Over the years, I’ve reviewed my life the way a person might listen to old records. Digging around my memory I’ll find a volume of songs I haven’t thought of in awhile, place it on the turntable, and drop the needle. As it plays I hear new things, some nuance, or I reconsider the lyrics. Usually, playing the record leads to some insight about myself then and now, and my intervening selves. Two years ago I emptied out an old apartment, a place I first lived in 1995. Two years later, I’m playing the memory of the memories I found.
I sometimes say that I ran away from home when I was 17, young, determined, and aggrieved at not having been recognized as the genius I thought I was.
My first trauma was when my parents’ relationship became troubled, something that distracted them from me. It was then that I felt a powerful need to be seen, recognized, and appreciated.
What emerged through my childhood was a realization that I could get the attention I wanted, by disappearing and by challenging. I was 3 when I hid in a closet and set off a search, and I was the center of attention on the playground when I said Santa Claus was just “your parents.”
I had two urges, maybe driven by fear and selfishness, to be appreciated by my absence and by my unwillingness to go along. From my earliest days until I left, I loved attention on my own terms. My grudge against my hometown was that I didn’t get that.
My drive was to prove everyone wrong and exceed expectations. I planned to get a Ph.D. and a tenure track position by the time I was 27. I finished undergraduate school when I was 20 and had my MA by 21. I was on my way.
I began a restless relationship with jobs and people, summed up a lyric from a song, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
He ain’t wrong, he’s just different, But his pride won’t let him Do things to make you think he’s right
I cultivated this persona and built it on the grievance. But I wasn’t just different, I was right. When confronted with a choice to give in on a small thing, I’d hold out for a big reason. Achieving on my terms powered me through my 20s.
The first shift I felt deeply came in December of 2001 when I learned that the legislative seat that I had been working to win for 6 years would finally be open. Deep down inside, I knew I didn’t want it. I think it was because I’d have to make a commitment, I’d have to go along with a program. Somewhere toward the end of my 20s, I was done wanting office. But I had to go through with it and did.
I remember the profound sense of relief when it was over, attending a big transportation event and for the first time in a decade not worrying about needing to meet or impress anyone. Since then when I attend a reception or meeting, my main focus is the exits, the food, and the drink. I could care less who’s there. It was a feeling of freedom.
In my early 30s I began to have more modest aims and ambitions, mostly centered on doing what was consistent with my principles and rationality. This wasn’t different from my early days mocking the Santa Claus story. This decade I reached a peak fueled with childhood anger, but when I got there and looked back toward where I had come from, I couldn’t see anything anymore. It was too far away.
But I was still surrounded by fools, the weak, people with rational self-interest narrowly construed. Success of my endeavors was in spite of the people around me not with or because of them. I had polished my resentment into self-sufficiency; relationships with people and jobs were unfortunate but necessary means to an end that I felt called to fulfill. But I was good and holding my ground, so much so that people even confused that with being, “smart” rather than deeply purposeful.
By 2014 three things, my study of history, the centennial of the start of World War I, and a documentary about the Iraq War intersected. My 10-year relationship and marriage was over and I was free to do what I wanted to do. I had always thought that my 40s and 50s would be my professional and personal peak, still young enough to have stamina but old enough to be given the benefit of respect because of experience.
But what I realized 2 years ago, cleaning out that apartment, was that the boyish rage had faded, replaced with a high-minded still determined sense of being right, and then, somewhere, despair and disillusion. I was happy to have started my own organization; I was where I wanted to be. But what I found was that the same folly that possessed politicians in 1914 and 2003 was present in 2014 in the work I was doing.
Doing “right thing” was no longer a goal to achieve but a deep burden, weighing me down. No friends. No children. No security. At 50, I have nothing to prove. I am right. The question now is, “Was it worth it?” With no grudge, realizing the circular folly present in history and the present, where to now?
By 2016 I knew being right was not persuasive. Rational self-interest is consistency, the familiar, and the promise of a modest return over a long period.
It took 30 years for me to learn what the teaming crowd knew all along: keep our minds on the small, simple things, then our souls won’t be crushed by the big unknown things.
So now I stand on another hill, blessed with indifference, able to see where I’ve been, but unable to see where I am going. But there is always someplace to go.
Featured Image: Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?), Painting by Annibale Carracci, 1601. The work depicts a scene featured in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. Saint Peter, while fleeing Rome along the ancient Via Appia, meets Christ outside the city, who is walking in the opposite direction towards the city, carrying his cross. Peter asks him, Domine, quo vadis? The question is in Latin and means “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replies, Eo Romam iterum crucifigi, which means: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”