The Voice Inside

I have this voice inside of me. It’s only now beginning to speak. It’s only now able to ask for what I need. It is only now finding the words, reaching through the voices that have been with me since childhood.

question marks
When we are babies, our needs are simple and our voice is simple. When we are hungry, we cry. When we are tired, we cry. When we wet ourselves, we cry. As we mature, we gain the ability to say more, ask for more, express more. At the same time, our needs evolve, and so does the voice that grows within.

I am forty-six years old. It has taken these years for this voice to develop. If I had lived to only thirty-five, I would not have felt the emergence of this voice. I would not have reached this developmental milestone, would never have known what this new stage feels like.

Some of have said that we have emotions of which we never speak simply because we don’t have the words to describe them. Perhaps we all are waiting for the voice inside to find a way to express what truly matters to us. It is not the voice of raw childishness (“I want” “pay attention to me”), nor is it the voice of rational adulthood (“you can’t” “you shouldn’t”), but rather a third voice that can only emerge when the time is right.voice

In the Bible, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are good words to live by, but it seems that Jesus glossed over an important point. How can you ask for something when you don’t know the words to frame the question? Without a voice with the ability to express the need, the searching question lingers inside you, unformed.

I have this voice inside of me. It’s development is something over which I’ve no control. It has simply appeared and is with me now. It’s as if I were to suddenly grow a third arm, the seeds of which have been with me since birth. What should I then do with this new arm? Should I have it cut off because it’s “not normal”? Or should I make the best use of it that I can?

This voice has been silent all these years. I can feel it as it stretches, reaching for the words, finding the way to express what I need and formulating the right questions. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then the voice is the door. And the door is opening.
Open

I will listen as the voice speaks. I will give it the room it needs to grow, hushing the other voices that are louder and have been with me longer. I will hear what it’s saying and trust that it knows of which it speaks. Maybe, just maybe, it will become a friend and companion for this second half of my life.

With all due respect and credit to Tori Amos for the phrase “silent all these years.”

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Stay At Home

As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.

“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.

“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”

“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.

“????”

We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?Trust me.

But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?

A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”?  When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.”  For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”

For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.”  It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”

My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do.  I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).

Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well.  I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice.  And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice.  Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.

In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives.  One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment.  That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”.  If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals.  We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.

I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me.  But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.

How to Be a Pilot. Not

The sailplane was wonderfully quiet, with just some wind noise as we sliced through the air, soaring high above Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The instructor told me how to steer and then the controls–a joystick between my knees and two pedals to move the rudder–were mine.

At first, I enjoyed the view and the feeling of being suspended far above the ground on the plane’s wings, without an engine to intrude. Soon, though, I realized that I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere, and there was no sensation of speed. If I were actually trying to travel, the flight would be rather boring.

Then the instructor, asking me to look down, had me try to locate the airfield. I looked and looked, but I had no idea where it was. From our altitude, the world appeared so completely different and the landmarks unrecognizable. I couldn’t have been more lost.

Perhaps the instructor felt I was less than impressed with the flight, because then he suggested we try a “wing-over.” This is a maneuver where the plane dives to gain airspeed, then the pilot turns up sharply and banks the plane so that it topples sideways as if balancing on one wingtip. Wanting to make the most of my gift glider ride, I agreed. But as he took me through a series of three or four wing-overs, I felt nauseous and thought I was going to pass out. I wanted to get off.

“That’s enough of those,” I said into my headset, struggling to stay oriented and conscious. It was a sad dose of reality for someone who once wanted to be a pilot.

Me in 1978 with my pilot's gear on.

Me in 1978 with my pilot’s gear on.

When I was young and still under the illusion that I could do anything I wanted, I dreamed of flying airplanes. The idea seemed exiting and liberating, and the airplanes themselves were shiny and sleek and powerfully beautiful.

So when I was given the glider flight as a gift a few years ago, I was stoked. This was going to be great, I told myself.

My wife and I drove to the airfield on a clear autumn day. We checked in and showed our gift certificates. After the pre-flight briefing, we were shown the two-seat training glider in which we’d each go up separately, with the instructor.

When it came to be my turn, I was excited as I climbed into the cockpit and put on my headset, letting the tow plane take us aloft. But it became clear to me that day that I don’t have what it takes to be a pilot.

You could say that I didn’t give it a fair try, that I should have put more effort into it if I really wanted to fly. But let’s not confuse interest with aptitude. It was unambiguous that I don’t have an innate ability for flight. To pursue it would be to insist on doing something that I’m not good at. That would make me vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect. I could think I was a great pilot while actually suffering the fate of all incompetent pilots when I eventually crash my plane. An aircraft is not the place to have delusions of competence.

After we landed, I could feel my boyhood dream fading in the harsh light of reality. There’s a reason people don’t have wings. Most of us just aren’t cut out to be anything more than pedestrians.

I like airplanes to this day. I just no longer believe that I should be the one flying them.

It’s Time For a Revision: An Addendum

In any given situation, behavior can be at odds with one’s feelings about the situation. In such cases, people become discontent and seek ways to make their behavior and feelings consistent with each other. The condition–known in psychology as “cognitive dissonance”–is solved by either changing one’s behavior or changing one’s attitude towards it. Frequently, the chosen response is to adjust one’s attitude rather than trying to change one’s circumstances.

People have cognitive dissonance in connection with a great many things because, sadly, things are not always as we wish them to be.  We rationalize and make excuses, always hoping that if we keep re-framing, we can set things right. But many times, the situation is what is wrong, so that is what must change.
the Door

Recently, I came to realize that I’ve had cognitive dissonance  in regard to my career, and decided that it was time to do something about it.

Yet I have continued to wonder why it has taken me this long to seek out alternatives, and I think that maybe I’ve found an answer. A classic psychological study demonstrated that the more invested one feels in a situation, the less likely one is to abandon it and the more likely one is to try to change one’s attitude to fit. Such efforts to relieve the cognitive dissonance are not always successful. “It’s worthwhile, and a bit alarming, to ask how many…projects we fail to abandon – bad jobs, bad marriages, bad wars – because we think we’ve invested too much to turn back,” notes Oliver Burkeman, who writes about social psychology for The Guardian.

I’ve spent more than 15 years pursuing a career that I thought would bring the satisfaction of making a difference in the world. It hasn’t, and no amount of attitude adjustment is going to make it so. I had thought I’d invested too much to turn back, but my lay-off forced me to confront the absurdity of sticking with it. I see that clearly now.

I can close the door on this stage of my life. I’m ready to open a new one.

It’s Time For a Revision

 

A Manifesto

I’m tired and I want out.

Until recently, I was pretty sure I was in my choice of career, acquiring the knowledge and skills that would allow me to be a purposeful part of society. But perhaps the traditional career is not my cup of tea after all. Instead, perhaps I need to reexamine what set me on this path in the first place, and redirect my efforts into work that is more personally rewarding.

When I lost my job in 2009, I basically panicked. I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I had to do something. Unfortunately, this obscured my ability to see any alternative opportunity. Like a drowning man, I lost hold of any rational view of the best course of action. I ended up being re-hired by the same company, doing work related to my former position.

Revision camp
As the panic has subsided, I am able to look at my assumptions. One is that I wanted a traditional career, the conventional man-as-breadwinner model.  It seemed a reasonable assumption, being the best way to make my mark in life and provide for myself and my family. However, I’ve realized that when my job was eliminated, the idea of my career had been eliminated too.

This has not been an easy realization for me. I wrote an essay that was published elsewhere about my conflicted feelings concerning my career, or lack thereof. (I was given a pseudonym by the publisher as protection from potential career damage.) I said there that for many people, and men especially, the career goes to define the adult self. Without the recognition that a career brings—amongst peers, colleagues, and maybe also the public—life lacks direction.

Now I’m seeing that I committed career suicide a long time ago–I just didn’t know it.

Honestly, though, I’ve never had a clear vision of my course in life. I’ve flip-flopped many times, with few consistent threads to hold it together. But I had a dream, an ephemeral idea of who I saw myself as. Essentially, it involved being an effective part of finding a solution to what I saw as the critical issue of my generation—the environment. And it involved doing so in a creative fashion, most likely writing.

But my dream had some flaws. Specifically, my pursuit of a career has been misguided in regard to corporate life generally and specifically work on environmental issues. Neither has been as satisfying or successful as I had hoped. I thought that, given enough time, the personal rewards would come, but it just hasn’t happened.

Time to set a new course.

A writer friend of mine once pointed out that the word “revision” actually is “re-vision”, as in “to see again.” Recently, I’ve come to see that my life, post lay-off, will require a revision.

But long-standing points of view do not change overnight. And I see, with the help of some time and distance, that my insistence on sticking to the corporate comforts and the environmental path was blinding me to other possibilities.

This means that I need to stop clinging to what I think I ought to be doing. Says writer Amy Gutman, “The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.”

Changing entrenched habits requires new methods. To borrow from the “tactical urbanism” lexicon, I need to take a deliberate, but phased, approach to change, making short-term commitments and keeping my expectations realistic. In other words, I need to make a choice, set small goals, stick to it, and take baby steps.

Furthermore, I need to see the problem in its component parts. Only then can I eliminate what is unnecessary and cast off the extraneous. What remains is what I need to live.

Thoreau wrote “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”

A vision is forming, and I think I see a way. I’m letting go of the dream…to find a new one.

Note: See also the addendum to this post.