Turns out the first thing that can go wrong is not having a clue what you want your major to be in college.
Archaeology had been my earliest aspiration, but as mentioned, the dread of traveling all over and chasing jobs across universities made me shy away, along with the fact that I was interested in impacting the world, and how the heck can you do that studying ancient cultures?
So I settled on my other earliest love, writing, and majored in journalism to learn to be a better writer. I didn’t anticipate a career in journalism itself, per se, but maybe writing that elusive Great American Novel? Yeah, that could work for my ambitions.
Also turns out that the second thing that can go wrong is an emotional crisis of identity in an immature heart – I found love for the first time during the summer after graduating high school, and, goodness, I fell hard.
There was a large gulf between my intellectual and emotional maturity, so I was full throttle from day one in a relationship. Also so happens that, no matter what one’s good ethical intentions may be, if you play around with enough fire (so to speak), you’re going to get burned, so it came as an utter shock to my system when my Christian morality collapsed in the face of my peak male sex drive (damn you, ages 18-22).
So when the relationship ended in about 6 months (no surprise and no ill will – I’d want to get away from 18-year-old me, too, wayyyy too much pressure), I was a basket case.
Who I thought I was as a Christian was a mess. Who I thought I’d be for the woman I’d end up marrying was down the tubes. And I didn’t think my heart was capable of coming back together. In some ways, it was the most painful breakup I’ve had owing to how unprepared my heart was.
But I made it through. The early years of college were a breeze. I lucked into an internship with the University of Florida’s student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator, for a semester, and I hated every minute of it. I had to relearn how to write for journalism, and it’s in many ways the complete opposite of creative writing.
Journalism is crisp, to the point. Make use of as few words as possible. Pertinent information summarized and up front, supporting details in the body, no real conclusion at the end.
But I learned to do it, and I became a far better writer because of it. I just learned that a career in journalism was definitely not for me, at least not one in a fast-paced, cut-throat environment.
So after some wrestling, I decided to change majors within the College of Journalism to public relations – basically like marketing, but I justified in my mind that, in learning to deal with the public at large and influence opinions, that could still be knowledge that would be useful as I attempted to make a mark on society.
In private life, I’d picked up the guitar at around 19 and started teaching myself. I took a class at the local community college, and a new friend who started attending my family’s church was an excellent player who was happy to teach me more. He was interested in putting together a band that could perform at special church functions for fun.
Swell idea, I thought, and since he played the guitar, he suggested I pick up the bass, which is far easier (at least as far as the basics go). So we put together a little band and, as almost always happens within a church, whenever someone shows moderate competence and a willingness to do anything at all, within the space of about a year we found ourselves leading worship at one of two Sunday worship services.
My spiritual life during this time was growing in a lot of ways, but not in the ways I truly needed. I’d finally read the whole Bible and reread it because it’s not like a novel you read once and you’re done with it; it’s something you saturate yourself with and let sink into your marrow.
I’d had some spiritual experiences with God where I felt his presence in particular ways as I prayed, but I didn’t realize that I needed him to heal (or, even, that he was in the business of doing this sort of thing) the wounds my heart had picked up as a seven-year-old and reemphasized throughout my life.
The self-hatred, insecurity, inadequacy, and most of all fear I’d had with me was still inside; it just lie dormant most of the time, and out of fear of prodding and awakening it, I let it lie. On good days, I convinced myself it wasn’t really there like it once was.
So I knew a heck of a lot about God and who he was and how one ought to be a Christian, but he hadn’t truly healed my heart or made much headway there.
So a couple years ticked by and I found myself at about age 20 doing pretty OK in school and being active in my church but otherwise kind of feeling blah about life, unsure how this public relations thing was going to actually prove to be a world changer like I’d hoped it would.
At that time, a mentor of mine at my church who was a lawyer decided to run for office as a circuit judge. Because I thought highly of him, I offered to help him out (hey, public relations!), so I analyzed some voter data for him and organized some sign-waving events.
Circuit judge races are non-partisan, but my friend was a registered Republican, so we received some assistance from local Republican groups, especially the UF College Republicans, where I was introduced to and befriended their current leader.
And, wouldn’t you know it, my mentor pulled off an upset and won the race. I quite enjoyed political campaigning, it was rather thrilling and laced with importance.
My church hired a new youth director about that time, and she became a part of the worship team I was in. We hit it off pretty well, and soon enough she suggested that I should consider helping out as an assistant with the youth: I knew my stuff, and I was young enough to still relate, etc.
When my youth director had left after my senior year in high school, he had talked me up to church leadership at the age of 18 as being one to watch to be the next director, which I blanched at at the time. But a couple years later, sure, I could assist.
So I helped out doing that for a little less than a year and had a good time, establishing good relationships with the kids and overall feeling like I was doing something good to advance the church.
Not long after I turned 21, as happens too frequently in smaller churches, a kerfuffle with the youth director ensued over something relatively minor that got blown out of proportion and resulted in her stepping down. The other assistants wanted no part of leadership, so interim duties fell to me by default.
So I was filling in as the youth director while helping lead a worship team and going to school full-time. I was also on the Staff-Parrish Committee, which in the Methodist Church is the committee in charge of hiring and firing, so I sat in on the interviews to fill the position.
As it happens, my mentor the circuit judge was the head of this committee and, after about the fourth unsuccessful interview, in exasperation asked me why I didn’t just take the job since I’d been filling in so wonderfully.
So I prayed about it and surprisingly felt affirmed in the decision, so I accepted. I read a ton of books on how to lead a youth ministry and, on the surface, things went very, very well.
The kids seemed engaged, I tapped into some hither to unknown silliness within me that helped them have fun, I put together lessons geared towards familiarizing them more with scripture and knowledge about Jesus, and I invested my time in their lives.
The group slowly grew, and things were going swimmingly everywhere except in my heart and mind.
I hit a road block in my college major – I somehow managed to box myself in to needing only about 6 classes to finish my B.A. in public relations, but just about each of those classes was a prerequisite for the other, so I was looking at about two more years to finish a four-year degree I had already been in for four years.
A good buddy of mine suggested I look at switching majors to political science just to complete my degree, something he’d recently done – when I audited the classes I took, sure enough, my love of history and philosophy as electives made a poli sci degree attainable in a little less than a year. And, well, I reasoned, maybe I could go to law school afterward, and that would be how I impacted the world.
The year 2004 rolled around, and with it a presidential election, and as it happened, the friend I’d made during the circuit judge campaign who had headed up UF College Republicans had become head of the County Republican Party. I parlayed that into a credited internship to work on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign for my buddy and me, and my emphasis within my political science major became political campaigning.
Meanwhile, I’d been a year into being a full-time youth director, and it was taking a toll. I was pretty spent. I’d been devouring the Bible to come up with lessons and, as one becomes more familiar with scripture, one tends to start asking ones’ self some serious questions.
I was running on empty spiritually – where was the God who was so active in scripture to help give me energy to do his ministry? On top of that, church worship began feeling completely dead to me – like a meeting of a rotary club instead of something alive and directly interacting with God as described in scripture. And on top of that, I was personally frustrated with my life – I was burnt out, stressed, directionless, and lonely.
That carried on for about another year while I kept asking God for help and, by all appearances, he remained silent. So, I inadvertently sabotaged myself. I took my happiness into my own hands; resigned as youth director; and entered into an unhealthy romantic relationship I had no business being in.
I graduated from college in December 2005 and had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. I’d started looking for life in church outside my own tradition, wondering if there were any Christians who had some sort of more spiritual connection with God that weren’t nuts like I thought the Pentecostals were. And the unhealthy romantic relationship continued and developed into love.
Come 2006, my old acquaintance had gone from head of UF College Republicans to head of the County Republican Party to running for an open state senate seat. I reached out to him asking if he needed help, and, yep, I became a defacto kind of campaign manager / right-hand man during the primaries.
Now, finally, I thought, something could actually come of my life and I could redirect the self-hatred that had been rising in me of how much I’d failed my potential – my guy wins the senate seat, I become a legislative aid in Tallahassee, bam, rising political career where I can really make a difference in people’s lives.
Well, we did a lot better than we should have in the primary, but we lost to the former county sheriff who enjoyed a huge advantage in name recognition and fundraising. And in the process I really became a bit disgusted with American politics.
So my life was listless. Then 2007 came around and, wham, my girlfriend was pregnant. Scandalously so given my stature in my church. Old panic and self-hatred and insecurity reemerged in full force: what a freaking wreck I was, a failure, a fraud I told myself over and over.
I tried to make things as “right” as I could and marry my girlfriend, but she wasn’t ready. So, pending fatherhood, I knew I had to get a better job than the occasional subsistence ones I’d been taking on, no matter what it was.
I lucked out and got a job at a construction engineering firm, where I made one of the best friends I’ve ever had. He was incredibly brilliant and a devout Christian who had faced some of the same questions and crises I was currently going through in my faith, and he belonged to a church with a bunch of like-minded and aged group of guys I was blessed to meet: I’d never met a group like them, people I could truly relate to with my questions and crises.
By 2008, my daughter was born and I was promoted to a project coordinator position within the firm. Things were really looking up.
Then the bottom fell out.
The recession hit the construction industry, and I was laid off out of the blue. The turmoil my fiance and I had been through over the past three-plus years had finally been enough for her, and she met someone else and left me. I could no longer go through the motions of attending my family’s church where I felt completely spiritually dead.
The dragon of panic, fear, insecurity, rage, and inadequacy fully awoke from its slumber in my heart and inflamed like never before. My self-identity, my faith, everything I held onto went up in flames as I fell apart.