The Unburdening Year

Genius, depression, and creative restoration

That was not the year I’d planned.

The planned 2021 was simple: finish a few house projects, submit three journal articles, get fit, and arrange my imminent return to doctoral studies so as to claim my rightful status as the savior of liberal democracy.

That’s no exaggeration.

You can guess what happened instead.

The real 2021 brought the worst depressive episode of the past decade, a summertime Lyme infection, and a fourth-quarter whole-gut shutdown. (The home improvements remain on hold.) That gastrointestinal collapse is easily explained by the Lyme, which itself was an expected risk of life on the Blue Ridge. But the depression came on without warning, arrived before I’d prepared to meet again.

And yet even as I write this, barely able to eat, I find at the start of 2022 a certain peace, even a childlike joy, that has eluded me since adolescence. Somehow 2021 brought liberation. Let me see if I can discern why.

In the yard beyond my elementary school sat an old bell tower, a fieldstone-and-concrete mass of WPA solidity. It was certainly no tower—scarcely taller than I am now—and its bell was long gone, but it served as a central meeting point during recess. It made an excellent forward base for frequent Star Trek missions.

One day in perhaps the third grade, I was standing beside that bell tower when fortune offered the chance to impress the cutest girl in my class. Ashley Bates and friends—all side ponies and neon jackets—had been making their way across the yard on a path that went right past me. I’d have seconds to draw her attention. What should I do? She barely knew me, childhood social divisions being what they are. I chose my strategy carefully, assumed a tactical stance, and waited.

She arrived. I stepped away from the bell tower, drew up my hand in a circling, absent-minded motion and said: “E=mc2, to the power of three, carry the one…”

And then she was gone.

I threw my arms up in victory.

She hadn’t seen me at all.

I understood nothing of Einstein’s equation, of course. Had no concept of exponents. But I knew that these signified something, and that they signaled something more important still. Not just that I was smart, but smarter.

I learned early on that I stood out in my little farm town for two reasons: I was devout, and I sounded clever.

Devotion naturally sets one apart. I hadn’t seen the same movies as friends; I didn’t understand their music or cultural memes. This was the mandate, after all—believers were called to be sanctified. In practice this became sanctimony.

But why and when did I begin putting so much store by intellect? I had no mathematical aptitude. I tested into gifted programs but wasn’t picked for accelerated learning. I read less than other smart, pre-internet kids. The only culprit, so far as I can tell, is words. Words that came quickly to a preacher's son. A linguistic facility has long hidden my sloppy thinking; in writing, as in life, a strong voice covers a multitude of sins. Because others thought I was smarter—smarter in general, not just in verbal acuity—I began believing it too.

Perhaps there’s nothing yet unusual to this story—small-town book-bred kid reifies two parts of his identity. We all choose something. But I want to interrogate the movement, the slow subduction, that began as these traits decoupled. The further that I withdrew from superstition in college, the stronger my need for intellectual distinction. The currency of the church had been piety, and here I knew riches, but the wider world cared nothing for holiness. The old status was worthless. And on arriving in grad school I found that everyone was smart, and that distinction would demand real effort. It was not enough to simply enjoy my studies, to luxuriate in long seminars on Montaigne and Thucydides. No. Only striving would do. The Pauline way was now closed to me. I would need another route. No longer the saint, I’d play genius instead.

An undiscovered genius, of course, because I knew nothing of this world. The University of Chicago had been unknown to me before my senior year of college. I’d heard of Brown exactly twice before matriculating there for a PhD: once in learning that philosopher Charles Larmore had moved there, and once while watching Iron Man. But because the aim had become not just scholarship but greatness, I was more focused on where I hadn’t landed. When later, after depression hit, I got accepted to NYU Law but was only waitlisted at Harvard, I dismissed the idea of a JD altogether.

Comparisons kill contentment. They fuel grievance toward this history, these institutions. Where would I be if my school had Latin or French or any language I’d actually use? If I’d been taught, say, the rudiments of ethics or world history? (I had courses in none.) What if my parents weren't afraid of inquiry? I coiled these questions round my early studies. I can feel their impressions still.

The cracks began in 2011. Weaned now on the classics—Rousseau and Mill and the like—I wanted to write as they wrote, work on the big problems with them. (Proust: “My grandmother, as I learned afterwards, had at first chosen Mussel’s poems, a volume of Rousseau, and Indiana; for while she considered light reading as unwholesome as sweets and cakes, she did not reflect that the strong breath of genius must have upon the very soul of a child an influence at once more dangerous and less quickening than those of fresh air and country breezes upon his body.”) I couldn’t understand why my powers weren’t up to the task, and why my committee just wanted me to write like everyone else. Couldn’t they see what I was attempting? Couldn’t they see I was different?

Soon a full-bore depression made work impossible, for its worst symptom—beyond the torpor and ever-present need of chocolate—was that all my old interests fell away. At first you find no willpower to work; you soon wonder why you tried. I wanted to think about anything but political theory. I stayed enrolled in hopes that I’d snap out of it, and because I hadn’t seriously considered any other path, for by now I’d convinced myself that I was born for this work. What else could I do?

The answer: not much. After five years at Brown I joined my generation’s homeward hajj. In Missouri I'd switch between joblessness and odd jobs and caring for my grandmother. And then came Election Tuesday, 2016. After helping break the Canadian immigration website that night, I rose the next morning for a long walk past the rows of ranch houses and their many campaign flags. Suddenly, the confluence of Brexit and Trump and the absurdity of electoral democracy made plain all the defects of my old dissertation. I saw how to fix not just that document, but how to fix everything. I spent the next nine days working this into 20,000 words. I’ll share that jeremiad another time; what’s important for this essay is the outcome.

For here we come to the heart of it. This moment—this very Rousseauian moment, alas—led me to think that I’d finally made contact with that divine-like purpose I'd needed since leaving the church. Now I had work to live for. And the story! The undiscovered genius—now in exile!—toiling on his opus between emptying his grandma’s commode. Clearly the Great Thing had begun. Next would come the redemption arc: the shock from colleagues, their re-embrace, a rise, and then my assumption into the firmament of scholars.

But the dénouement never came.

I tried returning to Brown; my committee supported me (bless them) but the department didn’t want a sixth year on the books, a millstone who would also—for reasons known only to provosts and heavenly hosts—take a prospective student’s spot. (Even if accepted on such terms, how could I have blocked someone to satisfy my also-ran ego?) I applied the next year to five dream schools with an application more noted for its ambition than promise. Shut out. I began a paper on Rousseau and found that I had no idea how to write theory. Near the end of 2020 I surveyed the state of my work, the states of all my hopes, and found only this magpie’s array of failure.

But failure at what, exactly? What standard of success was this? Unparallelled erudition? A discipline-defining career?

Not until the next year—last year—could I see how the kid by the bell tower had gotten lost, thinking that he was his intellect, that his virtue was the virtues of his mind. I'd come to hold that it wasn't enough to work the share I'd been given—for I must have the greatest share, overwhelming all who doubted or tried to supersede it. How pitiful that boy had become, and how relatable.

The irony, not lost on me at the time, was that 2020 had been my best year. I fell in love, moved to the country, gained mastery of my job. I was hale and secure. I could see all this—scored highly on psychologists’ “life satisfaction”—but I was miserable. For what good are comforts if one is not also creating? Should I not be suffering in every way for my art?

I now believe that this dissonance between the state of things and my mental state arose from two comparisons. In the first I’d compare myself to other academics: an older cohort from grad school who’d moved from success to success, and a younger cohort of new friends. Each was doing better work and more work than I’d ever managed. This comparison brought not envy (at least not in the main) but a distress that I hadn’t taken their road, that I could have realized their gains… but didn’t.

The second comparison, related to the first, we might call self-collation. All my adult life I’ve compared my actual self to the counterfactual man who’d made better choices or had been given an (even!) more privileged pedigree. I’d tracked this self from the start of grad school. At first the two were one; everyone is a prodigy before the work starts. They split sharply in 2011. By 2021 my better self was assured his Nobel.

How absurd this approach to living! How toxic to calm and contentment. And all this while ignoring that present me wasn't far from the self I'd always wanted: a decent man, someone who’d learned to do justly and love mercy. I’d never questioned these more modest aims, the standard stuff of cornpone Stoicism. But they always felt too easy, too low. Success in the substrata of life is rarely noted; the edifices draw our gaze. In fashioning mine I'd crafted a self at odds with itself, and it took me 35 years to see why.

I teased a redemption arc.

Some part of me—the oldest, time-smoothed part—wants to end by giving you the sense that now I’ve got it. My life’s first act is complete; thought I’d found myself in 2016, but no! Just missed it by a few years and a would-be autogolpe. Now in 2022, fully actualized and full of #selfcare, the fragments have formed a whole.

But the very notions of a “true self” and “life arc” were the source of my torment! Only now can I finally grok the Buddhist anatman or “no-self.” There is no self writing this, at least not one that endures. There is only this clusterfuck of memories and matter. It took until now to accept that such a jumble can be pretty okay. That he can be happy, and now is.

And free to work, too. For years I’d asked myself: if you really are a writer, why aren’t you writing? You claim the title. Where’s the evidence? And the answer, which escaped me until now, was obvious—I’d been held back by my need to be the Writer. The identity had killed the activity. This was true in every creative pursuit: I’d abandoned photography because my photos weren’t Art. Woodworking was out unless I could be my generation’s Maloof. And so on with every pastime. I would be the best or I would be something else entirely.

You’re reading these words because that pressure of genius is gone. All my life I’ve treated work as a tool for preeminence. Now, I think, I’ve left that burden by the way. I write these words for the joy of the writing, and the small hope of putting in order these several parts of my world.