One of the Worst Times of My Life

I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program.  The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy.  Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected.  I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.

Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise.  When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly.  No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well.  I pretty much shut down for good.  They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam.  About six months later I took it.  I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied.  So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis.  Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity.  Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.

That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life.  I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess.  I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick.  My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer.  They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world.  I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.

Fall ’71 – Conclusion

That fall, Father, oh, let’s call him W, and Father Bob were the high school sub-directors.  They oversaw the daily operations of the place, organized and assigned the students’ work schedules, and generally managed to keep chaos in check.  Father W was originally from Holy Redeemer.  Most of the students admired and respected him.  He tended to favor jocks; I don’t think he was all that fond of me.

Both he and Father Bob coached the school’s soccer teams:  Father W was the varsity coach; Father Bob, the JV.  I’ve always kind of thought that Bob was the antithesis of W.  W was, not guarded, but chose his words carefully, nuanced so that you couldn’t really be sure what it was he had in mind.  By contrast, Bob was very direct, very forthright, and never shy about letting you know exactly where you stood.  He ruffled feathers (definitely not W’s style) and didn’t care – especially if he thought things needed to change.  At least one of his sayings (“Rompin’ Robert” comes back to mind – Bob was a combination of Gene Autry, Gary Cooper and John Wayne) was:  “Don’t want it.  Don’t need it.  Get rid of it.”

Father Bob is one of the finest people I’ve ever known.  He’s shown me great kindness over many years, from the time I cried in front of him and a couple of my classmates when the rector’s brother scolded me over the phone in Bob’s office that I was telling Edgerton prospects not to go to the seminary – a misunderstanding ultimately, but still hurt like hell – and other high school traumas, to his time stationed in Chicago at St. Michael’s (circa 2007) as part of the Redemptorist Mission Team, where we’d talk about philosophy, theology, social justice, and just life at large.  Good times …

Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.

Another Peek at the Past

One moment I remember where I felt like I belonged was after I had my first visit with the director of the graduate program in the philosophy department at Loyola University in Chicago.  It was late August of 1982.  I had driven over from Detroit the day before, with all of my worldly possessions packed into a slightly aging 1975 Mercury Monarch, purchased for $2,350 cash in 1980 from money I saved while working in the basement vault of the National Bank of Detroit.  My parents were generous enough to give me free room and board while I worked for a year and a half, a transition time from a brief but beautiful life as a young religious man in a college seminary to a new life, a life filled with who knows what, but at least beginning with finishing my college education.

The bank job was a time when I didn’t really have to be burdened by the pain and sorrow of no longer being part of the religious life, whatever that was, to be free, to be free-floating, to take what felt like being adrift and see if it couldn’t feel like something else, something satisfying, something fun.  I experienced a miserable depression when I first came back to Detroit, miserable that the door to the religious life was permanently closed, stunned and no clue what to do next, so dazed and confused that I thought maybe God wanted me to be an accountant, that I should sign up with the Detroit College of Business and get to work on the business degree.  I was in bed for three days, didn’t get up, slept or didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, didn’t talk with anyone, not even the sorts of little internal conversations I have with myself today to keep me from falling on a knife.  But three days of such a black hole was about all I could stand—maybe out of sheer boredom, I finally got up.

I was twenty-one years old.  I started looking at the want ads to see if any of the banks in town were hiring.  I think I remember thinking something of the old bank robber’s response to people who asked him why he robbed banks:  “’Cause that’s where the money is.”  To be in the world, not just to survive but to live, to flourish, one needs money, and lots of it.  So, having a job where the money is might lend itself, I thought, to gaining wealth (what people now like to call ‘financial independence’).  After about a month of reading the ads, going to banks, filling out applications, giving them resumes (the only thing more pathetic than resumes from applicants with no previous work experience are resumes from ex-seminarians with no previous life experience), NBD decided to take a chance on me and hired me as a currency teller for their afternoon (4:00 pm to midnight) work shift.

Fall ’71 – Part One

We spent the summer getting ready to pack up and ship me off to the high school seminary in Edgerton, Wisconsin.  It’s not really fair to say “ship off” – I already had three brothers before me attend the place.  The parish organized a bus to take a whole bunch of interested eighth graders out to Wisconsin (maybe a seven hour drive) in the spring for a weekend to get an idea of what the place was like.

From what I can remember, I was looking forward to going there.  Of course, once you were there, it was a slightly different story.  There was the expected homesickness, but nothing intolerable.  I don’t think the fathers made us write home every so often, but I do remember writing home fairly regularly that first year.  Some years later, I remember Mom telling me those letters were some of the nicest things she ever got from us – just a few short pages every so often from her boys telling her about the latest goings on, how they missed her and loved her and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas or summer break.

It was a small high school.  There were around seventy, eighty students that fall, maybe sixteen seniors, and a lot of freshmen, forty of ‘em.  As far as priests and brothers go, these are the folks I remember:

Father Leo was rector.  His brother Robert was also a priest, stationed in my home parish in Detroit; he recruited many Holy Redeemer eighth graders for seminary.  I didn’t know Father Leo very well; I think we thought of the rector as CEO, president and king of the joint all wrapped into one.  He might have been approachable, but how would you ever know?

Father Walt was second in command, the school principal.  He was fun to know; very friendly, a full melodious FM radio kind of voice, pleasant to hear.  Occasionally he would dress students down every so often for unacceptable behavior – part of his job.  I’ll tell you more about Father Walt in the senior year Parents’ Weekend story.

Father Martin was the school bursar; he handled the money for both the school and the religious community.  He wasn’t unfriendly, but he didn’t have much interaction with the students, so it was difficult to get to know him.  Father Marty was a tall guy, very sturdy too – not heavy, not thin, sturdy.