Marketing 101 teaches that if you want to sell an idea or product, sexualize it or fetishize it. Recently, I was visiting family and dipped into a Hardee’s to grab a quick nutritious bite. There on the side of the building is this giant frozen image of an attractive young woman attempting to devour a burger in the most seductive way possible. The image is more than suggestive; it is demanding: Think about sex and buy something! I won’t delve into the neuroscience and cognitive research on why this may work so well. In fact, this post isn’t about neuroscience, sex or selling anything. Far from it. Rather, this post is about the black hole that I’ve been living in and trying to emerge from.
During the month of April 2013, I attended an outdoor meeting that turned rainy and cold. I kept thinking that the mist would stop any second or that we would adjourn to an environment sans falling water. Neither happened. Minutes rolled together and accumulated into hours, as they tend to do. By the time I left, I felt wet on the inside—like the moisture somehow seeped into my bones. Subsequently, I fell quite ill. Multiple courses of antibiotics, steroids, breathing treatments—the full gamut. I consider it an amazing blessing that I avoided hospitalization, although admission might have been the wiser and more judicious route to recovery. Nevertheless, here I am months later.
The first few months of that year brought many unexpected and (probably) unwarranted accolades and acknowledgments within my small sphere of academia. It felt like after marrying Jamie, the love of my life and my best friend, that all the world was coming up roses! Those precious weeks were an armistice from all the troubles, trials and tribulations that attend daily life. We both knew that this unprecedented season wasn’t sustainable, so we drank deeply from the cup of good fortune—drought after drought! It came to a screeching halt when I got sick. 50 shades of grey, that’s how I felt and, due to the sallowness of my skin, probably looked too.
It turns out that when my immune system got hit so hard by the lingering infection, three immuno-viruses, which have been tagging along for years now, were able to either reactivate or escalate. I felt like dirt, lower than dirt, if that’s possible. The thought of opening one of my books seemed torturous. I was so weak that thinking about thinking made me tired. It’s the same story that almost any teenager with mono shares: “I just don’t wanna. I don’t feel like it.” I ended up having to take an incomplete for the semester and was pretty much restricted to the couch or bed. Occasionally, I was hit by a burst of energy and tried to jump back into life and work with both feet. I don’t even have to tell you how that ended: Boom goes the dynamite.
My wife and I had a scheduled trip to Canada, so I put on a brave face and went. We were both looking forward to exploring new terrain. My condition devolved pretty steadily, but it was not stronger than the beauty that surrounded us. It was and is no fun being sick (or having to put up with me when I am sick), but the power and sublimity of nature offered its own kind of healing balm. Maybe it doesn’t reach the cells or marrow, but it hits the soul. It is at times like these that I am reminded of Jesus’ powerful questions: “What would it profit you if you gained everything in the world that you could possibly want and simultaneously lost your soul? What would you give in exchange for your soul?” That line of questioning rebuffs my ambitions and quiets my complaints. It’s not a superficial silence either. In order to think it through, to give his questions the proper attention, I necessarily have to shut my mouth.
I’m still thinking. As my energy has increased, so has my ability to cogitate. I am trying to live with a little more perspective, though it remains a tough task for me. My wife has been a huge help to me during this time, often encouraging me and showing me a better way to live. What does it mean for me if I am not an award-winning-academic? Where have I been placing my value and finding my identity? Maybe it is the nature of academics to be a bit driven or maybe it is a habit that we cultivate in order to survive or maybe it’s a mixture. I know about the Euthyphro dilemma, so I’m not asking whether my motivations have been wrong because I find myself in a subjective state of seeming wrongness. Putting all of my value in the ability to perform a certain kind of task is likely a bad plan, whether or not I ever consider the question. The desire to do so is probably prompted from deeper yearnings and questions that won’t go away but might be drowned out by incessant work and constant striving. “What’s my purpose in being here? What’s the point in life? Is there one? How and where do I find meaning in a world that is so full of flux?” Maybe I’ll have the time to think these things over without turning to superficial answers. Dear Dr. Frankl, man is still in search of meaning!