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Twenty through Thirty-Five

20-35: Achieving

If I work hard enough, for long enough, can I enjoy what I have?

I value integrity, being trustworthy. For a long time, I attempted to be dependable to others even though I knew, deep down, that I could not trust myself. It took a long time to recognize what led me to behave inconsistently with my values, and an even longer time to understand that the roots of my internal dissonance were in how I saw myself.

I spent most of my life feeling guilty any time I received anything from anyone, but it was most potent as a young adult. I endured social times of gift giving: I knew it was necessary to be polite, but also felt the need to justify any good thing directed toward me. My initial method for avoiding guilt when getting good things, was to deserve it. I wanted to earn each good thing through work.

When I graduated from college, I moved to Iowa City because my soon-to-be wife was attending medical school. The plan was to work her through school, and then go to seminary—her income would always be more reliable than mine. During the first four years of our marriage I juggled up to 8 different part time jobs—including telemarketing, writing for the local paper, waiting tables, teaching, coaching debate, and selling CDs—while attempting to get into the Writer’s Workshop (never did). I often would end one job at 3 a.m. and would get up at 9:00 to start another. I could not find anything that I wanted to do, and so I did many different things instead. No matter how many hours I put into employment, I still did not feel like I deserved my wife, nor my family, nor my friends.

Graduate school seemed to promise a better form of fulfillment. My ability to work long hours paid off when I began graduate school. I decided to get a doctorate in Religious Studies rather than a master’s degree in theology because I realized I did not want to be a pastor of a Christian church. I threw myself into my studies, taking 4-5 classes at a time, writing papers far beyond the scope of my assignments. My teaching reflected my mindset: I designed classes that would inspire students to exhaust themselves in pursuit of an inexhaustible source of wisdom, promising my students that I would always work harder than they would as a way to support them.

I found success in these things—winning awards as a teacher; coaching my students to championships in debate—but something in me longed for more. When I knew that I had earned the recognition I received, it felt inadequate. But I still felt guilt each time someone praised me, or loved me, when it felt unearned.

I became a father during this time, which added another opportunity to learn about love. I began to balance knowing what it meant to be a father with what it meant to be a son, a husband, a friend, a teacher, a co-worker. I valued those around me and wanted to give everyone every best that I had. I never seemed to do enough, no matter how much of myself I put into things. The result, whether a “success” or a “failure,” always felt the same: empty. I never felt loved: I felt a constant obligation to please those who said that they loved me so that their love was not mistaken (even though I did not feel it).

I felt lonely in the midst of friends and family, and like a failure in the middle of my success. I attempted to console myself by saying I was “fated” or “doomed,” but these explanations always felt flat and feeble. I knew something about how I was living was unsustainable, beyond any role that I played. Ultimately, I realized I would not receive any benefit from what I achieved, even if I felt like I deserved it, unless I felt worthy of it.