Today marks my last birthday until I’m 30 years old. The past year saw me return home for my 10 year high school reunion, define my doctoral thesis topic, start work on a huge project for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, launch my personal blog, become a board member for a gay rights activist group, and receive my first offer of a professorial appointment.
It seems appropriate to take stock.
As I flew back and forth for my 10 year reunion, and spent some time catching up with old friends, I had a lot of time to reflect on the choices I’ve made since I left school. And, to tell the truth, I was surprised. I was surprised at how happy, content, and proud I am with the way my life has unfolded in my first decade of adulthood.
This surprised me because I’m prone to second-guessing. I have an unfortunate habit of comparing myself with other people, measuring my achievements against theirs. Sometimes I have struggled through dark periods when, every time I hear of the success of an old friend or colleague, or even a similarly-aged person who has done something extraordinary, I rush to Wikipedia to find out how I stack up, matching the age of their achievements with my own. And sometimes I feel a stab of jealousy, even shame: “I should be doing better!” It will surprise some of my newer friends, but I have in the past lacked self-confidence, and am susceptible to self-doubt.
Lest this sounds too self-obsessed (I accept it is somewhat self-obsessed – one of my worst qualities), my high school was filled with over-achievers. No -people who make over-achievers look like laggards. It has not been uncommon, in the past few years, for me to return to London and see the smiling face of an old school friend beaming out from a movie poster, a billboard, or a newspaper article. Some of my old friends are now business owners, politicians, decorated military officers, architects, movie stars, theatre directors and even conductors of word-renowned orchestras.
Those last, predictably, are the toughest. The artists. I grew up acting and singing, and at school and in college I spent more time on the stage than anywhere else. I gave up a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama to study at Cambridge. I performed, directed, or otherwise worked on 27 productions during my 3 years at Cambridge, where I also studied drama. I love to act, and I don’t think I am misleading myself when I say I am very good at it. I could easily have made theatre my life. Often I can proudly say, when I read of the successes of my acting, directing and conducting friends, that I performed in the first shows they directed, acted in, or conducted.
This is a precious gift, but to someone like me also something of a curse. Sometimes I feel left behind. Sometimes I feel I made the wrong choices, and am living the wrong life. Sometimes I wonder how things might have been had I chosen differently.
I’m 29, and I’m happy. I’m working on projects I care about, with people who I love. I’m surrounded by fascinating ideas and involved in righteous causes. Most important, I’m always learning.This last year I’ve learnt about public narrative, activism, persuasion, framing, and narrative construction. I’ve ventured into interfaith settings and service work. I’ve become a better public speaker, and am having the opportunity to use that skill all around the USA as I talk about Humanism. My thesis is tackling a subject of profound personal concern – the development of the capacity to think freely – and is bringing me to areas of philosophy I’ve never explored before. I am learning how to negotiate my relatively new identity as a gay man, and am feeling more comfortable and settled in that identity.
In many ways, I now recognize, I took a difficult route. I chose to build a life around my passions, even when I wasn’t quite clear where that would lead, or even quite what they were.
But now I’m clear what I care about and what I’m doing. In all the work I’ve done since school – the Education degree, the Shakespeare in prisons, the high school teaching, the gay rights activism, the Humanism work – I now see a clear thread. I believe in people. I believe in the extraordinary capacity of humankind to become better than they are, to expand their horizons and develop their capacities – and in our ability to help each other to do so.
Everything I have done in my professional life has been an expression of that guiding value, my North Star. And where there are forces which seek to diminish and demean people, to snuff out the candle of human potential, I want to be there to fight them. I want to be a voice of hope and optimism for the human prospect in a time of uncertainty and doubt.
Fundamentally, deep in my core, I’m a teacher, not an actor.
So, to the future. A careers advisor once told me, after an hour-long interview, that she had the perfect job for me: “James,” she said, with a delighted gleam in her eyes, “You should be a priest!” I laughed then, because I was already a Humanist, and have never believed in god. But the suggestion wasn’t truly so foolish: filter out the gruesome aspects of the priesthood (the illegitimate authority, the reliance on supernatural support, the often undemocratic nature of their position), and priests play some important roles. The best call out dehumanization and tyranny, galvanize communities to action, prick up the ears of the public conscience. They are, in a sense, moral teachers, drawing on their tradition to try to better human life.
I want to try to play a similar role, but as a Humanist. I want to convince the public that nonreligious people have something to say about morality, about culture, about how to live, and that our tradition is just as rich and significant as that of any religion. Those who seek to belittle humanity will find in me an implacable foe, and those who seek to find the best in us a staunch ally. Whether as a writer, professor, or Humanist leader, I will spend the next ten years sending out one message, loud as trumpets and clear as crystal: I believe in people!
Hey – I can always act later. Plenty of roles for 30-year-olds…