Bill Long 12/30/05
Setting the Stage
Three important issues in life are: (1) finding a mate or making a decision about whether an intimate partner will accompany you throughout various stages of your life; (2) deciding on a career/use of your time; (3) answering the "theological question"--whether and to what extent you want to recognize that god/God(s) play a role in your life. As American society is evolving it is becoming more and more tolerant of provisional or tentative answers to all these questions. That is, if you reached your prime in this country even as few as 50 years ago (and in some communities it still is current practice), you were expected to have answered all of these questions pretty definitively by the time you were 25. Partners were, more or less, for life; career-jumping was the exception rather than the rule; your "church" was pretty much a "given." When conducting an oral history interview with a distinguished attorney born in 1915, I remember he said when he moved his legal practice from San Francisco to Portland in 1963, at age 48, his colleagues thought he was crazy. Why would you "begin again" in a new and strange city, where you wouldn't make as much money, at age 48? Even though there was a direct continuity between what he had been doing and what he was to do, people just didn't seem to understand his choice.
But now things are different, for the most part. One of the remarkable changes in our society, which still isn't reflected in European society, is that we now expect people not only to change jobs several times in a career but even to change professions several times. When I was in law practice from 2000-03, the majority of people in the firm had been lawyers since finishing law school in their mid-20s, but an increasing number had Ph.D.s in various fields, had been nurses or had worked for the government in various non-law-related capacities. Granted, there was a continuity in most cases between previous training and current employment, but not necessarily so.
As America relaxed its expectation regarding the need to have the same career throughout life, it also made easier an array of choice with respect to mate and religion. Though almost every couple pledges troth for eternity, most couples don't maintain that pledge, and many that do wish they didn't. But even as divorce is generally accepted in most contexts in our society, the corresponding value--that you might "couple" only as long as convenient or until you want to expore other options (as in career) has still not caught on. Most divorced people who are looking to "re-connect" are expecting the next round to be permanent, rather than looking at it as a sort of second career, after which there might be a third or fourth.
Finally, with respect to religion, times have changed, and American entrepreneurialism was there to lend a helping hand. With the advent of the Jesus Movement (mostly West Coast), the Charismatic Movement (throughout the country), and the growth of alternative ways of developing one's own spirituality, the notion of a permanent connection to the "god" or "church" of your youth became frayed. Just as brand loyalty to gasoline diminished quickly when ARCO began underselling the competition, so brand loyalty to religion faded when someone else began to offer what appeared to be the same (or, in this case, a better) product at a lower price. Or, to change the analysis, people gradually discovered that religion might demand more of them and they eagerly embraced those alternatives which provided a structure for living and greater emotional, social or spiritual bang for the buck, so to speak.
And, when people decided to follow their longings, they discovered that the religious entrepreneurs were all around them, waiting to extend the love of Jesus, the compassion of the Great Buddha or various modes of psychic understanding and release. Seeking professional "help" for one's spiritual quest or mental health became de rigueur. In 1972 the admission by a Vice-Presidential candidate that he sought ECT treatment for "nervous exhaustion" contributed to torpedoing a run for the White House (even though George McGovern's Presidential bid didnt' have a prayer); by 1992 Presidential candidates began to wear on their sleeves the fact that they had sought counseling. In 1968 no one would have thought about bringing Jesus on the campaign trail; but 2000 you had to have Jesus in your hip pocket with you as you campaigned.
Yet even though American society has evolved considerably on the religious question, we still expect that a religous commitment is permanent, even if we allow you to change that commitment in life. To that extent, religion in America is still perceived as similar to marriage or intimate partnering: we allow you to change once or twice, but we still expect you to be thinking of "permanence." Constant returning to the dessert tray at the smorgasbord of religious or marital choice is still frowned upon.
Societal Change and Consumption of Psychic Energy
Whenever a society undergoes the kind of change that America has experienced in the past 35 years in expectations regarding these three significant areas, we can be sure that there is lots of cultural or psychic energy that goes into thinking about where one "fits in" to all these things. Just as new rules regarding sexual harassment in the workplace caught more than one man (and fewer women) in its seemingly tentacular grip, so the "new rules" concerning intimate partnership, career and god(s) manage to trip people up with regularity. We don't know what expectations to have; we don't know what constitutes a satisfactory "answer" to any of the three quests; we have a hard time constructing those lives which we should embrace with joy (if we listen to the gurus on life-change and life-choice). We are all making it up as we go along, and sometimes we take a step backward from the way we have been living, to look at ourselves in the third person, and say, "What, indeed, am I doing?"
Lest you think that these issues relate only to people who have given up the notion of permanent marriage, permanent career and permanent God, they often stalk those who have made "safe" or "permanent" choices. When I decided to leave teaching history and pursuing the academic study of religion in the mid-1990s to enter law school, I had lots of visits from guys I knew over the years. Many of them had long-established and successful careers; their kids had straight teeth and their wives had slim bodies. And several confessed to me, without my prompting, that they wished they could take on a new path, like I was doing. They all commended me for my courage.
Sometimes the other side of courage's coin is foolishness. I didn't know whether what I did was courageous or foolish. But I took a different path.
This general background, then, forms the intellectual and personal world in which many people are living today, including myself. It puts in context the following, still too fuzzy, dream.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long