cannot be gained by “chasing” it. Nor is it a matter of uncovering its “secret.” Happiness is made, not born. It is attained and retained and sustained by quietly “tending” the loamy soil of personal integrity and fulfilling relationships from which it grows. For it is an organic process of (self-)unfolding, and it must be seeded and tilled in order to flourish.

No one can envision the joys that come with keeping true to one’s necessary—may I say “ God-given”?—path. But I would be remiss if I were to pretend that the thorny dilemmas do not often stab and pierce. Every summer the park in which I like to run features the “Eeyore Festival,” and I readily admit that I occasionally echo the dour sentiments of that lovable sad-sack donkey in Milne’s story: “All I get is thistles.” At times when I have felt the pricks (or crown of thorns!) of that career catastrophe years ago, that line from Winnie the Pooh comes to mind.

Of course, every path has its thistles. Necessary, often substantial and completely unforeseen losses arise along every byway. Some of these losses may indeed emerge as the consequences of the original decision. For instance, I was in excellent health when I left the academy and long afterwards. More recently, I have some rocky times with personal health, which were not helped by the American health system’s traditional practice of excluding personal health coverage for all “preexisting conditions.” When you don’t have insurance, you don’t check out “minor” ailments—and you may eventually discover that they are no longer minor. (The eternal trial may recess, but it can resume at any time. “Let me quote his loving brother,” harangues the Inner Critic. “And what about insurance?”)

 

Of Fear and Trust—and Confidence

Yet even these health struggles have gifted me with life lessons and spiritual rewards that I might not have been able to receive in any other way: stronger trust in Providence, deeper understanding of physical debilities, greater compassion and empathy for others’ sufferings, and so much more. Surprisingly, I also find that some of the values which I so highly prized as a young man—endless energy, unflagging vigor, ready dependability on my body—have receded in importance. It is no longer possible for me to do many things that I did until after the age of fifty (a lifetime ago!)—as a marathon runner, an outdoorsman, a (scholar) gypsy. But now that they are no longer possible, I do not miss them so much though they were still possible.

So I’ve become aware that a gradual evolution has taken place in my expectations and priorities. What I once judged as crucial to happiness has altered and is no longer experienced as a precondition because the downward slope has occurred over several years. I have adjusted. I see this newfound acceptance as a matter of “downshifting,” not resignation. If I had known it all in advance, I might have despaired about the checkered future ahead of me; but now that it is here, now that it is what it is, it is not as awful as that young man would certainly have believed.

An unforgettable anecdote still buoys me about a courageous artist whose capacity to forbear was legendary. It concerns the distinguished violinist Itzhak Perlman. In one of his concerts, Perlman, who suffered since childhood from paralysis, struggled to get on the stage, finally took a seat and put his crutches aside, and began to play with his weakened arms. He guided his listeners into an empire of melody and lightness, which partook of the music of the spheres. Suddenly, after no more than a couple dozen measures, one of the strings on his violet broke. No one could imagine that a symphony could be played with a missing string, but somehow Perlman accomplished it. He continued to play, altering the melody as needed, improvising and adapting to the limits of his instrument, and somehow adjusting the composition to his “handicapped” violin. As the listeners began to grasp that they were witnessing nothing less than a musical miracle, they glimpsed a broad smile on Perlman’s face. Asked about his feat after the performance, he modestly answered, “You know, sometimes the task simply is to make music with whatever remains.”

Yes, to make it with whatever remains! That is exactly it: that is exactly the point. To somehow endure and prevail! To somehow further develop one’s humanity despite illness and pain, to somehow summon the strength and keep alive the affirming flame and to achieve whatever small victories in life are still possible.

Of course, I was never able to mount the stage and mesmerize an audience with the divine gifts of a Perlman, let alone an Orpheus. But I always did possess an impassioned love of language, so whenever my crosses have brought me to the point of stumbling and falling, whenever the string in my soul broke, the wisdom of a Montaigne, or a Pascal, or a thousand other eloquent, wise voices have whispered in my ear, embraced me, and guided my hands across my half-broken keyboard. Somehow, like Perlman with his lame violin, I have played on and improvised the chaotic little concerto of my life.

And whenever possible, I have encouraged others to go on with their lives, indeed to try against all odds to compose their lives with dignity. In his memoir The Words, Jean-Paul Sartre compares words to bullets: a “loaded pistol.” In my self-talk, I play a game with myself whereby I draw my pistol and fire away at my illness. They are enormous, but I am a revolutionary dissident in the underground resistance movement. I am a crafty sniper who takes aim at my inner saboteurs. That is how I hope to triumph, or at least to forbear.

 

Beyond the Horizon

What is to come next in my life? Do these aforementioned “insights” have any general validity?

On both counts, I must answer: I don’t know. For now, however, I intuit that I will grow and share more if I live in an open-ended way, rather than close off the future by developing some strategy that will structure my days. Here I part company from Somerset Maugham. In The Summing Up (1938), he advises the would-be writer to develop a definite life “pattern” and live out of that life pattern deliberately—as if one were outlining a novel and them trying to work from that detailed blueprint.

Something like that worked well for me in my old career. I can’t deny the value of such planning when writing a long book. It’s hard to complete a big project unless you are very self-disciplined and stick to a weekly agenda. But because fulfilling a Master Plan was central to my achievement-oriented scholarly life, and because it’s a tendency that inhibits my serendipity, I started soon after my farewell to academe to let it go. I began to dwell more in the present, learning to tolerate uncertainties, rather than silence the inner whisper via a schedule of wall-to-wall activities.

Whatever the future may hold, I sense that, even if I don’t have an academic position and seldom get the chance to teach (my old friend was right: no institution wants me), I haven’t stopped being a teacher, let alone a writer. True, I’m no longer an up-to-date expert in a specific field. But since I’m ever more willing to experiment, and indeed to learn anew, I believe I’m a better teacher today than I ever have been. And certainly a better writer. I’ll probably remain primarily a nonfiction writer, but a sign of my growth is my taking more risks with my writing, which includes not only topics far removed from my old, disciplinary specialties but also fiction and even poetry.

More important than literary activity or secular intellectual pursuits, however, are time and energy devoted to the spiritual life. That is, more important than writing books that might endure is helping people to endure—and prevail! Like Thoreau, I know that I have more lives to live—and no longer spare quite so much for the literary one.

More and more for me now, it’s not books of lasting consequence that matter. Rather, it’s people. They matter. And if I pour energy into other people, then they will reach out to others. And those others to still others. And on and on. So instead of a furtive, vainglorious (and in vain) throw at literary immortality, I might thereby contribute to the real thing! Above all, that’s the form of teaching and learning—that is, sharing—that I treasure ever more.

Freedom! Yes! But then: service. Freedom to serve—to serve not just myself, but also others.

During the last decade, my works and days have been increasingly faith-centered. An Irish cradle Catholic who lapsed into a mere Sunday churchgoer for too long, I have been Romeward-bound for more than a decade. Both in Europe and the US, I have become involved in communities of inspired and inspiring believers: men and women who truly live the gospel. My marathoning treks may be long over, though I hope at last that, like Yeats’s excited pilgrim, “I am running toward paradise.” It is a long-distance race that goes not to the swift, but to the indefatigable.

That is a story for a different essay. But it is good to come home.

 

Living, Simply

I hesitate to say that the above insights apply to anybody except myself. Or even that I could not have learned any of them in some other decidedly less dramatic way.

But I have often pondered Rousseau’s line in Emile: “The blessings of liberty are worth many wounds.”[5]

I have been fortunate to have had the blessings and breaks and passion and pluck to “compose a life,” enabling me to compose the works. And yet, I remonstrate with myself, for any of us who dream of realizing a monumental project, how much does that have to do with what might be called an Edifice Complex? And then, if and when the vainglorious project fails, do we not have a tendency to blame everyone but ourselves—or at least blame the insuperable obstacles and unavoidable circumstances that made the failure unavoidable? And even when the project reaches fruition, as in my own case, the self-questioning does not cease but rather moves on to a different front.

Was the cost too high? Just trading the ivy tower to scale the Tower of Babble? “Two dozen books!” mocks the Inner Critic. “Scribble-scribble! Your little toeprint in the sands of time—as the rushing high tide approaches?”

Yes, the “what ifs” roll in and out like the tides. What if I had remained a professor? What if I had kept my excellent state-funded health insurance all over the years? What if I had never written most of the books? What if I had never interviewed all these people? What if I had continued instead to teach classes regularly and met thousands of students in them? Was it in the end a tradeoff that pitted security, health, and family against a literary life, travel, and the freedom to misspend that freedom?

So it now seems to be—but hindsight is at least partial blindness.

The “what ifs” are both irresistible and absurd. “Irresistible” because of the coincidences you notice, the lucky turns and lost opportunities you recognize, the regrets you bear. “Absurd” because all those perceptions amount to a tiny fraction of what actually occurred.

You can never really reconstruct cause and effect. You can never micromanage your memory to anatomize the infinite number of small events that finally led to the big one. So even the apparently idiotic “mistake” cannot be clearly evaluated. You do not really know what string of minidecisions led to it—or how in turn it will affect the rest of your life. The chance meetings that some writers are castigated for in their fictions are in fact true to life. The so-called deus ex machina events are not at all outlandish but possess a startling verisimilitude.

The novelist John Bayley speaks of “the non-inevitability of events that we nevertheless know are bound to come.”

Really? Or is that too hindsight—and partial blindness.

Much as we like to think otherwise, outcomes in our lives are no more “bound to come” than was the week-long storm that had raged over Europe on June 5, 1944—the day before the Normandy invasion was scheduled—“bound to” let up hours later, thereby lending the D-Day landing and beachhead advance a decent chance of success. Small accidents or split-second decisions are as likely (in hindsight) to have major repercussions as heralded large ones. We need to cultivate a keener appreciation of the huge difference that choices and fortuities make in our strange odysseys. “Life must be lived forward,” Kierkegaard avers, “but can only be understood backwards.” Pondering the might-have-beens can help us better understand what did happen—and why. Likewise for the might-not-have-beens. We sail in deep fog toward and through a future that might not have been.

Let us not forget that Emile is subtitled “A Treatise on Education.” It has fundamentally to do with self-education. My own self-education strikes me sometimes as the bildungsroman of an unworldly dummkopf. In many respects I was a naïve young man during graduate school and even later. I now understand that most of us have our secretive, hypocritical, and self-compromising parts. Few lives rise to a level of consistency and coherence in harmony with very high ideals. Skill in one region of life by no means implies even minimal competence in any other ones. That is something that I should have already realized about the professors whom I so admired—hence the “shock” of my collisions as a junior professor, when I repeatedly and obtusely hallucinated the false equation: intellectual brilliance = moral impeccability. I have not repeated that same mistake with my pantheon of writers, some of whom exemplify literary genius and practical idiocy.

That bracing, long-overdue revelation for the immigrant son (“Scholars who are not also saints? Impossible!”) represented one of my most necessary “losses.” Fortunately, it never tumbled me from the puer’s proud naivete into the senex’s know-it-all cynicism. Rather, as I matured and threw off my rose-colored glasses (and fully submitted to cataract surgery), I began to see life a bit more steadily and whole. I was able to adopt “benevolent,” intellectual big brothers (not Big Brothers) and sisters—living as well as dead—as pathfinders who guided me down the ivory tower and cheered me to find and follow my own path.

Thankfully, by the time I was traveling to East Germany and interviewing colleagues at the university who were Communist Party members, I was able to see them as not tainted “commies” or hopelessly corrupted Planmenschen but rather as ordinary people quite like myself. They had simply gone along to get along. I got to know myself well enough that I realized that academe, or any comparable system whose structure of incentives is strongly at odds with its professed ideals, would change me far more than I could change it. Like me, these were normal people who would work within whatever system they must, occasionally using other people to advance themselves, manipulating a few inconvenient facts and events, proudly indulging in a half-conscious dishonesty within their purported honesty. I am well aware that every institution—certainly including the Church—tempts one to these kinds of compromising behaviors. This is not to say that the professed independence of the freelance writer or scholar gypsy does not have its own temptations. But they are different—and somewhat easier to resist (at least given my own temperament) because one is at a much greater distance from the pressures and not dependent on any one source of income or esteem.

“Breaking ranks” with the professoriate and downshifting into an academic “outsource”—an occasional guest lecturer here and there—probably lessened what might have become an alarming resemblance to Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Maybe the income losses on my financial statement have shown up in a higher character balance.

What’s more, in my conversations with a few other “downshifters” who have also revised their work and days, I’ve been struck by similar reports of the process of self-transformation. Perhaps it is true that, if you turn your life into an experiment, you will cross an invisible barrier marked “Security Obsession” and “Respectability Anxiety.” Then you will be showered with insights that you never otherwise could have received. You will make these discoveries if you merely claim the space to explore yourself. And many of your most miraculous discoveries will center on a humble yet revolutionary perception: less is more. You will be vouchsafed the wonders of material and emotional simplicity.

On some levels, your old life goes on unchanged. But a new life will also have opened before you. And by its laws the old norms of success and security no longer hold you hostage. You discover that you are living according to your own rhythms. You are simply living.

Living, simply.

 

Notes

[1]The joke alludes, of course, to the famous annual prizes awarded by the John A. MacArthur Foundation, which the press dubs the “MacArthur Genius Grants.”

[2]I had received an offer of tenure from the University of Virginia in 1989. Turning it down, instead I left Virginia for Texas, feeling it was time for a change. In hindsight, was that decision the extravagant “airhead” gesture of a deluded luftmensch? Whatever else, I do believe that Virginia had become so cozy to me that I might never have left Mr. Jefferson’s academical village or the university world without the alienated feeling of isolation at Texas and the self-discoveries in the Black Forest.

[3]Larkin, Philip. The Less Deceived. Hessle: Yorks, 1958. Print.

[4] Mary Oliver, Dream Work (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 38-39.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (New York: Appleton, 1895), 44.

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