Tag Archives: becoming

Thoughts on Sally Yates

Sally Yates at Carter Center

Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.

She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth.  As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life.  She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves.  And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning.  When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless.  Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.

It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done.   Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative.  To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience.  It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession. 

But my personal question remains: how am I coming into being?  Just as someone with Yates’ background and skill set might step into a more intuitive life (by running for public office instead of remaining in the legal-bureaucratic infrastructure), I bear the responsibility for my own development.  Where am I going now?  What’s next?  The future is never fixed, never certain.
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You Do What You Are

Back in Michigan, I studied more literature than was required for my degree because I enjoyed being around lit professors and grad students. Once a well-meaning lit student in one of those classes said to me, “It’s great that you want to become a fiction writer.” I said, “Actually, I am a fiction writer. But I agree, it’s great that I want to become more of one.”

When you know and develop what you are–writer, artist, teacher, programmer, lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, whatever–you radiate that. You become a catalyst for that kind of change no matter what you are doing or where you are. It’s not that you are what you do–because that implies that if you’re not doing it, you don’t exist. It’s that you do what you are, always.

So a photographer sits in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. She is a photographer in a waiting room. She is not someone who was a photographer for two hours yesterday and is now nothing or some kind of post-photographer waiting to be a photographer again tomorrow. She is what she is, and she is constantly thinking like a photographer. In her actions, conversations, thoughts, memories, and impulses, she is a photographer, whether she has a camera in her hands or not. By doing her art, she can deepen her sensibilities and technical ability. But she does not rely on anything outside herself to be who she is, even if she relies on cameras to express that state of being externally. Likewise, she does not need the recognition, money, or approval of the world in order to exist.

As a writer and a teacher, I am always writing and teaching–whether I am at my desk, in a classroom, watching a movie, or taking a walk across town. I radiate that and cause change around me according to it. It is the way I connect with the world. Moreover, I can recognize the same sensibilities in others.

My classmate understood this immediately. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t an awkward moment. I could see that she’d already turned inward and had begun to ask herself: “Who am I? What do I radiate? What am I becoming? What sort of change do I create?” It was a really good moment because these are the questions we all have to ask and never stop asking.


Ride or Be Dragged

​This happened.  My career changed overnight.  My personal relationships mutated in shocking ways.  My financial Plan B was revealed as unfeasible.  My living arrangement became highly temporary and unstable.  I had no family support, no fallbacks left.  I was in the middle of an enormous bout of writer’s block.  Moreover, I was beginning to experience health problems.  The excrement had hit the air conditioning in every area of my life.  The small things to which I had clung for a semblance of stability had dissolved completely.  I felt extreme anxiety and began to entertain thoughts as dark as my situation.  But it’s not in my nature to give up as long as there is something I can do to remedy a problem.  I felt there must be a way forward, I just couldn’t see what it was.

Then, while giving advice to a former student on a slightly different subject (the role of writing in professional life), I had a moment of clarity about something I had never fully understood until that moment: everything is dynamic.  Everything moves.  Nothing stands still.  It’s an easy concept to thoughtlessly embrace until we are forced to realize it firsthand by looking around at every aspect of our lives.  Even though we may think we’ve built havens of stability in our lives, we’re deceiving ourselves.  As soon as we say, “Well, at least I can rely on my job / house / spouse / skill set / religion / health,” we’re buying into an illusion of stability in order to feel better.  All of these things can change radically at any moment.  Maybe the only constant is change–even if this idea is trite, even if it’s become a self-help cliché.  I think it’s painfully true nevertheless.  At least, that was my experience.  That is what I realized, which brought me a great deal of insight, and from insight came the relief I was seeking.

If everything is dynamic, if everything changes and we change with it, then is there a more accurate model for the good life?  That was the next logical question I asked.  I needed an answer fast if I was going to avoid being dragged into a highly uncomfortable state of personal and professional ruin.  It seemed that if change is inevitable and omnipresent, the key to living well is not to fight it.  That is impossible if change is the basis of everything.  Instead, the good life may come from participating more mindfully in the transformations we care about.  If our personal relationships are changing, how can we engage with and direct that change for the most fulfilling possible outcome?  If our professional fields are changing, how can we adapt and position ourselves such that we can continue with the highest degree of personal satisfaction?

I found answering these questions difficult.  In fact, I’m still trying to answer them.  Maybe the answers, too, are dynamic, protean, constantly subject to revision.  That made sense the more I thought about it.  It could be that as we change, our range of personal truth–what constitutes our highest good–has to change as well.  What will it be today?  What do I want it to be?  What new directions should I take?  What new worlds are coming into being right now?

“Nothing stands still – everything is being born, growing, dying – the very instant a thing reaches its height, it begins to decline – the law of rhythm is in constant operations.” – Three Initiates, Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece