by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor
If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to use this space to talk about myself, because I am both the subject I know the best and also—it sometimes seems—not at all. As these nonsermons are inspired by e.e. cummings’ nonlectures, I am drawn to his reasoning for spending so much time on the self: “Who, if I may be so inconsiderate as to ask, isn’t egocentric? Half a century of time and several continents of space, in addition to a healthily developed curiosity, haven’t yet enabled me to locate a single peripherally situated ego.”
Perhaps, he goes on to say, he hasn’t met the right people; perhaps neither have I.
I have returned to the subject in my mind already too many times, but I believe repetition is necessary in order to really live the lessons we claim to have learned. Maggie Nelson refers to this perpetual process as a pleasure, “the pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”
And for me, such revisitations are my feeble hope that I will not have to encounter again certain realizations the hard way. In 2016, after three years of teaching, I dropped out of my evening graduate counseling program because I had the desire to study religion again. And because the study of religion is not a typical route for school teachers, I was unable to attend graduate school and continue to teach.
This incompatibility seems simple enough, but at one point I had not allowed this simple fact, had instead blamed the inconvenience on the school administration who were not on the same page: one told me I could do both, then, a month before the start of classes, others told me I had to choose. For a number of reasons, some honorable, others not (bitterness counted among them), I made the choice to chase a dream, and in the span of a day or so I was no longer a teacher. From three years to one email, I was no longer in the role I had just weeks ago found my meaning in every day.
I am not, of course, saying that I regret the decision. In retrospect, I have completed the degree, earned a number of opportunities for further writing through it, and returned to the same school to teach again this past fall. Very rarely are life’s trials wrapped in a bow and presented back to us as a gift. I am not unaware of this privilege.
But of course, I am also recounting all of this to you in hindsight. At the time of my resignation, as I began my studies, I could not have articulated any of this perspective to you. I had defined myself through my career as a teacher, and just like that—even if by choice—I could no longer find meaning in that identity.
I was learning the dangers of attachments all over again.
When I was just 19 years old, after completing my first year of college, I took my first job with a church in the area, as a summer youth intern. Upon arrival, the youth minister told me and my co-intern that he would be resigning just as the summer began.
With little warning, my co-intern (also in college) and I became responsible for 50 teenagers for an entire summer. As August drew to a close, and my co-intern returned to school elsewhere, I was hired to stay on as the interim youth minister until the church could find a full-time replacement. For six months in total, I was given the enormous duty of caring for the spiritual and personal development of a large group of teenage students.
Then, once more with little warning, I was told someone had been found. A man was moving with his wife and children in the next few weeks to take over the role full-time.
In order for the teenagers to acclimate to their new youth minister, I was asked to find another church home so as to not confuse the students on my role if I were to stay. This time, the decision was very much out of my hands, and I went from caring for 50 teenagers daily to distancing myself entirely from them.
I should have expected this. After all, it was an internship, and no promise of a long-term position was made. But this group of 50 students—along with their parents—had become my community, my family. As someone who was only barely becoming an adult, I felt something stripped from me. I did not yet know then that I am wired for depression and social anxiety, and the sea change knocked me over.
How can I explain the days that followed? How to say that driving to school every day gave way to thinking of how much it might hurt to hit a wall? To confess I tried closing my eyes and counting to ten while the car propelled me forward? How many days I practiced this until it became ritual?
Some days I think I barely came out of that season alive. My constant worry is that I will find myself there again.
When she left her role as a parish minister after more than twenty years, author Barbara Brown Taylor found herself home from church the next Sunday for the first time in over two decades. Though the feeling was short-lived, she writes of staying home that first Sunday: “I confronted grave questions about my professional identity, my human worth, and my status before God.”
So I am not alone in the feeling, though somehow I do not quite feel better yet.
There I was again, at age 25, defined by a single identity one day, within a community, and then losing that identity, no longer in that community, the next. A teacher for three years, now no more.
Though I had not read it at the time, I am reminded of the quote by Joan Didion upon experiencing a nervous breakdown and learning she has multiple sclerosis: “my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”
Here I was, acting in a role, forgetting that it was only one role in the grand story of myself. Or realizing that there was no story after all?
Fortunately, I had access to free counseling through my graduate program and, for the first time in my life, I sought out a counselor who helped me recognize my social anxiety and depression, how it affects me, and how to work through it.
But before that healing, there was the terrible, indescribable hurt, the hurt I can only name through recounting what followed: After telling my friends in Dallas that I was going back to school and not teaching anymore, my social anxiety told me that I did not mean that much to them anyway. Despite multiple cross-country trips, weekly movie nights and bar outings, and conversations spanning our lifetimes, I convinced myself I had made these friends up in my mind. Within weeks, I found a house to rent in another city, hired a moving company, and saw those friends maybe twice in the next year. They were less than an hour away, but I ignored most of their phone calls and texts. I avoided meeting new people, experienced panic attacks at concerts and in classrooms, found myself unable to make eye contact with others, and spent entire classes staring at walls or doodling to distract myself from the overwhelming sensation that I had really done it this time: I had lost every friend, given up the best job I would ever have, had spent every last penny of my savings on a degree with no certain end goal, and would never make it back to the person I had been, the person I spent so long learning to love.
In the counselor’s office, as I described the fading details of the person I was, she asked if I had ever seen a psychiatrist. After I answered no, she delicately informed me that my depression inventory showed a proclivity for paranoia that I was dancing around and nearly inviting to spar with my psyche.
I don’t know what to say about it. All of my life my depression was brought on by attaching myself to labels that later no longer applied: minister, teacher, friend. Now I was receiving news that there were certain labels that will always be attached to me, no matter what: anxiety, depression, possible paranoia.
This was not the self I was looking to be. It was, however, too late to not know, too late to feign ignorance at the evidence before me.
The simplest and seemingly most popular way to construct a self in the 21st century is to spread your interests across numerous, perhaps endless, spaces. You can be one person on the Internet, and increasingly several people on the Internet (depending on which app you find yourself on), while you’re another person at work, and another person altogether when you’re with friends, family, and lovers. Everyone is free to test several someones out, trying them on for a bit to see not which one fits but which feels best at any given time.
e.e. cummings, more than 60 years ago, denied the 21st century the right to claim ownership of this dilemma: “Why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people?” This statement, which preceded the Internet, has only become more prophetic with time and technological advancement.
Erin Griffith, writing for The New York Times, recently profiled “hustle culture,” the millennial generation’s way of pretending to love work by engaging in “toil glamour” (to the great profit of company execs and not the employees themselves). Griffith refers to a Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Peterson, in which Peterson points out that millennials are constantly accused of laziness and entitlement, yet are “obsessed with killing it at their jobs” (as Griffith puts it). Noting the spiritual dimension of this culture of overwork, Griffith wonders if the decline in organized religion has left millennials searching for another outlet to plug in our devotion.
“Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little hungry for meaning,” she writes.
I am bothered by sweeping generalizations in this day and age of fake news and misinformation, so I will pose this as a question: why is that every person in my life who has been hypercritical of millennials are the same people who cannot imagine why many of us are turning from religious institutions?
When I first began teaching, it was through a well-known, albeit controversial program that places recently graduated college students in classrooms where they learn teaching as they go. In the cohort of approximately 200 people I joined, overwork—disguised as “hustle”—was the standard mode of operation, and anything less was considered shameful. Often, teachers would say something like, “I’m one of those teachers who never takes a day off work because I might be the only consistent thing in my students’ lives.” It was often teachers who wanted to avoid being white saviors, trying to save students through unclaimed personal days. Years passed before I felt okay taking a weekend to myself without bringing papers home to grade.
The more I became myself, the more I came to believe in a firm set of convictions, and the less I saw myself or those convictions surviving in a church. I guess I mean to say, the less I saw a church as the place where I could best honor my beliefs and my unbeliefs.
“So are you still a Christian?” people began to ask me. A small question to fit a self into.
Kurt Vonnegut, who identified as a humanist and not a Christian, once said in a graduation speech, “If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.”
There is something about categories, boundary lines, and names that prevent many of us from wisdom, joy, and communion with one another. Perhaps even from ourselves.
The poets would have us celebrate the impossibility of a single self, the containing of multitudes. “The purpose of poetry is to remind us,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz, “how difficult it is to remain just one person.”
Now seems a good time to remind you that I am not claiming to know anything, but am merely in the process of figuring out. If I were to isolate what I have learned through my trials as a self, I might stake a claim on two ideas. Recall, dear reader, these ideas are yours to take or leave.
The first: if it is a temporary label, however permanent it seems, I must work to maintain a healthy distance between what it fulfills in me and how I identify myself in relation to it. The statistics that the millennial generation does not keep one career throughout life like that of past generations should be enough of a warning to know this. We might try on several jobs throughout life, and never land on one that we do forever. We should instead define ourselves through what we bring to a job, rather than what a job brings to our sense of self and self-worth. Even if we plan on sticking with a job through retirement or death, we are more than what we do in the hours that we work. We are allowed to be whole outside of what pays our bills.
This reminds me of one of my first and fondest memories at the last church I attended regularly. Instead of asking me, “What do you do?” as is our de facto question to people we have just met, a man asked, “What’s your day job? And what gives you meaning apart from that?” This might be a useful revision to my initial question in the first nonsermon, “What do you want to learn?” What gives you meaning? Maybe these questions have a lot to say to one another. Certainly more than “What do you do?”
What gives you meaning? Or, where do you find meaning? I’ve been trying this new thing, where instead of saying, “I’m a teacher,” a self-identifier, I say, “I teach.” It’s an action I do some hours on some days. Other days—or more often, the same days—I learn.
As a writer, especially when I was an unpublished one but even—I’ve noticed—after being published a few times and downplaying the feeling of joy it brings, I often felt the awkward dissonance when I told someone I’m a writer and they asked where they could read my work. But writing doesn’t have to be public to exist. Neither do we.
So, I say that I write. I might tell you where to find it, or what I write, but at the base level I write as an action sometimes, much like I read. If that makes me a writer, so be it. But some days, even some weeks (and dare I confess months?), I don’t write at all. Am I no longer a writer? No. I am merely not writing that day. It both holds me accountable when I’m not doing the things I claim to do, and also frees me from the expectation of having always to do that thing. To be, or become, that thing.
Think about what that does for you: today I am here to read, or, today I am here to write. Today I am here to teach, and, today I am here to learn. Yesterday I went to work, where I communicate with people about ideas we have; today, I am not at work, but I am with friends, communicating about ideas we have.
I don’t know about you, but I am feeling freer already.
My second proposition: every self is a self-centered self, but we are also forged in community. If I were to isolate the main source of my seasons of depression, it would be the communities I lost when I left that church and that school. Sometimes we lose community because we choose to leave it; other times it is taken us from us without waiting to hear our opinion on the matter.
But I seek community, because I find my best self in it. I really do believe we become like our friends, and I choose to surround myself with friends I’d like to emulate. I also value each of their differences and admire what I cannot myself attain. Community can tell us a lot about ourselves, especially in times when we have lost sight of that self. A word from a friend might remind me that I am more capable than I realize, more kind than I remember, more hurt than I am sometimes willing to admit. I believe this can happen in church, at work, or in our everyday lives, but I believe that those institutional places as well as each of us should be held accountable to the ways we fail to honor community and fail to honor whole people.
One more word from e.e. cummings, who declared, “Nothing measurable can be alive.” If that is the case, if I cannot define or measure myself fully, I may as well find a different way to seek meaning than in temporary labels and wasteful loneliness.
There: I’m finally starting to feel like my selves again.
- e.e. cummings, i: six nonlectures (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015).
- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper One, 2009).
- Joan Didion, The White Album (Simon & Schuster, 1979).
- Erin Griffith, “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” The New York Times, January 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/business/against-hustle-culture-rise-and-grind-tgim.html
- Kurt Vonnegut, “Advice to Graduating Women (That All Men Should Know!),” collected in If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013)
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49455/ars-poetica-56d22b8f31558