Writing the Struggle

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely through the world through manual competence have been known to make a (person) quiet and easy. They seem to relieve (them) of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of (themselves) to vindicate (their) worth. – Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, p. 15.

For a few years now I have had a major block to writing and academic work. My background and expertise is in religion and the intersection of religious and secular education. I began that work from a place of deep faith in God and on the path first to ministry and then to academic work from that place of faith. I’ve always worked through a so-called “imposter syndrome” where few things I do have left me feeling enough confidence to keep doing them. Academic work and writing, along with other creative endeavors, have the judgment of others acting as so many gateways and obstacles to the standards of success that most people might ascribe to any work. Anyone who has worked through depression or has had any form of dysfunction in their lives always has to work in spite of the chattering of worthlessness pervasive in work that requires the criticism of others to reach an audience. But in the past few years I have had two events that both created a true sense of my self as an impostor and reinforced those chattering interpretations that pounded on me relentlessly throughout my life.

The first event is that I lost my faith. Maybe a more honest way of phrasing this is that I came to accept that I never had very strong faith in the first place. Throughout my Christian life I tried to believe what others had confirmed I should believe. I practiced the traditions and learned how to bracket my cynical and skeptical inclinations in order to experience God through an act of faith. I ironically knew in my rational self that in order to experience God, I had to do so in spite of reason or at least at the limits of what reason could do for me. Belief in God is never won by well crafted arguments and logic regardless of what the tract writers and apologists will preach to you. Faith is a deeply affective surrender to a being that you come to understand is the best hope for your own serenity and the salvation of the wold from all of its worst attributes even as that same being gives life to the best of what humanity and the splendor of nature could possibly offer. But that story ran out of gas for me in the spring of 2015. I could not move forward with my happiness unless I let all of that go. I decided that if the object of faith was real, I would remain open and let it back in when it showed up in such a way that I could no longer deny its fundamental, lifegiving reality. My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

The second event includes the deaths of my mother and step-father. Both were people of deep faith and both had serious physical complications from heart disease and kidney failure for the remaining years of their lives. My mother was especially reliant on the power of prayer. To let her in on the secret that I no longer prayed for anyone and that I honestly never had a very consistent prayer life even in my most religious days wasn’t something I thought was very appropriate especially when she was in and out of the hospital and so very ill much of the time. I left that part of my life unspoken. I know that keeping secrets to protect people never really works out. Just look at sitcoms and superhero shows. Heroes keeping secrets to protect those they love is the wellspring for all conflicts on these shows and no one ever seems to get it. I don’t think it hurt her that I never spoke about my deconversion, but I probably didn’t give her enough credit to believe that she would have been able to take it if I had told her. It’s not a place of guilt for me and I am not sure I would have handled it differently anyway. That’s because of my step-father. He always had advice and a plan for everything. Deep down I think he meant well, but the impact had a reverse effect on me. I don’t think there was a single piece that I had ever written that did not come with it some form of criticism from him that left be feeling low, beaten down, and condescended to. Blog posts, tweets, articles, even random comments on Facebook would often be followed by a critique from him that would sometimes branch off into my step-father arguing with other people who were actually defending my position. The last straw was when he disagreed with the obituary that I wrote for my mother. So I stopped writing. I tried to come back to wait a few times, but it was the same drumbeat and I had enough of it. When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect. In his final two years of life he had chilled out a lot with his trolling, but I just didn’t want to resurrect it again.

When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect.

For the past two months I have been asking myself the question, what should I do now? Now that I have been able to identify the things that had blocked me and those things are physically no longer here, the rest is all in my head. Much like running very long distances, sometimes the only way out of a problem is to keep moving forward with the expectation that you will feel better down the road. Yesterday as I was once again regurgitating these existential questions and it was another morning of “What should I write?” or “I can’t keep working through religion from a place of agnosticism, right?” I applied what I knew about running and what I have done even after I believed my body was done, why not just start writing about the struggle itself? That’s moving forward at at least. Every successful writer I have watched from afar has said precisely this. Sometimes you have to write your way out of a block. It’s not just writing in spite of or through a struggle, but writing the struggle itself. Maybe that’s where I can get a little catharsis, dismiss the imposter, and move forward.

Caught Between Should and Am: Fixing My Writing Problem

shoes beside word lux

Running and light

Ever since I finished my dissertation, almost 5 years ago, I have been caught in a weird head space where I haven’t figured out my identity as an academic, a professional, and even as a person. I’ve had a few starts on blogging that usually stops after a couple of months. I get distracted by something else and totally lose interest. Why?

At first I thought it had to do with marathon training. Doing this is so time consuming and tiring that I would usually post about starting the process and then do nothing until the result. The fiction that I convinced myself was true is that I can’t write and train at the same time. If I am going to perform at my job, maintain my relationships, and be mentally healthy, I can either run, or write. I have told myself this even though I knew it was total bullshit. Great writers all have parallel obsessive habits from drinking and smoking to running. Telling myself lies to avoid doing something is a deep-seated character flaw. I’ve learned much about how this mechanism works, but this time it had me caught. The real question is not why I stopped writing, but what I was avoiding.

It was last night when I was catching up on Supergirl that a little sisterly advice hit me that freshly out of the closet Alex Danvers gave her sister Kara (Supergirl):

Look… sometimes, you know, in our life, when one part is really confusing, we will pour way more attention than necessary into another.

I started running for very good reasons that still hold. It was to improve mental and physical health. It is still the single best tool I have in my toolkit to maintain mental and physical health and stability and I can’t ever see myself stopping. However, I have poured a lot into it. Challenges are really effective to have in front of you to stay motivated. But at what point do you become obsessed with it to the point that you are avoiding something else? I went from at most running one marathon a year, and last year that was enough. This year I am not only running two marathons, but running 2017 miles which is about 700 more than the previous year, and I want to train to get a Boston Qualifying time which would shave about 5% off of my finishing time this past May. Have I crossed the tipping point where running has gone from healthy activity to obsession I am using to avoid something? I might be there.

I have struggled with my identity as an academic and as a professional since finishing my dissertation in 2013. For a very long time, my religious identity as a person of faith was my central obsession academically, emotionally, and socially. At the time I gave that up, a story I have not yet fully told, running filled the void. I traded one preoccupation with another. But my life as an academic sat hollow. If faith is no longer what I want to be doing, what should I be doing?

I have this theory that confidence in what we do is not something we are born with, but something we learn over time. As we become more competent in something we become more confident in our abilities and that alone builds our desire and drive to do it more. So, if I could just find out what I should be doing and become more competent in it, then I would resolve my confusion.

Well, it didn’t work. The experiment failed because my fundamentals beliefs were wrong. I believed I needed to become competent in what I believed others wanted to read. I focused on what others might find helpful like focusing on life hacks and self-help that I think works. How about something in my professional field that others find interesting? What about lessons I have learned in life that others might find useful? After a few tries, I got bored and stopped. None of that was very fulfilling. That material is all out there written by people who are singularly passionate about it. I am not one of those people. The entire theory of becoming competent got derailed by the one thing that all of these ideas has in common: doing what I think I should do based on what I believe others want. It’s like all that advice from successful writers went right through my head – do what inspires you, not what you think will inspire others.

If I should’t do what I believe I should do, what is it that inspires me or consistently interests me? That’s the real question. My answer has been that no one is interested in any of the stuff that interests me, so who cares? Another lie. Keep running. Today I’d rather run on truth than the bullshit I tell myself. Walking the dog last night, after that little moment from a cheesy TV show that struck me, I found an answer. The question was how these things were related. And they absolutely are.

My academic interests have always been first, in how to teach the whole human subject based on an understanding that it is the relationship between teacher and student that is the most revolutionary and fundamental aspect of human learning and progress. The second is related to it. My dissertation focused on secularization and higher education which is tied to patterns of belief in American society, the policies that both respond to and shape those patterns, and how historians tell that story. Both of these are looking at the dynamic relationship between faith, belief, and knowledge in society and in the student.

My professional interests are about how we can help college and university teachers be better teachers. What habits, programs, and behaviors can we improve as teachers to help students learn more effectively? Right now this is about designing a program of teacher formation through critical reflection to find areas of improvement and to experiment with different online classroom behaviors to help students learn more effectively.

My personal interests have to do with the connection between physical and mental health and supporting pragmatic behaviors that help improve health with scientific evidence. I have many friends who have been in long term recovery from addiction who have thrown themselves into physical activity as an integral part of how they manage their sobriety. I know of runners and other athletes who have traded their obsession for drugs, sex, and body dysmorphia for clean living, even without the aid of prescription drugs.

How are these tied together? Anyone can look at these three areas and find things in common: human progress, the nature of belief, evidence-based living, etc. But those aren’t what hit me as interesting. Instead, it’s this idea:

I am fundamentally interested in how groups of people form relationships that support and cultivate healthy patterns of belief, knowing, and action, and in relationships and ideas that do exactly the opposite.

So… that’s what really interests me and the three ways I look at it. With that, it’s time to stop thinking about what I should write for an imagined group of others out there, and just do what I find interesting. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff too, right?