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Working It Out

“So… what do you do?” When we ask this question, we are often asking what someone “does for a living,” but it means so much more than that. Yes, we do locate our position in an economy, so responding with a job title is often the quickest and easiest response to this question. “I’m a mechanic,” or “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” or even “I’m between jobs” are all appropriate responses to this question, as a role implies the kind of work you do. In some sense they do answer the question of “what you are.” Presumably what you do in these roles is defined by the job title: Fixing cars, educating youth, taking care of children, or looking for a job are all things one can be “doing,” since even if they aren’t specific “occupations,” they can certainly occupy your time. These don’t all involve providing services for payment, and one could clearly answer, and provide a nice conversational opening with “I’m a civil war reenactor,” or “I collect musical instruments,” or even “I love surfing,” even if these are not for a living.

“I write” is a little more problematic. This may be an accurate description of what I now do, but no more than “I talk” would have been during my career as a college professor. But the follow-up is as likely to be “what have you published?” as “what do you write?” From non-writers, the former may merely be an attempt to find out what one might get hold of to read this writer, or what you might already have read, or what for which this person might be famous. At a writer’s conference, “what have you published?” can be a less-than-subtle put-down, or it might be a genuine question which might be followed up with particulars, not only about titles, genres and publishers, but about agents, or any of a number of things about the “other half” of a professional writer’s career. I was a scholar, and published at least enough in professional journals to get tenure, promotions, fellowships, and other academic awards, but most of this stuff is a very peculiar kind of writing inaccessible to non-specialists and probably actually read, at least in any depth, by very few. It also requires documenting everything, which is a perfectly healthy practice, but the reason that I always loved having written, especially if a paper was published, but really did not much like the actual process of writing. Except for rare moments when I really was on a roll thinking through or figuring something out. But much of that, except in disguised form, was not so much figuring out the meaning of my life or those of particular others, but making some broad claims about the species, at least in our culturally and historically limited circumstances. As part of a campus writer’s group, I discovered that I rather enjoyed writing that was more a product of my memory, and imagination. So yes, I write. I write this blog, Neuromyth.com, which allows me to give people my card and invite them to check these out, and often allows me to elaborate on what neuromythology is, until I see eyes starting to glaze over, though specific topics can be intriguing, and I probably should develop some short sound-bites, or little pitches to trot out at the appropriate moments, and see which ones hook which people. I’m also working on a memoir Son of a Preacher Man that can be intriguing to some people, but it helps if I can pitch it as an account of the life of a baby-boomer, through the civil rights era, Vietnam, Watergate, and the development of a career that would carry on the inheritance of a father, and make me a “second generation” worker in what I sometimes claimed was a Science-and-Religion project with an impact that could potentially rival the Reformation. But that’s a bit grandiose, unless I provide some justification for how such a project doesn’t just lead to a naturalistic account of religion, or a religious naturalism, but some actual change in the substance or direction of science itself. But that’s way beyond my present scope, despite the synthetic aspects of neuromythology. “Writing my memoirs” is also producing some shorter pieces, several of which I have also shared in this blog, as illustrative.

We also do distinguish, when we can, between what is merely a “job,” perhaps amongst a sequence of them, and what is an “occupation,” or a “profession,” or even a “calling.” Our understanding of what we do for a living as any of these is also on a sliding scale. The generation I spent as a professor I would happily refer to as a “calling,” even though, after being denied tenure once thirty years ago, the saving grace of my daughter’s birth enabled me to see things in perspective: “It’s just a job; you’ll get another,” and I did. “Calling” also has a kind of spiritual significance, as well as, perhaps, a rather literal metaphysical interpretation, as in “I was called to the ministry.” Certainly it is appropriate to understand many, even if low-paying occupations “callings” if they imbue a life with meaning, or provide a substantial contribution to the world, like most teaching positions. Never mind that the word “vocation,” which means the same, has been appropriated to refer to rather more technical kinds of skill-building, though I am not wont to forget that such training may actually be far more appropriate, and, indeed, lead to far more productive and happy, and even intellectually invigorating lives than do the cognitive pretenses of the over-educated. “I’m retired” is also an appropriate, if open-ended answer to the question “what do you do?” as is “I’m financially independent,” which I prefer. Someone can then ask what you did, presumably to enable you to retire without employment, or to become financially independent, but it wouldn’t be inappropriate to follow-up such an answer with, “so what do you do with your time, what do you do to occupy yourself?” But the question “What do you do?” is not really about what you do for entertainment, or how you fill the time, as “financially independent” Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) did in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when he said he “wandered about,” while he was obsessively stalking Madeleine (Kim Novak), or at least someone pretending to be her. No doubt all who wander are not lost, but we still would like to know what they are actually up to, or it can be even creepier.

“What do you do?” is often an easy, conventional start to the process of acquaintance, just as “What do you think you are doing?” is often an accusation, or at least a request for justification. Part of becoming a responsible adult, at least in contemporary western civilization, is being able to provide reasons for one’s actions, even if they are rationalizations after the fact, which all too often they probably are. Still, this is a pretty basic criterion of intelligibility, and maybe as important for ascertaining adult brain function as knowing your name, where you are, and what year it is. I love Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought about western civilization, when he said “I think it would be a good idea.” But certainly one of the questions of identity is one’s place and role in an economy, just as is one’s place in a sequence of generations, or one’s sexual preferences, as well as what one does.

Sigmund Freud famously said that the most important issues in human life are Lieben und Arbeiten, love and work. We need both, and too many sacrifice one for the other, sacrificing the happiness that love makes possible for work, or the sense of meaning, value, and even self-esteem that productive work can provide by who or how we choose to love, or find ourselves loving. I’ve had scholarly friends tell me that they were most “productive” when their personal lives were in shambles, and did poorer work when they were happily involved with someone. I finished my undergraduate senior thesis, my master’s thesis, and my doctoral dissertation each in the wake of a heart-wrenching breakup, and I may well have done my most productive scholarly work in the decades-long wake of a divorce. On the other hand, I also wrote one of my best and most-cited articles (on neuromythology) after falling in love, and the “swan song” of my scholarly career co-organizing and speaking at a conference on “how we know,” in the hectic first months of life of my youngest child, born six weeks premature, and caring for his bedridden mother. Perhaps we can go again, as I am still in love with my wife nine years after we found each other, despite numerous twists and turns, long absences, and even a separation. Love is, of course, not a choice, though I have known some who chose to abjure it.

In a difficult economy, what one does for a living may also not provide much in the way of choice, but necessity. “I need another job,” can be one of the most plaintive cries of many a struggling adult. What many people “do” can often be as much how they choose to play the cards of the resources, abilities, and opportunities they are dealt as of any choices, though difficult positions can be the result of a sequence of bad choices, in love or work. The fantasy that one’s occupation can provide meaning and fulfillment is too often belied by economic, social, and political realities. But it saddens me deeply, perhaps moreso as a retired college professor, to see so many otherwise bright and capable young people break apart on the shoals of character, or of poor choices that accumulate, leading to lives of quiet desperation, where the distractions of weekend sporting events, an annual pilgrimage to the shore, or family dinners, electronic entertainment, laundry, or yard work are insufficient to mask the desperation. Even the comfortable and successful can be pushed to regular refrains of “Fuck My Life.”

Even the privileged, for whom “what do you do” should be as much about self-actualization as it is about self-esteem, belonging, or even a sense of safety, to say nothing of a mere “living,” find that what they are compelled to do is to “work it out.” That is a phrase we sometimes use to describe what an otherwise committed couple needs to do to get past their peccadilloes and remain together, or what someone needs to do at a workplace to salvage an otherwise productive professional relationship. Surely I have heard it used to help encourage an emerging adult to figure out how he or she might get past whatever dysfunctions, hangups, or limitations that need to be overcome to find a better direction in life. But what it might be worthwhile to think about is the way even committed professionals with productive careers are “working out” sometimes deep emotional issues. Now, it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that I could be projecting my own conflicted psyche upon the corpus of others’ work, but I think that, especially in the case of such speculative but exploratory meaning-making, this may be inescapable. The clinical rule of thumb is that the first seven years of any relationship is often largely projective, and many deep and necessary attempts to understand may have much the same character.

So I will be the first to confess, before I start asking questions about others, and speculating on issues that may or not be there, and might or might not be vociferously (though perhaps defensively) denied by others on the conduct of their lives. So I don’t mean to judge, it’s just interesting to wonder how one might make sense of a life, and of fellow-travelers who may (or may not) also be “working it out.”

My first blog of May, “Call Me Ishmael No More,” is as much a story of taking on my father’s intellectual inheritance, especially after I moved from a state university to the private liberal arts college that probably better suited me. I had a student from the former institution who went on to a doctorate who would later say that I was one of those people who became more himself as he got older. My Dad always said “life starts at fifty; what comes before is just preparation,” and I like to think he was right. What is becoming clear to me only now, is how much my pursuits in research psychology, and the scientific part of my training, may have been to counter or at least contrast the religion side of my father’s commitments, however respectful of science they may have been. My graduate program helped with the lesson that, while psychology may necessarily also be a science, being a social science and a profession, to say nothing of its broader humanism, and the philosophical questions that too often masquerade as empirical, it is not and should not be treated as only a science. Not only is that mistake all too frequent, especially amongst academic and research psychologists, but may actually be problematic, if not dangerous, to its students. Most psychology majors are interested in becoming practitioners, respectful of the science, and capable of critical evaluation of empirical claims, but decidedly not interested in becoming scientists themselves. Causality does not exhaust meaning. I think it was not so much getting tenure that freed me from my empirical shackles. My curriculum vitae shows several more empirical publications after being tenured in 1990. None of these included research done after my father’s untimely death in November of 1992. Indeed, the last one, published in 1993, was research begun in the seminar on close relationships which was interrupted to take the telephone call about my father’s death. My father left like the joyful prophet he was, and left a hole in the family that was never filled, but an inheritance of tasks left needing doing, including the book-lined study I was tasked to clean out, and the intellectual inheritance of his work in science-and-religion.

My final empirical work on close relationships, finding that closeness was less about sharing attitudes than about prioritizing their importance, may have signified my own difficulties with a marriage on its last legs, and five years of therapy only masked differences we could not reconcile. In the same year, my first science-and-religion publication "Conduit of Flesh" was a memoriam to my father in the magazine of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, after which I turned his inheritance, my own thinking, and epiphanies from a conference on Cyprus (to which he got me invited), into 25 years of interdisciplinary teaching, productive scholarship, and even a leadership role in what would be my primary identity organization, The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), founded the year after I was born. I co-organized my swan-song conference for that group in 2016, and saw articles originating there published just a few months after I retired, in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, in September of 2017.

There is a much longer story about my father’s presence, and the nexus of science-and-religion in my life, but suffice it to say that two of its signal moments occurred at IRAS summer conferences on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire. The peak may have been the year I became president. My adult daughter, on her way to becoming an astronomer, came in from her summer observatory on Nantucket, to be there to witness it. I remember her saying “Daddy, I love the Science stuff, but I’m not so sure about the Religion part.” I told her maybe one day she would be. Walking on the vast front porch of the conference hotel, the Oceanic, I remember feeling my father’s stride in mine as I walked, and his proud eyes looking through my own. When he left Madison, he was given a Hodgell woodcut of the “Dancing Prophet.” I thought of myself that way, in my true metier, holding forth in front of a college class, though I suspect I was more outrageous. A preacher’s kid still had to be a bit of a “bad boy.”

My other Star Island moment marked my mid-life watershed in 1994, the year after I turned 40. It was a few years earlier when I first started talking to my wife about divorce. This was after a post-tenure Cape Cod workshop featuring Daniel Levenson and his second wife Judy, who had just finished collaborating on Seasons of a Woman’s Life, the extension of the original work of Levenson which first described a “mid-life crisis” for men. I had a sabbatical leave in 1994, and had gotten some late funding to attend the European offshoot of IRAS in Munich. The sabbatical ran aground on a difficult winter, and on the lingering death of my mother-in-law, requiring the regular absence of my then-wife to Pittsburgh and hence, my lion’s share of our children's’ care. I genuinely tried to support my wife, the sister with the bedside duties for her dying mother. I did collect hundreds of pages of notes for my project, but got little actually written, except the paper for the Munich meeting. When my mother-in-law died the week before I was to leave, I took the kids to Pittsburgh, but fled the day of the funeral. We decided that my mother-in-law wouldn’t have wanted me to miss this important trip, but this meant that the culmination of my sabbatical was deserting my wife at her mother’s grave. There was no way I was going to miss this meeting, and it was all that I expected, and more.

I spent plenty of after hours time at a Bierstubbe in the monastery where I stayed, and raised a few steins to the memory of my father, who would have been in his metier here. My wife never did read the lengthy manuscript that eventuated from my sabbatical study, though she repeatedly told me she would, and sadly I think, never understood nor appreciated the intellectual passions that were at the core of my being. After the hard winter, with the help of her mother’s inheritance, we had purchased her dream house in the suburbs, but I deserted her again the day after we moved that summer, for my first IRAS conference. I was a “scholarship” participant for a conference on “Knowledge Worth Having in the Decade of the Brain,” and I was to evaluate the plenary talks for inclusion in Zygon. I remember the intellectual excitement that began with conversations on the ferry dock before leaving for Star Island, and seeing my first double rainbow when I arrived. By the time I returned, flushed with excitement about IRAS, and the conference, she had clearly made the house her own. Increasingly alienated, after submitting my first paper to Zygon, I left her.

I think this role of life in work is also true of others. My best source for confirming this, of course, is people I have known, some well, some only by acquaintance (whose identities would be opaque to a stranger reading this, but obvious to anyone who knows me very well, or much of my personal history).

I had an undergraduate friend with whom I took a course on Buddhism, originally from Eastern Europe, whose slightly Asian eyes and skin color made him look like he could easily have been an inheritor of Genghis Khan. I remember him inventing something he called “concrete surrealist haiku.” He graduated, thinking he wanted to study religion, initially going to McGill, then moving to Colorado to study at the Naropa Institute (where we saw Gregory Bateson, then hiked up into the Rockies above Boulder, Colorado, the same summer I was making my way to California and reading Gravity’s Rainbow -- “Mohorovicic Discontinuity approaching critical, please advise”), and finally to the University of Washington in Seattle. I think he got some kind of graduate assistantship working at the Seattle Art Museum. But then he discovered his metier, and ended up being one of the acquisitions managers, traveling around the world to find interesting art. He used to send me postcards of art, like the one he sent me from what might’ve then been Yugoslavia, of a time-framed multiple-image photo of a sneeze). He told me that all his time trying to engage with grad work in religious studies was really just a “holding pattern” until then.

I remember another college friend, forgoing some undergraduate party nights to stay in the library and study his Greek, who I think thought of his life in terms of the classics he would later study at Princeton. He thought of himself as Odysseus and his lover as Penelope. When his relationship with her hit the shoals of a year apart, she was having an affair with one of her professors of comparative literature. My friend was all the more upset that Penelope could ward off her suitors for the ten years of the Odyssey, but that his own secretly betrothed couldn’t stay faithful for a single year when he was off fighting his own intellectual Trojan war.

More recently, as an established professor in the most productive years of my career, I had monthly “low noon” discussions about religion and naturalism with a scholar of the Dharma traditions. While both respected each other’s minds, and liked each other as friends, we came close to falling out several times when his belief that I was an unenlightened materialist boob and mine that he was living in an imaginary world bubbled too close to the surface. We agreed that one couldn’t really know, in this body, what might come after death, and I would agree with him that even the continuities of our identity during the course of our mortal lives might be problematic. I could never accept a belief without some better justification, though I liked the idea that a lengthy cycle of reincarnations would enable both infinite justice and infinite mercy. But with my belief that mercy might trump justice every time with a forgiving God, and in apokatstasis (the doctrine that a loving God would ultimately redeem everyone), I saw no need, and indeed found great value and meaning in the idea that a finite life meant one had to live it more fully. I still think his Hinduism was rooted in a lonely Catholic boyhood immersed in Tolkien, and the self-inflicted death of his father, during his belief-forming adolescence, when he simply could not abide the idea that his father wasn’t somehow still here. Happily, when I told him I didn’t need any retention of consciousness after death, he told me his religion also preached that I was at the state I needed to be, and would come around to a more enlightened view, when I wouldn’t identify myself with my body, in another lifetime, if not this one. I went on to teach and write about embodied cognition and emotion, and the grounding of consciousness in embodied existence. Even if the body is ultimately only a proper part of a mind, there is no set of nonmaterial events which play any role in constituting it, and while the mind may be “more than” a body, it cannot be severed from it.

Now, as much as I can say that the last twenty-five years of my academic and scholarly career may well have been the playing out of issues with, and an inheritance from, my father’s theology, and his own work, from which my interest in science-and-religion would grow, not only do its roots go deeper, again, part of a longer story, but there are also clearer and more direct ways that personal, emotional, and especially relational issues were played out in my work in ways that are far from opaque, my supposedly scholarly writing sometimes little more than a thinly disguised attempt to work out my own emotional and relational difficulties.

I had another colleague, a brilliant and beautiful historian, with whom I spent most of a futile decade in unrequited love, but one that may have, in some sense, “redeemed” me. My scholarly work over that decade, and the latter part of my academic career, owes much to her historical facticity, as I spent the time to delve deeper into the history of the body, of private life, and of religious belief which runs deep into history, though people could fight for “ten decades over the gods they made” as the Rolling Stones would say in “Sympathy for the Devil.” After our first date, she told me that getting to know me was an “epiphany.” I remember telling her, shortly after our first deep kiss, that I wasn’t sure whether she was my soul mate or a psychotic bitch from hell. I think she turned out to be both. Three months later she was involved with a departmental colleague, about whom I had been misled and embarrassed. She later described her colleague as a “wanker,” and a “courtier” in his Pulitzer-prize nominated work. Years later he would write a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald which was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which I consider having reached the pantheon. But I have to wonder how much of his treatment of Zelda was working out his own relationship with this woman, who he ultimately thought was “poison in his blood,” at least according to her. One wizened older colleague told me later that he thought she was “the love of your life.” An erstwhile friend told me early on that “she’ll never give you what you want,” and the Hindu wife of my Dharmic colleague said “Not in this lifetime.” Our rare, intense, primary-process, boundless times together were transporting, sufficient for me to feel, at one meeting after a hiatus of years, that the missing years did not matter. On our tete-a-tete before that absence, during a long evening on my “magic deck,” she had self-diagnosed as a Borderline Personality Disorder, acknowledging the presence of 7 of the 9 symptoms (you only need five). I now believe that she was a victim of childhood abuse.

During my second sabbatical, a few years later, she’d suggested that I give some lectures to her History of Christianity class, so I prepared lectures on the Gnostics, on Hypatia of Alexandria, and, on Abelard and Heloise, but never gave them. My big project was a long manuscript on “Externalism, Relational Selves, and Redemptive Relationships,” which I would present at a conference in Madrid, then later in the conference on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual” which I co-organized for IRAS, and ultimately publish in Zygon. Speaking at the IRAS conference, the same forefather of “Science-and-Religion” who my father brought to Purdue commented after my talk that religion (or at least much of Christian theology) was talking about the same things that our heartfelt discussions of our relational lives were. It was during this process that I came to the realization that the huge love I felt for this cypher of a woman was in me, it was part of me, and I felt redeemed by it. I told her that I wept because I could not return the favor, she said:

“Your tears moved me. I don’t think people really have any idea what they do for one another. I don’t know if you realize how much you’ve done for me.”

I used this quote, unattributed, in an article I eventually published on “The Cognitive Paradoxes of Love and Faith,” which used attachment theory, the evolution of commitment strategies, research on how our bodily subjectivity depends on mutual empathy, and a final section on “swallowing our projections” to understand both historical variations in faith, and contemporary experiences of romantic love. I ultimately came to the conclusion that this woman was my anima, an unconscious “golden shadow,” and even titled my next paper “Faith and Faux Love,” which is how she described several of her “doomed” relationships. In it, I laid out explicitly the arguments that romantic love has supplanted religion in our culture as the arena in which we seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness and ecstasy. That “falling in love” is the powerful projection of our own “golden shadow,” but that the intensity of this projection obliterates the humanity of the beloved. While we have loosed the most sublime feelings of which we are capable, we also set ourselves up for the greatest suffering we will ever know. After I presented this to the European conference in Edinburgh, my last lengthy discussion was with the Franciscan monk who would organize a conference on the science of emotion. I think he was very interested in my suggestion that it might be the resacralization of this “golden shadow” that might be very important. In a sense, this is what the celibate life of someone dedicated to God might be doing. I agreed with Gabriel Marcel that the worst sin was desincarne. A love never made incarnate isn’t just a love for which the absence of evidence was not the evidence of absence. A love which was never made incarnate was no love at all. For Christians, of course, you have the incarnation. In my unrequited love I did not. My epigraph was a quote from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, “...love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even in its most fleshly.”

I would go on to teach one of the rare undergraduate psychology courses on Emotion, which always struck me as odd, since people don’t go into psychotherapy because of flaws in basic mental function, but because they feel so bad. My “instructor goals” noted that “We all have emotionally moving events in our biographies. Indeed, it is only in our passions and the power of our emotions that we can even be said to have lives at all, or have anything in them for which we hold there to be any significance.” I was happy recently to hear some of the same sentiments about the centrality and inescapability of emotions to everything we do in Antonio Damasio’s most recent book (2018) The Strange Order of Things. My instructor goals then talked about my coming of age in the Vietnam era, where the traumatic psychological damages of war were being recognized and codified by the psychological community. But then I share the other side, and here you can see one of expressions of what I had learned from personal experience: “There is also a civilian side to post-traumatic stress and its disorders, in the developmental trauma produced by the abuse and neglect of children in that nightmarish concentration camp that an abused child can carry into adulthood, twisted into an emotionally crippled personality, or rendered forever unable to love. There is a hell for children, one that can be borne well into the adult lives of those who suffered there, affecting not only themselves, but all who try to desperately love them.” I read one account several years ago. Pseudonymous Anthony Walker, MD, ended up as a “staff psychiatrist at a prestigious American hospital.” As a med student he falls in love with and marries Michelle, with whom he finally cannot stay. Siren’s Dance: My Marriage to a Borderline was meant not as a cautionary tale but a case study for the sufferer’s loved ones, “whom despite the upheaval, are still compelled to care.” A recent, best-selling memoir by a survivor, K. L. Randis, is called Spilled Milk. A friend has written the screenplay. Could be Oscar quality.

I spoke about emotional psychology at a conference on religious diversity in New Delhi and at my Franciscan colleague’s conference in Asissi, after which I took my new young wife, a Guinevere who rescued the broken man left by Morgan Le Fay, on a honeymoon to Tuscany. You can’t love life and not love Italy. Two years later, at the conference which would be my swan song for IRAS, my own paper would be on “Knowing Ourselves by Telling Stories to Ourselves,” focusing mainly on our vast capacities for self-deception, the other side of the coin of realities we invent, but then bring into being by living into them. After getting versions of the conference papers submitted for publication, I retired at the tender young age of sixty-three. Was I fooling myself to believe that my academic work was done, and that it was the right time to go, to raise a beautiful young son, and reinvent myself as something other than an aging professor, doing the work he’d always done, and slowly fading into his dotage? We shall see.