I decided that I would be an English professor near the midpoint of my freshman year of college. For most of my high-school years, I’d wanted to be a youth minister—under the sway of my own youth minister, whom I’d worshipped. But I’d grown disillusioned with my church my senior year, and having had a genuinely fantastic English teacher that year, I’d gone to my small Christian college with the idea of replicating his influence on me. Unfortunately, teacher education required taking an introductory course that I nearly failed via absences, and when I saw the requirements for graduating with a BS in teacher education—student teaching, a portfolio, and so forth—I decided I’d major in English instead and become a college professor. I was pleased with my cleverness in beating the system; it never occurred to me that I was trading in four years of education for ten, at a minimum. It would end up taking me thirteen.
What made me choose this path? Two decades later, my motivations are more or less a mystery to me. Certainly, in keeping with my earlier career goals, there was an element of hero worship in the decision: The English professors in my department were much better, I’d learn, than the college’s treatment of them merited. And I’d loved to read in high school, slowly digging my way through Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot—and the collected works of Frank Peretti. I was an undiscriminating reader, and I know now that much of the reason I read Crime and Punishment (twice!) and The Waste Land was that I enjoyed being seen reading them, being seen as the sort of person who reads important books. In retrospect, This Present Darkness was more my speed, and I still don’t understand the middle cantos of The Waste Land. What I’m trying to say is that there was a fair amount of pretense in my choice of career: I wanted it to be known that I was smarter than the students with more practical majors, especially that teacher-education degree that had seemed too hard for me. Years later, installed as an English professor at an even smaller Christian college, I’d recognize doppelgängers of my younger self and wonder if my own teachers had viewed me with the same mixture of distaste, pity, and affection.
Because my college was sequestered from the wider world of higher education, there was a lot I didn’t know about the career I’d chosen. I didn’t know, for example, that it mattered where you went to college; while I nobly told myself that I wanted to teach at the sort of school I went to, I didn’t know that research-1 schools (a term I wouldn’t learn until years later) were likely to sniff at my degree and that if I wanted to succeed on their terms, I’d need to work much harder than I was willing to and go to the best graduate programs in the country. (I earned my master’s degree from a state satellite school and then went to the University of Georgia for my doctorate—a great program, to be sure, but certainly not enough to overwrite my undergraduate education.) Nor did I know that my field was in a death-spiral from which it would never recover. If I’d been told that as an undergraduate—and perhaps I was—I wouldn’t have believed it anyway. I wrote a book on John Updike’s fiction in which I argued that his characters build elaborate fantasy worlds for themselves, only to be smashed in the face by a brutal reality. I didn’t realize until later that it was coded autobiography.
For the eight years that I taught college English full-time, I felt like a fly trapped in a jar, futilely beating my wings against the glass. I did my job well: I won a teaching award my first year, and my classes were quite popular at a school where the humanities were viewed with suspicion by a student body more interested in getting a certification than in learning anything. (I must say that I was unprepared for this development; the English major was the bête noir of my undergraduate school, but that’s because the school was focused on professional ministry and viewed the liberal arts with the skepticism due a potential heretic. I had arguments for the spiritual value of the humanities, but I found most of my non-majors practical to the point of cynicism.) I applied for positions at other schools every semester—more than a hundred in total—but I got only one interview, at a mid-sized Catholic university in the upper plains my last year of teaching. They interviewed me via Skype, asked me to write syllabuses for two specialty classes, and then never spoke to me again. By that point I’d given up on an academic career; I resigned my position a few weeks later.
There’s something freeing about resignation, about realizing that you’re never going to get the things you wanted, never going to be the person you thought you’d be. I started calling myself a failure to the point that my wife got annoyed, or perhaps worried. But I needed to recognize that failure. I needed to see that, whatever the brutalities of the job market, I was not as smart as I’d imagined myself to be and that, at least to some extent, I carried my erudition the way I’d carried Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays all those years earlier: as a means of convincing the world that I was smarter than I knew myself to be. My failure was therapeutic, even redemptive, once I learned to see it that way; as I argued in my book, which is now gathering dust in the stacks of fourteen academic libraries, it’s ultimately better to live in the cold fluorescent light of reality than in the romantic glow of one’s imagination.
Resignation is an odd phenomenon. Søren Kierkegaard famously sets it off against faith in Fear and Trembling, presenting it as a pagan rather than a Christian virtue. Abraham, in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at the bewildering command of God, is a “knight of faith” because he believes, absurdly, that he will both sacrifice Isaac and receive him (and the promise he represents) back. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, can hardly imagine it, and he presents the “knight of infinite resignation” as being much more human-sized and comprehensible:
So if (in the quality of a tragic hero, for I can get no higher) I had been summoned to undertake such a royal progress to Mount Moriah, I know well what I would have done. I would not have been cowardly enough to stay at home, neither would I have laid down or sauntered along the way, nor have forgotten the knife, so that there might be a little delay—I am pretty well convinced that I would have been there on the stroke of the clock and would have had everything in order, perhaps I would have arrived too early in order to get through it sooner. But I also know what else I would have done. The very instant I mounted the horse I would have said to myself, “Now all is lost. God requires Isaac, I sacrifice him, and with him my joy—yet God is love and continues to be that for me; for in the temporal world God and I cannot talk together, we have no language in common.” (73-74).
For Kierkegaard, resignation is a real virtue, but a pagan one. There is certainly some truth to this evaluation. Certainly the pre-Christian philosophy of Stoicism elevates resignation to the highest degree, to the point that Epictetus recommends holding on to everything we love very loosely, so as not to be controlled by negative emotion when we inevitably lose our loved ones. Buddhism, too, orders detachment as a means of avoiding suffering. An Abraham who resigned himself to losing Isaac, to losing the covenantal promise, would still be a hero, but he’d be a tragic hero: Oedipus exiling and blinding himself for the sake of Thebes, or Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia to sail for Troy, or Arjuna agreeing to wage war against his kinsmen because it’s what his duty to fate requires.
There is real freedom in resignation: For the last several years of my teaching career, I suffered a variety of annoying and humiliating medical symptoms: phantom gallbladder pain, heart palpitations, strange twitches of the nerves in my big toe, several months of constipation. When I took them to my physician, he inevitably told me that I was doing it to myself, that these were physical manifestations of my anxiety that my classes wouldn’t have enough students to run, that my college would close, that no other college would ever hire me. But symptoms of anxiety form a kind of feedback loop, and I’d lie in bed panicking that I had gallstones, a heart attack, multiple sclerosis, colon cancer—anything to avoid facing the truth that I was trying to live in a world that didn’t exist, a world in which it was possible for a person like me to be a great success teaching English, of all things, at an evangelical college, of all places. Every year, I stared out over the abyss, and hope sprung eternal as I sent out dozens of applications to state schools, overseas universities, and more prestigious Christian colleges; every year, the abyss stared back at me in the guise of form letters or, more often, a cold and mechanical silence.
I remember the last straw. I’d applied for a job at a noteworthy religious college in the Pacific Northwest, a job I was quite qualified for in a department where I knew someone. She wasn’t on the search committee, so she helped me with my application, which I spent weeks perfecting. The school rejected me during the first round; they didn’t even interview me over the phone. They sent the rejection email on a Friday night at midnight. Something broke off inside of me, and I needed two sleeping pills to fight through the jungle of catatonic anxiety and fall asleep. A few months later, my provost called me into his office and told me that I was “banging my head against the wall” by trying to turn my college into the sort of place I’d want to teach. There was no way out, and no way to improve the inside. My final physical symptom appeared: a lump in my throat so large and solid that I couldn’t wear a tie anymore. Magically, it went away after I resigned myself to the fact that a career in education was not in my future.
I don’t think cynical people go into humanities education—or if they do, their cynicism is a screen to protect them from the low financial and social rewards their thirteen years of higher education require. They—we—do it because we believe in the power of art and thought to transform lives and the world. And yet it’s a cliché at this point to talk about the failure of universities to support the noble goals of humanists, religious and secular alike.
When I went into graduate school, I believed that the Christian college could be a useful, vital counterweight to the forces of professionalization and politics that have rent the humanities at secular universities. I imagined the Christian college as a sort of monastery wherein all areas of study, but especially the humanities, find meaning and context in the shared beliefs and practices of the community. I hope I won’t sound petulant if I point out that most Christian colleges, perhaps all of them, have failed to live up to that vision—which may have only been another of my fantasies in the first place. I don’t blame them; the armies threatening the Christian liberal arts are led by Republicans and Democrats, atheists and evangelicals. Administrators have to be practical if they want to save the jobs of their faculty members and the real good their institutions are doing in the world. When my provost told me I was beating my head against the wall, I think he meant that I was trying to live in a world that can no longer exist, if it ever could have. He wanted me to resign—not resign from my job, I think, but resign myself to the idea that I could not get what I wanted from my job. He was seeking my good.
I suppose there might be a kind of minor tragedy there, as Johannes de Silentio might say, but I don’t think so. The potential tragedy of the Isaac story lies in its apparent violation of a promise. Isaac is the child of Abraham’s old age, the fulfillment of a crucial promise God had made to him years before: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so [ . . . ] will your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5, NAB). Abraham needs Kierkegaard’s absurdist faith because the God of the universe seems to have told him two contradictory things. Resignation is a lesser virtue, even a vice, for him because it involves giving up on the promise. But most of us aren’t given promises about our offspring, much less about what we do for a living, however noble our aspirations might be. Our promise is more general: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). To believe that I am promised a fulfilling academic career, and thus that my attitude toward my job should resemble Abraham’s absurd faith, would border on idolatry.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that the medieval Church considered despair a form of sloth and thus a mortal sin. Our own understanding of the phenomenon is so medicalized that blaming a person for her own despair seems cruel; despair, we believe, is something that happens to a person, not something she chooses for herself. Thomas Aquinas recognizes this understanding of despair. It is, in fact, the substance of the first objection to his treatment of sloth in the Summa Theologiae: Because sloth is a passion, we can be neither praised nor blamed for it. Thomas disagrees, arguing that sloth is, or at least can be, a kind of misdirected passion. Sloth is a misapplied sorrow (another term we’ve medicalized beyond any moral application), “an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing” (18.104.22.168). This sort of sorrow—despair—becomes a moral sin based on its object: “For sorrow is evil in itself when it is about that which is apparently evil but good in reality, even as, on the other hand, pleasure is evil if it is about that which seems to be good but is, in truth, evil. Since, then, spiritual good is good in very truth, sorrow about spiritual good is evil in itself” (22.214.171.124).
Despair is a moral sin in the sense that it leads us to commit further sins; it “destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us” (126.96.36.199). Despair’s danger is that it overwhelms us and chokes out the good that God wills us, and it’s especially deadly when it gets hold of the things of God; as the catechism puts it, “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins” (§2091). I have experienced this sort of despair, and in part I think that it was the result of the bipolar disorder I was diagnosed with in graduate school. But despair of the sort Thomas and the catechism identify is always more or less a choice. Though some of us, from biology or upbringing, are more tempted to it than others, despair is a conscious or at least semiconscious decision to give up. I smoked cigarettes for several years, about a pack a day. But there was a period before that when I smoked casually. One evening I sat in my apartment and realized that if I smoked another cigarette that evening, I’d be addicted. Then I lit up. Despair, it seems to me, often works the same way: We choose to let it run our lives, and then we can no longer resist it. It’s a kind of willed hopelessness: willed at first, and then uncontrollable. It is the despair of the Rich Young Ruler who, having been told to sell all he had and give it to the poor, “became quite sad, for he was very rich” (Lk. 18:23). His sorrow is not a mere passion, because he fails to understand that the truly sorrowful thing is to not follow Christ, whatever it costs him. His despair does not merit comfort, let alone chemical treatment; it merits a call to repentance.
Let’s call this kind of despair acedia, the Latin word for sloth. But there’s another form of despair, one that’s so far from being a sin that we might even think of it as a positive virtue. It has to do, as the story of the Rich Young Ruler indicates, with our spiritual priorities. It has to do with the human telos, the thing we were made for, which is to say that it has to do with sainthood. As St. Ignatius of Loyola points out in the Spiritual Exercises, “All the other beings and objects that surround us on the earth were created for the benefit of man and to be useful to him, as a means to his final end; hence his obligation to use, or to abstain from the use of, these creatures, according as they bring him nearer to that end, or tend to separate him from it” (18). This process, unless we are supremely detached from the things we desire in this life, will involve a great deal of despair, as we learn to recognize that, like the Rich Young Ruler, we want the wrong things, or perhaps that we want the right things for the wrong reasons.
The truth is that academia was a kind of consolation prize for me. What I really wanted was to be a famous singer/songwriter. (Even writing that sentence humiliates me, but then humiliation is etymologically related to humility, so maybe that’s a good thing.) And even in that goal, what I wanted was to be famous; when it became clear to me that the music industry was cutthroat, unfeeling, and rapidly collapsing in the digital age, I made a calculated decision to break up my college band and go to graduate school. Even then, I imagined for awhile that fame would mysteriously swoop down and carry me into rock stardom. “Why yes,” I imagined saying in one of the many interviews I’d grant the adoring press, “I did write a dissertation. Let me tell you about it . . . ” It was an absurd fantasy, but then I’ve already confessed my predilection for living in fantasy worlds. Over my years in graduate school, this dream morphed into the dream of being a brilliant and fêted intellectual, flown all over the world to give lecture series and interviewed about my massively popular—but still unassailably academic—books on CNN and Fresh Air.
There is, as I’m sure is clear, a neediness in all of these absurd and embarrassing fantasies, a neediness that betrays just how malformed and misdirected my sense of my own telos is. Even my teaching, ostensibly a service profession, betrayed some of the same faulty desires. My sanctification should have come about by helping to sanctify my students; my actual goal, far too often hidden deep inside me, was to replicate myself through their love for me. I don’t want to romanticize my own depravity by exaggerating it: I think I did a lot of good in my teaching career. I think I helped to change a few dozen young people’s lives for the better. But I did so, when I did so, in spite of my deepest motivations, not because of them. So while it’s true that academia in 2019 is collapsing about as fast and as irrevocably as the music industry was in 2005, while it’s probably true that I would have gotten a fairer shake if I’d gone to a more prestigious college, I have to believe that my failure to achieve my career goals and the genuine despair I’ve felt for more than a decade now, has been a kind of felix culpa. It is, I hope, helping to save my soul—not because teaching or scholarship is inherently bad or ego-driven, but because I made a buck-toothed idol out of my own neediness and ambition and because the only way, perhaps, to destroy that idol was to burn the whole edifice to the ground.
This kind of despair is really a form of peace, though God knows it doesn’t feel that way.
There’s an essay genre called “quit lit,” in which former academics complain about the conditions that led them to give up their careers, often before they’ve really begun. I’m not actually averse to that sort of essay—my own decision to resign was influenced by a documentary about PhD dropouts on CBC’s Sunday Edition. But that’s not what this essay is. What I’m writing is not an exposé of the Christian college, nor a bitter and defiant account of my triumph over an evil system, but a confession of my own failures, faulty motivations, and despair. I’m no hero, not even a tragic one. And I have no good news to report. Despite the low unemployment rates, I’ve had no luck finding a job—I’m not even really sure what I want to do—and I write these words, in a humiliating cliché, from my parents’ basement. But in my good moments, I am now cultivating the right kind of despair—the kind undertaken for my spiritual good.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday, 1995.
Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises. Tan, 1999.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling, translated by Walter Lowrie.
The New Catholic Answer Bible: NAB Translation. Our Sunday Visitor, 2011.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Aquinas Institute, 2012.