The Road from There to Here

“I will be a writer, I will be a writer, I will be a writer…” Thus the mantra in my head went, day-in day-out, throughout my high school years.

When I went to college, I wanted to be an author and a pastor. I couldn’t conceive of being anything other than one of those, and I thought by now I’d be both. I studied philosophy and classical languages, because I thought it would help me in seminary. Then, when I got to seminary and started to question whether this pastor-thing was for me, I turned back to writing, my first love.

It took much longer than it should have to realize that I had to give that up, too. I was not very good at work-life balance: I tend to throw myself into things. If being a writer was what I was going to be, then I was going to be a writer all the time – except, I also had a wife and a daughter who relied on me. I couldn’t be a writer all the time. So I did a bunch of odd jobs – working at a theater, a factory, an in-home care organization, etc. And I wrote when I was at home.

Funny enough, there is one other thing that I’m very good at, but I resisted it entirely during this time. I’m good at problem solving, at understanding computer systems, at conceptually grasping those systems, implementing them, fixing them, etc. Despite being “better than average” at these things, I tried very hard to avoid them. I dislike a lot of what we do with computers, including many aspects of social media, tracking, advertising, written-versus-verbal communication, etc. I think computers can be dehumanizing when they’re used inappropriately, and it seems to me that we use them inappropriately more often than not.

That being said, I cannot deny that I have a talent with computers. I’m pretty sure it’s the same talent that people who are good with mathematics and philosophy have. It’s the ability to break a problem down into basic components, then rebuild it again. The only difference between computer science, math, and philosophy is what you’re breaking down, what you’re trying to understand. Your “physical” tools might be different. The mental “how” is basically the same.

Over the last two or three years, I’ve come to embrace my talents when it comes to working with computer systems. Why did I resist for so long? It seems ridiculous, now. I have a skill set that can be used to make money to provide for my family, in a field that I’m good at, in an environment that provides continuous problem-solving opportunities (what I love most about my job). Obviously this is what I should have transitioned to the moment I left seminary.

I’ve spent a lot of time kicking myself over this. How much farther would I be in my career if I’d started sooner? I’ve seen a lot of people go through something similar in their own lives. I cannot speak to all of the reasons others might have for their own difficult “life transitions” – but I think I have a clearer understanding of why I found my own so difficult.

Before I even went to college, I constructed an “internal” mental identity of myself, and without that identity, I didn’t know who I was. When faced with the prospect of losing that identity (be a pastor or a writer), the uncertainty was too daunting to deal with, so I just didn’t. I held on to what I thought it meant to “be me” even when it proved disastrous for myself and those around me, especially my family. In other words, I was being a selfish asshole.

There’s a lot of times in our lives when we’re selfish and we know we’re being selfish. We do it anyway, because even though we didn’t put another person first, it doesn’t seem that anyone got hurt. Or maybe someone even did get hurt, and we felt guilty about it for a really long time. Whatever our selfish habits are, it’s not uncommon for us to recognize them and either try to manage them when they rear their ugly heads, or to feel terrible when we realize we’ve done something selfish.

But there’s a certain kind of selfishness that is so fixated on the self, it literally cannot see others or abide being told that it’s selfish. That second kind is nearly impossible for anyone to break through from the outside. I say that, because I can see now that it’s what I was doing at that point in my life. More than one person, even people I looked up to, tried to hint or even outright tell me that that’s what I was doing. I didn’t hold them in derision or scoff at them – I simply didn’t think they understood me. So I didn’t listen. Why would I? I’ve known what I was supposed to be doing since I was a kid. They didn’t. It wasn’t their fault that they didn’t understand, and I could “forgive” them for that. I would keep doing what I was doing and eventually they would see it.

It finally took my wife to tell me, “You’re hurting me.” This was a big deal, because as much as I wanted to be a writer (and before that a pastor), and I didn’t want to go work with computers in IT, the truth is, more than anything else in the world, I didn’t want to hurt her. At first, we had a lot of long conversations. I raged a bit on the inside, not toward her, but toward myself. It’s one thing to be told, “You’re not doing the right thing.” It’s another thing entirely to be told, “You’re doing something that hurts me, someone you love.” The first is easy to blow off in all kinds of creative ways. The second isn’t. Especially when it comes from a person you love, and you know to be about as selfless as anyone you’ve ever known. It’s a punch straight to the gut, an unavoidable truth: I’m being selfish.

I didn’t see then that my selfishness was tied to the mental identity I’d carefully crafted for myself. That would come later. I only saw at that point that I needed to change things up, however grating it might be.

So I went back to work with computers.

And you know what? It wasn’t working with computers, and forcing myself to look for things I enjoyed, that changed me. It was knowing that I was doing it for someone else that made the biggest difference. First, it was for my wife. Eventually, it was for my team. And after a long enough period, it even became for the end users I was supporting. Over time, I’ve come to genuinely enjoy the work I do, to the point where I actually think about my career in IT for the foreseeable future.

What changed? I started doing what I should have done the day I got married (even before). I learned to let go of my carefully constructed identity, to find myself, not in what I thought would be most fulfilling in my life, but rather in what I hope is most helpful to those (especially my family) I’m trying to help.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that I’m particularly good at being selfless. Like I said, we’re all selfish. I try to keep my head screwed on straight, and my eyes focused on serving my neighbor, not on fulfilling my own desires. I’ve even found, over time, that my desires have become more and more aligned with wanting to serve my neighbor. But I obviously fail, too. Thankfully, I have no end of friends and family who are willing to point out when that happens and keep me on track.

I also try to do regular self-evaluations, sometimes even daily. If I do things that make me happy, I try to examine what I did, why I did it, and what impact it had not just on me, but also those around me. I make it sound laborious here, but it’s really not that bad. It’s one of those mental exercises I do almost without thinking. It doesn’t mean I enjoy things that make me happy any less. It means I’m simply trying to be careful not to enjoy them at the expense of anyone else.

I haven’t given up on the notion that I might write and publish something one of these days. That may never happen. But it also might. Who knows? The point is, if it does happen, it will be because it’s the right thing to do at that moment in time – the right thing not just for me, but also for those I love.

For now, I’m just happy not to deal with the daily angst of feeling like I’m being torn apart, like I’m losing “myself” (which, I know now, was never really me). Hopefully, having gone through that once, it will prove useful in identifying any other identity crises that may come along one of these days. I assume I’m not the only person who has them. Maybe sharing my experience (since that’s all I have) will help someone else, too.

And, if nothing else, it gave me something to write about.